Heather Galko makes phone calls to homebound parishioners in Fayetteville.

By Eileen Jevis, staff writer

Heather Galko is a parishioner and employee at Immaculate Conception (IC) Church in Fayetteville, NY. For over five years, Heather has run the telephone outreach ministry. She contacts parishioners who are often homebound and lonely. Heather answers questions and informs the parishioners of resources available through I.C.

Mary Martin, a parishioner at St. Mary of Mount Carmel/Blessed Sacrament in Utica, NY, retired in 2009 after working for the NYS Department of Transportation for over 31 years. Martin has been a parishioner of St. Mary of Mount Carmel/Blessed Sacrament all her life. She enjoys sharing her faith with others and serves as a lector at the church.

Both women have been blind since birth. They, and a handful of other individuals throughout the Diocese of Syracuse, utilize the services offered by the Xavier Society For the Blind – a New York City based organization that provides religious, spiritual, and inspirational reading materials in braille, large print, and audio to more than 2,400 blind or visually impaired people of faith throughout the world. The materials are provided free of charge.

The Xavier “Free Publication” society was founded in 1900 by Margaret Coffey and Father Joseph Stadelman, S.J. Coffee, who was blind. Father Stadelman prayed for many years that “God would inspire someone to take pity on the Catholic blind of the country for whom there was no Catholic book to be had.”

Malachy Fallon, executive director of the Xavier Society, said that the mission began in Manhattan in a single room at the College of St. Francis Xavier, now Xavier High School. “At the time, it was the only Catholic publishing house to make such writings available to blind people,” he said. The Mass Propers, or the liturgical texts of the Mass, are mailed to over 700 people each month across the U.S. and in 20 countries. “That equates to about 750,000 pages a year,” explained Fallon. “It can be a challenge.”

Martin learned braille in grade school at the age of six. She also attended religious instruction. “My mother wanted to know how I could get the catechism in braille,” said Martin. “Someone told her about the Xavier Society, and they provided me with the catechism.”

Mary Martin proclaims a reading from Scripture at Mass in her home parish in Utica.

After graduation, Martin attended one year of college but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. After spending a year at home, she enrolled in the Albany Association for the Blind, now known as the Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany. She completed the office training program and was ready to go to work. “My parents took me to the St. Joseph’s Shrine in Canada and prayed that I would soon find a job,” said Martin. “A week or two later, I went on an interview with the NYS Department of Transportation. I brought an optical conversion machine with me which converted the shape of the letters into vibrations on my fingers. It allowed me to read print materials letter by letter.” Martin was hired as a dictating machine operator and was then promoted to a keyboard specialist. “I’m grateful they were willing to give a blind person a chance,” she said.

Heather Galko works with a job coach from AccessCNY to make calls to those unable to attend Mass. Parish minister Elaine LaFollette, supervises Galko at IC. “The people who Heather calls weekly are so appreciative of this ministry and look forward to hearing from her. She has built up wonderful, long-standing relationships with the people she calls,” said LaFollette. “She is a very good listener, detail-oriented, and very conscientious. We are very blessed to have her on staff.”

Galko likes to keep busy. She is in an adaptive skiing program at Greek Peak. “I go once a week on Sundays.  I partner with a skiing instructor that guides me down the slope,” she explained. She also rides horses competitively through a program called From the Ground Up, an organization that offers a variety of equine assisted activities and therapies to persons of all abilities and life challenges. Her instructor guides Galko through her lesson. She rides toward the person’s voice with the goal of riding independently with minimal assistance.

Both women said that receiving the Mass Propers in braille allows them to actively participate in Mass. Martin became comfortable with being a lector after Father John Rose approached her and asked her to give a speech about being blind. That was 17 years ago. She was very hesitant but Father Rose encouraged her to talk to the congregation about her life experience. “I knew I couldn’t say no to a priest, so I agreed to do it,” said Martin. “The Holy Spirit put the thoughts in my head – about my life, how I learned to pray, etc. I wrote the speech in braille.” Martin said that after the speech, she was surprised at the applause she received. “You did such a great job,” Father Rose said. “No one has ever applauded for me.”

“The Xavier Society has a wealth of information about the Catholic Church,” said Martin. “You can find information on so many subjects – all available in braille, large print or audio.” Martin said that she understands that people are hesitant to approach a blind person because they may not know what to say or do. She encourages people to ask if they can help in any way. “My point of that speech was to inform the parishioners that we are people first – before we are disabled.”

For more information about the Xavier Society, call (212) 473-7800 or visit the website at https://xaviersocietyfortheblind.org/.

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