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July 29, 2004

Religious community for deaf men being formed in Oakland Diocese

From: Catholic News Service - Jul 29, 2004

By Monica Clark
Catholic News Service

OAKLAND, Calif. (CNS) -- A new religious community for deaf men is taking form in the Oakland Diocese under the sponsorship of Bishop Allen H. Vigneron and the leadership of Father Thomas Coughlin, administrator of St. Benedict Parish for the Deaf in San Francisco.

The community, known as the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate, will begin as an association of the Christian faithful. The canonical designation is the initial step for the official establishment of a religious community, the first such community for the deaf in the United States.

Bishop Vigneron formally approved the community in February and the first group of eight candidates was scheduled to enter the novitiate in August. They will reside in the convent at Assumption Parish in San Leandro and participate in a joint novitiate program with the novices of the Dominicans' Western province.

The program, to be held at St. Dominic's Church and Novitiate in San Francisco, will teach the deaf candidates the basics of Dominican life, the order's constitution and its charism of preaching.

Calling the new community a "worthy initiative," Bishop Vigneron said there is a tremendous need for priests and brothers to minister among deaf Catholics. The new community will train men to provide pastoral care throughout the United States using American sign language.

Father Coughlin, who is deaf, said it is difficult for deaf men to live in a religious community of individuals who can hear. In the new community the men will use sign language as their primary mode of communication for community life, socialization, prayer and preaching.

"Deaf priests and religious brothers need to live in their cultural milieu as deaf persons," said Father Coughlin. "History has proved that integrating deaf candidates into hearing religious communities is difficult, if not impossible."

He knows these challenges firsthand from his time as a Dominican brother before he left the community to study for the priesthood for the Diocese of Honolulu. He believes deaf men will be more likely to persevere in their vocation if they can use sign language in all aspects of their lives, particularly when living in a religious community.

Because of his familiarity with Dominican life, Father Coughlin wanted to incorporate those traditions and charisms into the new community, but the group will be an autonomous congregation, reporting only to Bishop Vigneron.

The Dominicans "will be like 'big brothers' to us, helping us to be formed as a new Dominican community of deaf missionaries," he told The Catholic Voice, Oakland's diocesan newspaper.

The order will not have legal or fiscal responsibility for the new group, which will be "self-reliant, primarily for the sake of the deaf apostolate which requires candidates who are deaf or who are familiar with sign language," he said.

For novitiate classes, the deaf novices will be "mainstreamed" with the hearing Dominican novices and will use the latest Internet technology. The instructor will speak into a microphone that will relay his words through the Internet to a sign language interpreter, probably based in Sacramento.

The interpreter will repeat the words in sign language, which will be digitally transmitted over a TV screen for the deaf novices to read in the same classroom in which they were spoken.

"It will cost a great deal of money and I am looking for a grant to help defray this cost," Father Coughlin said.

The deaf novices, who range in age from 23 to 46, come from a variety of backgrounds. In addition to Father Coughlin, two are from France, and the others are from Cameroon, Haiti, Ghana, Congo and the Philippines. Three more candidates are applying for the summer of 2005.

Father Coughlin is also trying to help three deaf women who want to become sisters. "We are looking at the possibility of forming a conventual Dominican laity chapter of deaf women living together as religious for the deaf apostolate," he said. "It needs further exploration."

In the meantime, he is planning for a Sept. 2 ceremony at which the men will receive their new habits -- white tunics with black scapulars.

"The friars felt that this (ceremony) will bring a powerful message on the part of the Dominican order assisting a group of disabled and marginalized to become a community in our society and church," he said.

Father Coughlin, a native of Malone, N.Y., obtained his high school education at St. Mary's School for the Deaf in Buffalo, his bachelor's in English from Gallaudet University in Washington and his master's in religious studies from The Catholic University of America in Washington.


Copyright (c) 2004 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.