IM this article to a friend!

November 20, 2003

Deaf Congregation on East Side Fears for Its Future

From: New York Times - Nov 20, 2003


The hands are flying above the pews, middle fingers rapidly touching palms to signify the wounds, and the name, of Jesus. Fingers interlace to say "pray." Palms finally close together: Amen.

The dialogue between priest and parishioners is vibrant during Mass at St. Elizabeth of Hungary, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But it is largely silent. St. Elizabeth's is the official home of deaf Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York.

These days, a current of worry runs beneath the quiet. Attendance at St. Elizabeth's, which also has a hearing congregation, is anemic. And the church, on 83rd Street near Third Avenue, lies within walking distance of a half-dozen other Catholic churches. These are ominous signs as the archdiocese begins work on a sweeping plan to reorganize parishes — possibly closing some — and redeploy a dwindling number of priests.

"The question is, where will the deaf go?" Msgr. Patrick P. McCahill, the pastor, said in a recent interview before Sunday Mass. "They would not have the same sense of belonging, of ownership, that they feel here."

In its reorganization, the archdiocese is looking closely at churches that fall below the average for their geographical area in four categories: baptisms, average weekend Mass attendance, average daily Mass attendance and enrollment in religious education classes. St. Elizabeth's lags considerably on all four counts.

For the year ended June 2002, the most recent statistics available, it recorded 12 baptisms, an average of 225 Massgoers on weekends and 15 on weekdays and 66 children enrolled in religious education classes. But the archdiocese says it will take many other factors into account, including the kind of special mission that St. Elizabeth's fulfills.

Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell, who is guiding the reorganization, has promised that the deaf ministry will survive, though he said he could not guarantee where.

"It's a fantastic program they have there, a service to the community of the hearing impaired," he said. But it is far too early, he said, to predict what will happen to St. Elizabeth's, adding, "That's like trying to give a Ph.D. to a newborn."

The fears have worked their way throughout deaf circles in the region. Sister Joan Finn, coordinator of deaf services for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, on Long Island, said she had heard rumors that St. Elizabeth's might close. She said Monsignor McCahill, who also celebrates regular Masses for the deaf in White Plains and on Staten Island, had made St. Elizabeth's a well-known haven for the deaf. "It's almost heartbreaking to think it may cease to be," she said.

St. Elizabeth's was established in 1891 on the Lower East Side for Slovak Catholics, and in 1918 moved to its present sanctuary at East 83rd Street, which had been founded, also in 1891, as a Lutheran church.

In 1980, Cardinal Terence Cooke designated the church the official home for deaf Catholics at the request of Monsignor McCahill, who had been looking for a base for them. It became a favorite of Cardinal Cooke's successor, Cardinal John O'Connor, who spoke of it fondly and came once a year to celebrate Mass.

Cardinal O'Connor also supported the establishment of a small program for deaf seminarians at the archdiocesan seminary, St. Joseph's in Yonkers.

But after the seminary rector, Bishop Edwin F. O'Brien, left to become archbishop of the military and within weeks of the cardinal's death in 2000, the program was shut down. For current seminary officials, the program was a noble but failed experiment because St Joseph's was ill-equipped to properly train deaf seminarians; advocates for the deaf, however, say the faculty and administration showed a lack of will.

With the cardinal's death and the rector's departure, Monsignor McCahill said, "We lost all our friends."

Today, about a dozen churches cater to the deaf in the archdiocese, which covers Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx and seven counties to the north, and the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens. But most simply provide interpreters at a monthly service; only one priest besides Monsignor McCahill celebrates Mass in sign language, the Rev. Frank Damis of St. Joseph Church in Kingston, and only once a month.

Deaf Catholics say the interpreted Masses are far less meaningful than services led by a signing priest. At interpreted Masses, "their vision is split," said Sister Janet Marchesani, coordinator of deaf services for the archdiocese's northern counties. "The language itself, coming from the priest celebrant, is so much more meaningful."

Before a recent signed Mass at St. Elizabeth's, the deaf parishioners gathered in the church hall. Monsignor McCahill flickered the lights to signal that it was time to go upstairs and begin. Eventually, about 40 worshipers filled the pews.

The lights were turned up high to make it easier to see the monsignor's signing. Often, parishioners said, churches that provide interpreters do not think of that.

Rather than consecrating the wine and bread as he held them up, the monsignor signed the words first, with unoccupied hands. At interpreted Masses, deaf worshipers are often left standing at the end of the Gospel, when congregants normally sit down, while an interpreter catches up with the reader; but here, no one had to suffer that awkwardness. A young man in a do-rag took up the collection. Another parishioner, Min Seo Park, gave a reading, in sign language. (Some days, a deaf choir signs out hymns.)

Throughout, the monsignor provided a spoken version of the Mass for the few hearing parishioners present and for hearing children of the deaf, although technically, only the spoken version is official because the Vatican has not sanctioned a liturgy in sign language.

During the homily, his signing grew more animated and his voice fainter, unable to quite keep pace as he poured eloquence into his hands. After signing the Lord's Prayer, taking holy communion and receiving the monsignor's blessing, the congregation left for cake and coffee in the community hall next door.

There, various groups meet during the week, like the Puerto Rican Society for the Catholic Deaf, the Black Deaf Advocates, a chapter of the International Catholic Deaf Association and the National Fraternal Association of the Deaf. But on Sundays, the real draw is the monsignor. "St. Elizabeth's is very important for the deaf because Father can do sign language," signed Alex Taccogna, 71, a retired garment-machine operator, with Monsignor McCahill interpreting. "The children can learn their religion here."

Mr. Park, 35, was one of the seminarians in the program at St. Joseph's. He is now a student at St. John's University and is still hoping to become a priest, for the Archdiocese of Seoul. "The hearing priest does not understand deaf culture," said Mr. Park, who collected signatures and wrote to the archdiocese with his worries about St. Elizabeth's fate. "It's just different. You, Father McCahill, you understand the deaf culture."

Monsignor McCahill, 60, who is director of the archdiocese's services for the deaf, said he stumbled into his role. While a student at St. Joseph's Seminary, he began studying sign language to eat up empty Saturday afternoons. After ordination, he became assistant to the previous minister to the deaf, Msgr. Walter Darcy, at St. Jude Church in Inwood. In 1980, Monsignor McCahill moved to St. Elizabeth's.

He said he wondered what would happen to his congregation when he left, either to retire or be transferred. "I would love, and that was always the goal, to be replaced by a deaf person," he said. "The whole missionary thing — you get native clergy and the missionaries step away, and that's the way it should be."

Right now that seems unlikely. The priest said he was counting on members of the deaf Catholic world taking on more duties in the church. "Deaf people have a very strong community all on their own," he said. "They have taught me more about community than anything else or any other situation I've been in."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company