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January 2, 2003

Deaf priest, seminarians add new dimension to San Francisco church

From: Catholic News Service - 02 Jan 2003

By Evelyn Zappia
Catholic News Service

SAN FRANCISCO (CNS) -- In a historic development for the Catholic Church in San Francisco, a deaf priest is now pastor of a deaf congregation in San Francisco and three deaf seminarians are studying at St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park.

"It felt like a miracle," said Father Thomas Coughlin about Archbishop William J. Levada's decision to welcome the three seminarians to San Francisco this fall and appoint Father Coughlin pastor of San Francisco's St. Benedict Parish at St. Francis Xavier Church, known for its deaf congregation.

As the first born-deaf man to be ordained a Catholic priest in North America, Father Coughlin defied many doubters and silenced a long list of critics. The priest hopes "to shield" seminarians Gislain Cheret Bazikila, Matthew Hysell and Paul Zirimenya from the intolerance he says he suffered before and after his ordination in 1977.

Father Coughlin had been searching for a U.S. seminary to receive deaf students since the New York Archdiocese ended its program for deaf seminarians in 2000.

"People labeled us as a problem. We are not the problem, we are the solution," he said.

During his 25 years as a priest, Father Coughlin said he has seen thousands of deaf Catholics join other churches because the "Catholic Church did not have a significant number of priests to minister to the deaf community."

Arvilla Rank of the National Catholic Office of the Deaf agrees that there is a desperate need for deaf priests. The national office estimates between 100,000 and 170,000 people in California are deaf and only 3 percent, if that, are churched.

There are only seven or eight deaf Catholic priests in the United States, said Rank. "California is lucky to have three of them. Two of the priests are serving in Southern California, while San Francisco has Father Thomas Coughlin."

Now that St. Patrick's has welcomed the deaf seminarians, Father Coughlin said, "I feel relieved."

Sulpician Father Gerald Coleman, president and rector of St. Patrick's, said the deaf students have won the esteem of the seminary community and the faculty has become educated about the specialized needs of deaf students.

Measures to assist the students include student mentors, class note-takers, theological tutors, approved spiritual directors and advisers from outside the seminary faculty. There are also carefully chosen field education assignments and specialized equipment such as telephones and computer hardware.

Hysell said St. Patrick's has been accommodating without the paternalism of many educational institutions for disabled people.

"The student body accepted us academically, as well as socially, and invited us to join in on the soccer games. We are treated as equals. In many ways, the seminary is a school of holiness," Hysell said.

After extensive study of Catholicism, the 25-year-old Hysell of Muskegon, Mich., became a Catholic in 1993.

The other two deaf seminarians are from Africa.

Born in Kampala, Uganda, Zirimenya praised the help he receives from the faculty and student body.

Bazikila was born in Brazzaville, Congo. He was a seminarian in Brazzaville for nine years, then suddenly became deaf.

"Father Coughlin is the first deaf priest I have met in my life, and he gave me hope," he said. "I feel I have a special calling to minister to the deaf people."

French is the first language of the 32-year-old Bazikila who attends English classes along with other foreign students.

"I am enjoying my studies, but it is a challenge," he said.

With the students came a great interest in American Sign Language. An expert in signing conducts a course at the seminary. Twenty-six members of the seminary community registered for the classes.

One of the students taught Father Coleman three signs: hello; goodbye; and you're crazy. Soon, Father Coleman said, "I hope to sign: 'Hello, it's a gift to have you here, and I'd be crazy not to realize that. Goodbye!'"

Another young deaf man who wants to become a priest is currently studying at City College of San Francisco. Father Coughlin said two other deaf men will arrive in January to begin their undergraduate program at City College.

Min Seo Park, one of the deaf seminarians who began his studies in the New York Archdiocese's program at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, continued his theology education at St. John's University in New York and will be ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Seoul, South Korea.

"He will be ordained hopefully in 2004, as the first deaf man ever to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the whole of Asia," Father Coughlin said.


Copyright (c) 2003 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.