Deaf Catholics can evangelize where others cannot go
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
OTTAWA (CCN) — The church needs deaf Catholics and their gifts. That’s the message Archbishop Terrence Prendergast gave delegates to the 11th National Conference of the Canadian Section of the International Catholic Deaf Association (ICDA) here July 9-14, during a special mass where most of the participants responded in sign language and hymns were sung with the hands.
Deaf Catholics have built a loving fellowship that is poised to reach out to deaf Canadians who have either fallen away from the Catholic Church or who have never heard the Gospel, according to ICDA Canadian Section’s general chair Richard Csabi.
“There is a joy in being Catholic, and being part of a vibrant community,” said Csabi, through Carol Stokes, the co-ordinator for deaf ministries for the Toronto archdiocese.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Love your neighbour
as yourself,” and its workshops, business meetings, social and
sightseeing events encouraged that, said Csabi.
The ICDA may have about 75-80 members in Ottawa, but there could be as many as 3,000 to 4,000 deaf Canadians in the Ottawa archdiocese, he said. “We just don’t know.”
Stokes, who has been working with deaf Catholics since 1970, says there are large numbers in the Toronto area as well, beyond the 2,000 her office serves. But the ICDA needs to get the word out that they exist. “We need to do more advertising of ourselves,” Csabi said.
For many years, the hearing said the deaf “can’t, can’t, can’t,” said Csabi. “But we can do this. We can be deacons, priests, lectors and eucharistic ministers,” he said. Canada now has a deaf seminarian, Matthew Hysell, who will be ordained to the transitional diaconate Aug. 27 in Edmonton (see related story). He hopes to be ordained to the priesthood next year.
But Csabi and Stokes recognize more can be done to build bonds between the deaf and the hearing — the hearing can learn how to communicate with the deaf and the deaf can do more to learn how to speak so the hearing can understand.
Even though American Sign Language (ASL) used by English-speakers is different from Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) or languages used in Europe, there is an underlying similarity in deaf culture, Stokes said. Even local areas have their own dialects, she said.
“We have a special culture,” said Csabi. “Our culture is the same where you go, even if people don’t sign in English or ASL. It’s very visible, more like a picture story.”
“Telling picture stories is more visual. It is easier to pick up our actions and gestures,” he said.
A lifelong Catholic, Csabi lost his hearing at the age of two when he contracted spinal meningitis. Born in Fort Erie, Ont., he attended St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in neighbouring Buffalo, N.Y. He then went on to Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ont. where he met Raymonde, who would eventually become his wife. She waited for him for the five years, seeing him during the summer and on breaks, while he completed a degree in library science at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
He worked at the Carleton University library until his retirement. They raised two sons, who both hear, and have three grandchildren.
Raymonde recently passed away after 42 years of marriage. She, too, was active in supporting the deaf Catholic community.
“We encouraged other Catholics fallen away from the church to come
back,” Csabi said. “We tried to be in good fellowship with
She expressed pride in the fact that Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, knows sign language.
“Archbishop Prendergast is very supportive here,” Stokes said. “Toronto is wonderful.”
“The hearing people leave,” he said. “Sometimes we get kicked outside of the church because we stay so long.”