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October 12, 2003

Signs of change at deaf center

From: Framingham Metro West Daily News, MA - Oct 12, 2003

By Jeff Adair / News Staff Writer

SUDBURY -- On a recent Tuesday, 15 senior citizens from MetroWest and Boston met in the basement of St. Anselm Church to take a course on safe driving.

"Let's talk about the important business first, the Red Sox winning," Congetta Koetteritz, known affectionately as Jet, said before handing the session over to a representative from the American Association of Retired Persons.

The comment brought plenty of smiles and garbled chatter, with many seniors holding their hands high above their heads and wiggling their fingers, a sign deaf people use to show applause.

The workshop, sponsored by the Deaf Community Center, was the first at the church since the center moved from its longtime Framingham home on the grounds of Bethany Hill Hospital.

On July 1, DCC, which was founded 33 years ago, moved to the new location, where founder, the Rev. John Fitzpatrick, serves as the part-time parish priest.

The program, which at one time provided services for all ages, has scaled back and now focuses solely on the elderly.

"We had a lovely building there. It was very accessible," said Fitzpatrick, talking about Framingham.

"That's the thing we'll miss, people walking in on the ground level."

For years, the DCC was self-sufficient. In addition to the center, it had two residences in Framingham, the Williams House, a center for mentally challenged deaf men and women, and the Mayo House, a group home for multi-impaired deaf men.

As director, Fitzpatrick lived at the Mayo House, which was funded by the Department of Mental Health. Three years ago, DCC got out of that business, and the contract has since been transferred to Advocates Inc.

The DCC had been part of the Catholic Charities/Parish Social Ministries Division since 1994. Due to cutbacks in funding, Fitzpatrick was recently forced to move from the spacious Carodelet Hall at Bethany Hill, owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

The hall, an old barn, held an auditorium, social hall, dining room, conference room, gymnasium and the Chapel of St. Joseph.

The new home is much smaller. The deaf have a separate room in the basement of St. Anselm's with their own office and computer and specially equipped telephone.

The socials, bingo game nights, and Tuesday Wellness programs that include a blood pressure clinic are also held at the church, or at Keefe Tech in Framingham. The church runs a twice-monthly Mass for the deaf, and DCC continues to sponsor cultural trips to places throughout New England.

Pat Waters, who has been coming to the DCC for years, said she likes the wellness program because it teaches the deaf healthy living habits.

"We owe a lot to Father Fitz and Jet for their time energy and effort," said Waters, who lives in West Roxbury.

Columbus Mazzole, 74, of Newton, a retired Boston Globe layout artist, is a 20-year veteran of DCC. He sings in the deaf choir and especially enjoys "the good social network" the center offers.

"We have wonderful opportunities to learn many things," he said. "I like the religious classes (and) I enjoy the trips."

The early years

Established in 1972, DCC was the brainchild of Fitzpatrick, who was drawn to deaf leadership after meeting two deaf girls while serving at St. Bridget's Parish in Lexington.

He attended Boston University, where he received a master's in special education, before coming to Framingham. He said a deaf man who was not Catholic urged him to not put a religious title on DCC in order to be welcoming to people of all faiths.

"That's what the deaf love," he said. "Here we don't ask if you're Catholic."

In the early years, DCC distributed telecommunications devices, commonly known as TTYs. The machines, which allow the deaf to send typed messages over phone lines, were made by volunteers from old parts donated by telephone companies.

He said the Sisters of St. Joseph, Framingham Union Aid and many others have been strong supporters of DCC throughout the years. He said St. Anselm, a small parish of about 300 families with a strong lay ministry, has welcomed the center with open arms.

"It really adds a fullness to who we are," said Melinda Donovan, a pastoral associate at the church. "Everybody had known about Father Fitz's ministry to the deaf. It's nice to have them both under the same roof."

One of the most moving parts from a personal viewpoint, said Donovan, are the deaf Masses, where the message and songs are signed.

"It's just such a bodily movement and it involves the whole person," she said. "It adds another whole dimension to worship that we didn't know existed."

Two Sundays ago, the church hosted a banquet of 110 members of the Deaf Seniors of New England. Fitzpatrick said the 15 attending the Tuesday workshop was a decent number, and he hopes the word spreads so future events are even more successful.

Koetteritz of Hopkinton works two days a week at the office, and spends the rest of her time visiting the deaf in their homes. She is the only remaining staff of the dozen or so DCC used to employ.

She describes her role as being an advocate or an ombudsman in the sense that she helps deaf seniors deal with problems that affect all seniors, such as finding transportation.

She organizes the socials and teaches classes on how to use e-mail. One program she is most proud of is an intergenerational program, where the elderly are matched with students from The Learning Center for Deaf Children.

The programs DCC offers are similar to that provided by many town senior centers, said Koetteritz, noting that linguistic challenges make it nearly impossible for the deaf to benefit from such places.

"There's probably 350 deaf elders in the area," said Fitzpatrick, who remains optimistic that the program will continue to do good. "There's other programs in the diocese for the little kids."

He isn't worried about finances because a few years ago, DCC received a large donation from an estate, and the sale of the Williams and Mayo properties will bring in additional funding.

"I'm turning 70 in February," said Fitzpatrick, who sports a ponytail and frequently rides a motorcycle. "Maybe, this is all for the best."

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