By Claudia Mathis
Michele Murphy is settling in to her new post as the diocesan Liaison to the Catholic Deaf Community. She succeeded Mary Margaret Van Damme, who retired after over 12 and a half years in ministry.
Murphy’s first day was July 16. “It’s been a good experience,” commented Murphy. “People here in the diocese are open to new ideas and I definitely see that people are interested in the deaf ministry and what it’s about.”
Murphy, along with her two teenaged children, Hope and Devin, and husband Kevin, reside in Liverpool. They are parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Baldwinsville.
Murphy became interested in sign language as a child growing up in Rome, N.Y. She would often see students from the Rome School for the Deaf in her community and she became intrigued by their conversing.
“I found it interesting,” Murphy remembered. “I was very curious about sign language and what they were saying.” She later enrolled in American Sign Language classes. “I fell in love with the language and the deaf culture,” she said. “It’s a beautiful language that you can see spoken.”
Murphy said she respects and enjoys the deaf culture. She explained several characteristics which make it unique. When conversing, she said, the deaf make direct eye contact with one another, unlike the hearing. Eye contact for the deaf is extremely important and if it is absent during a conversation, it signifies a lack of interest. In addition, when the deaf gather for a social event, the affair is characterized by a close-knit family atmosphere.
“It’s an embrace. They are family,” said Murphy. “Community is important to them. I’m the same — that’s what draws me to them.”
After working in the banking and insurance fields — Murphy holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Clarkson University and an associate’s degree in banking insurance from Mohawk Community College — she focused on helping disabled individuals. For the last 10 years, she served as a job coach for the deaf with Aurora of CNY and as a one-on-one teaching assistant at OCM BOCES and in the Baldwinsville school district.
In addition, Murphy has served as a freelance sign language interpreter throughout the community. “I volunteered at North Syracuse Baptist Church,” Murphy said. “There’s a real strong deaf ministry there. I enjoy socializing with their deaf ministry. I learned a lot from them.”
Murphy has also taken sign language classes at Onondaga Community College and is continuing to learn even more sign language through her attendance at workshops.
“There’s always more to learn,” she said. Learning to express every aspect of the English language in sign language is important, she said, because deaf people need to communicate in varied circumstances, such as in legal and medical settings, and the sign language interpreter needs to know how to translate that information.
Murphy hopes that through her ministry, she will make people aware of the deaf culture and their needs. She wants people to know the struggles of a deaf person. She explained that because not every church is equipped with a sign language interpreter during Masses, deaf people commonly travel long distances to attend Mass in a church that does offer one.
“I strongly believe that there needs to be more interpreters throughout the Catholic Church,” stated Murphy. “[Non-deaf people] have the opportunity to attend any church we want, and [deaf people] deserve to have what we have without having to ask for it. They should be able to do things like attend a funeral if they want to or receive religious instruction.”
Murphy has visited some of the churches in the diocese that do employ sign language interpreters in an attempt to see what is being done right so it can be expanded.
The other aspects of her position as liaison include reforming an advisory group as well as attending workshops, retreats, social events and seminars to expand her knowledge. She is also responsible for locating interpreters for religious education classes, funerals and other celebrations. “My door will be open to anyone’s needs,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s plans for the future include expanding deaf ministry. She wants to increase the availability of interpreters at events such as conferences and retreats. She’d like to see an interpreter as a standard in the churches, ensuring the deaf’s spiritual journey. “I also want to make sure that provisions have been made at the events so that the deaf have access to it, allowing them social interaction,” she added. “I would like to educate the Catholic community. I want deaf people to have the same wondrous experience during Mass that the hearing have weekly. Sign language is such a beautiful language. I would love to share it with not just the deaf, but with hearing people as well.”