Interpreted Masses bring the Word of God to Deaf

Anne Parish has a lot to say every Sunday and she does it without ever uttering a word. As an interpreter for the Deaf community at Holy Trinity Church in Fulton, Parish helps Deaf and hard of hearing parishioners — who include her son Mike and her daughter-in-law Patty — understand the Word of God.

   “In 2008, the parish had a need for a Deaf interpreter. I took classes and was happy to be able to help,” stated Parish. Due to interpreters like Parish throughout the diocese, more interpreted Masses are being offered, especially during the Christmas holiday.

   Interpreted Masses use American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, who translate key spoken words, or English-bound interpreters, who translate every word in a sentence for the Deaf. There are also interpreters who use a mix of “pidgin” sign language or a combination of both ASL and a more relaxed version of English-bound.


   Currently there are interpreted Masses available at St. Lucy’s and Blessed Sacrament in Syracuse, St. James in Johnson City, St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Thomas in New Hartford, Holy Trinity in Fulton and St. Francis of Assisi in Binghamton. There are plans in the coming months to add churches in East Syracuse, Liverpool/Baldwinsville, Cazenovia or Canastota.

   To prepare to interpret a Mass, Parish will practice up to three hours or more to make sure she is comfortable with the liturgy. She works hard to include the Deaf in all parts of the Mass by interpreting not only the entire service but the hymns as well.

    “If I get the music from the music director ahead of time I can practice the signs for the hymns but it’s hard with the songs. It’s also hard to sign what the lectors are saying, especially if it’s a young person. They want to rush through the reading and you have to keep up. You can’t lag behind,” laughed Parish.

   Parish’s son Mike nodded his head as he read his mother’s lips. “There is always lag time,” he said.

   When signing, Parish also doesn’t just use her hands, she uses facial expressions and her body to explain the signs to the Deaf community.

   “You have to use everything you got to sign,” said Parish. “Clichés or expressions that are used can be confusing, like ‘play it by ear’ so you have to sign the concept, not necessarily the entire phrase.”

   Patty Parish, Anne’s daughter-in-law, nodded her head in agreement. “My daughter signed to me that she was so ‘annoyed’ with a girl at school but I didn’t understand what she meant,” signed Patty. “I had her finger-spell the word and I still wasn’t sure,” she said.

   Parish also turns to her son and daughter-in-law if she encounters a sign that she isn’t familiar with.

   “I will ask what the sign stands for,” explained Parish. “Whenever I do get a sign wrong and I can count on Mike to kid me about it,” laughed Parish.

   Michele Murphy, liaison to the Deaf Ministry for the Diocese of Syracuse, is working hard to give the Deaf community a choice of churches with interpreted Masses in the coming year, but there are challenges in finding and funding interpreters.

   Whenever a Deaf person needs an interpreter for Mass he or she must contact the church they wish to attend and request one. The church however, can approve or deny the request, especially if there is an issue of funding. In the majority of cases the church pays for the interpreter or splits the cost with the diocese. In some cases, the diocese may pay for the entire cost of an interpreter.

   “No amount of money should ever deny a person the chance to worship God,” stated Murphy. “It’s not about a large amount of Deaf people in your community, it’s about the one person who wants to go to church, hear the word. You can’t put a price on that.”

    For large, high profile events such as a presidential convention or when the pope celebrates Mass, Murphy explained, interpreters are often present, even without requests from the Deaf community. Recently the diocese had Jennifer Wissman interpret the Year of Faith Mass.

   “I wish all events were like that,” stated Murphy. “If a Deaf person doesn’t ask for an interpreter, they can’t go to an event. Yet they won’t go to the event because they know there won’t be an interpreter. It gets to be a Catch 22.

   “Hearing people take it for granted that they could go to whatever Mass or church they want. Deaf people don’t have that same opportunity. If they’re lucky, they might have one interpreted Mass available at one church and depending on where they live, it may take them up to an hour to get there,” stated Murphy.

   It isn’t just Mass that’s an issue for the Deaf to attend without an interpreter, Murphy points out, it’s every activity and event associated with an active parish, such as weddings, baptisms, communions, confirmations, church meetings and even funerals.

   “Without an interpreter, a Deaf person often needs to rely on family or friends to sign to them,” explained Murphy. “When they do find a church that offers an interpreted Mass, the Deaf bring their friends and family and it becomes an all-day event. It’s all about a sense of community.”

   The biggest obstacle for the Deaf community according to both Parish and Murphy is misinformation. Parish points out that, as in the case of her son, there are many in the Deaf community who lost their hearing later in life but battle the misconception that all Deaf people are born deaf.

   “There is also a misconception that because a person is Deaf, they can’t speak, and that is simply not true,” stated Parish. “There is also confusion that all Deaf people can lip read and again, that is not true,” said Parish.

    Parish has enjoyed being an interpreter and plans to continue to sign even if there is no one at the church who requests her service.

   “You can’t just assume that no one needs the interpretation. You can’t look around the church and say, ‘Well I don’t see a deaf person so we don’t need an interpreter.’”

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