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January 5, 2003

Magnolia priest says serving the deaf is a calling from God

From: Cherry Hill Courier Post, NJ - 05 Jan 2003

Courier-Post Staff

As the choir sang "Alleluia," nine rows of worshippers carved graceful circles in the air, their hands and fingers a whir of synchronized movement, a silent but energetic expression of joy, faith and love.

As Father Brian O'Neill preached about the Last Supper and Jesus' good works, the parishioners watched with undivided attention, hanging on every word - and hand gesture.

This Sunday Mass at St. Gregory's Catholic Church seemed like any other, but still, it was special - it was conducted in sign language.

Father Brian has been shepherding his flock of deaf worshippers for 30 years. He's one of 35 priests in the nation who offer Mass in sign language and not through an interpreter.

Deaf men, women and children and their loved ones have followed Father Brian throughout the Diocese of Camden, which stretches from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean. They come from all parts of the state and from Pennsylvania to attend his Sunday services.

They say Father Brian makes them feel special, gives them a sense of community.

He says serving the deaf is a calling from God.

Father Brian's congregation, which also meets for a social after Mass, has more than 100 deaf people.

They look forward to the few hours on Sunday when they

are surrounded by other deaf people. Some arrive more than 30 minutes before Mass so they can meet with their friends.

"Imagine what these people's lives would be like if it weren't for Father Brian," said Steve Phillips, seated in the front row during a Mass in December, his 9-year-old son, Pierce, at his side. Phillips, 42, of Gloucester Township can hear, but his son, a gifted athlete, is profoundly deaf.

Even some non-Catholics attend Father Brian's Mass. They are drawn by both the special nature of his service and the sense of community his Mass provides.

Kim Arrigo, 39, a third-generation deaf woman, met Father Brian through her job as a teacher at Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Trenton.

"When Father Brian says Mass, it's like hearing the message right from God and not from an interpreter," said Arrigo, who is not Catholic. "It means more."

She drives from Ewing for Mass with her 11-year-old daughter, Johanna, who attends religious education classes at St. Gregory's with other deaf children. Kim said Father Brian is great with children because he has tremendous patience.

Arrigo has followed Father Brian to three different churches and has taken other deaf families to his Mass.

"We'll follow Father Brian wherever he goes."

Milton and Jean Gottlieb of Gibbsboro, a deaf couple married 68 years, have been attending his Mass for longer than they can remember. Jean, 91, is Lutheran and Milton, 92, is Jewish, but that doesn't stop them from sitting in the front row for a service.

"All of our friends come here," said Milton, a retired printer. "We like to be around other deaf people. Father Brian is a nice man and we follow him."

The Gottliebs, like other non-Catholics, participate in the service but do not receive Communion.

Boat captain Steve Krumm of Pennsville met Father Brian in sign language class many years ago in Camden County College in Blackwood. He learned to sign after first meeting his wife, Betty Ann, who is deaf.

Krumm said many deaf people cannot socialize with their neighbors so it's important for them to find places where they can communicate with other deaf people. The deaf love to talk, he said.

"He has a heart for these people," said Krumm, another non-Catholic who follows Father Brian. "He has the patience and endurance for the adversity of these people. He guides them and advises them. He's their friend."

When Father Brian writes his Sunday homily, he thinks about addressing those who are deaf and those who are not. He keeps his sermons short - four to seven minutes.

He likes to tell stories.

"The hearing can follow abstracts, but it's easy for the deaf to understand the concrete," Father Brian said. "I try to illustrate my point and conceptualize it."

At a recent Sunday Mass, Father Brian seamlessly preached and signed. During the Eucharistic Prayer, he talked about the Last Supper aloud and in sign language while delicately holding the chalice and Communion host. Later in the service, he left the altar to offer the sign of peace to parishioners seated in the front.

A deaf child serves as his altar boy, a deaf woman as Eucharistic minister.

During the service, deaf congregants remain seated in the front rows so they can follow the pastor, the cantor and the lector. A translator signs for the lector.

Lou and Sue Grieco of Blackwood, longtime parishioners of St. Gregory's, are not deaf but said they faithfully attend Father Brian's 10 a.m. service because it's moving and beautiful.

"This Mass makes you appreciate the health you have. It makes you feel what adversity the deaf have to face," said Lou Grieco, a retired engineer.

Best friends Pierce Phillips of Gloucester Township and Matthew Ballerini, 10, of Mount Laurel, sat with their fathers in the front pew. Pals since they were toddlers, Pierce and Matthew happily chatted after the service, their hands flying.

A few years ago, Matthew said to his father, Andy, after first meeting Father Brian: "This is the church for me."

Although the priest's deaf congregation is thriving, some things keep him up at night. He worries about the hearing parents who don't learn sign language, which means the children are less socially developed and suffer more in general. There's a chasm between hearing parents who don't sign and deaf children, he said.

"They can't even ask something like `How was your day?' It can be devastating if you're 8 or 9," said Father Brian.

Sometimes he'll unexpectedly drop by the houses of deaf children to see how they're doing, said Pierce's father, Steve, who is skilled in sign language. Father Brian helped the Phillips adjust to their son's special needs.

Brian O'Neill was born in 1940 and grew up in North Philadelphia. He and his older brother joined the Marines in 1956, much to the dismay of their mother. Brian changed the date on his birth certificate to make him appear older so he could enter the service.

He served in the Marines for six years, in between the Korean and Vietnam wars. He began studying for the priesthood in 1962.

He studied at St. Jerome's College, now Resurrection Seminary, in Kitchener, Ontario. Six years later, on May 18, 1968, he became a priest.

His first assignment was as a parish priest at Sacred Heart in Camden. He's moved around the diocese, serving at Transfiguration Church in West Collingswood, Saint Maria Goretti in Runnemede and Saint Mary's in Gloucester City. For about 20 years, he said Mass in sign language at a chapel in Saint Rose of Lima in Haddon Township.

Father Brian said the 35 Catholic priests who minister full time to deaf communities nationwide meet once a year with other lay people who work with the hearing- impaired.

"I learned out of necessity how to minister to the deaf. You literally become a missionary," he said.

Besides Sunday services, he performs baptisms, weddings, confessions and funerals for his deaf congregants. He counsels and comforts them through difficult times, too.

It was the summer of 1972 when Father Brian received his special calling and took a sign language class.

The priest was working with an outreach program on the streets of Camden. Two young boys, each barely 10, were going at it like heavyweight fighters. One had a rock ready to hurl at the other.

Father Brian broke them up and wanted to know why they were fighting.

"I'm going to take care of this dumb kid," one boy said.

The priest turned to question the other boy and realized he could not talk.

The child was deaf.

Father Brian was floored.

"I said to myself: `Who is taking care of the spiritual needs of the deaf of South Jersey?' I said, `I will.'"

Copyright 2003 Courier-Post.