In Our Own Hands: Essays in Deaf History 1780-1970 (Book Review)

I recently visited the National Association of the Deaf’s main office in Silver Spring, Maryland to do some archival research. On the wall in the waiting room is a mural which includes an image of a Deaf man holding a sign that proclaims “We can drive ourselves.” The very real issue of deaf people’s historical fight to gain access to driver’s licensing is an apt metaphor for the broad categories of agency and citizenship for deaf people who have wanted to steer their own lives.

This issue of deaf agency in a hearing world is the central theme of In Our Own Hands: Essays in Deaf History 1780-1970, edited by Brian H. Greenwald and Joseph J. Murray. In this book of deeply researched essays, each chapter illustrates ways in which deaf people made sustained efforts to manage their own political, social, or religious lives—and how these efforts were repeatedly contested, ignored, or absorbed by the larger social structures of hearing people.

Read the rest here

Historic First for Deaf Catholics: ASL Mass at Notre Dame


Today’s Catholic News of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend brings us this exciting story of an event I was proud to be part of last week:

NOTRE DAME — Nov. 9, 2016, is a day Kevin Haggenjos will never forget. Thrilled to be part of the first Mass to be celebrated by a deaf priest in American Sign Language at Notre Dame, Haggenjos said, “I was born and raised in South Bend. As a deaf Catholic, I have dreamt all my life that there would be a Mass in ASL here. Today, my dream came true.”

Sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives, the Mass at Geddes Hall on the University of Notre Dame campus was part of a larger event featuring a lecture on deaf Catholic history.

For the rest of the story (written by Notre Dame Ph.D. candidate Audrey Seah) CLICK HERE

And for more pictures, click here.


Ad Orientem Worship from the Deaf Perspective (by Audrey Seah)


Notre Dame Ph.D. candidate Audrey Seah, who is studying enculturation in Deaf Catholic communities, recently had this to say in Part I of a special post over at Pray Tell

In recent weeks, much ink has been spilled over Cardinal Sarah’s speech encouraging all priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem and the Vatican’s clarification note that followed. Numerous opinion pieces have appeared supporting either side of the issue or the co-existence of both in support of liturgical diversity. In view of what has been discussed, I do not wish to critique or rehash the arguments for and against ad orientem worship, but would like to offer an alternative perspective is seldom considered – that of the Deaf who use American Sign Language (ASL) in worship and those with special needs such as auditory processing (the hearing version of dyslexia) or speech and language impairments.

Click here for the rest.

Sabbatical Pilgrim’s Progress

me & cyril

Fr. Cyril Axelrod, the world’s only deafblind Catholic priest, who is currently authoring a catechism for disabled people for the Vatican, and yours truly, beaming because of Fr. Cyril’s warmth and unstoppable communication skills.

Word & Sign has been in hibernation for too long, but I promise it’s been time well spent. This summer marks the beginning of my sabbatical, granted specifically to complete the first full draft of my book on Deaf language and culture in Catholic preaching.  Already I’ve gotten a great head start. I’ve embraced a new organizing principle (200 years of evangelization and enculturation in the Deaf Catholic world), revamped my table of contents accordingly, and re-drafted four of the eighteen chapters I have planned. But the most exciting part of my sabbatical so far has been my research trip to the U.K. and Ireland.

First, I had the privilege of interviewing Fr. Cyril Axelrod–the world’s only deafblind priest–about his decades of ministry to the Deaf and disabled in Asia. I was worried about communicating with Fr. Cyril using ASL, since his primary language is British Sign Language, which has a different alphabet and completely different sign vocabulary. But these obstacles were child’s play for the prolific, multi-lingual missionary. By the end of our first day, we were communicating as if I’d been doing tactile sign language all my life. (And believe me, it was only because Fr. Cyril could switch to ASL to accommodate me, gallantly compensating for my hearing-accented intermediate sign language!)

Later in Manchenster, thanks to Terry and Mary O’Meara, I stayed in the home of the charming Sisters of Charity of Evron and collected oral and signed history about their half-century of Deaf ministry in Britain and Ireland. I interviewed Archbishop Patrick Kelly about the Eucharistic prayer in British Sign Language! And in Dublin I viewed a 170-year-old Irish Sign Language manuscript, translated into English from French by the Dominican Sisters who founded St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls in Cabra, Ireland.

Now, St. Thomas and St. Catherine of Sienna, come aid this feeble brain as I try to map the daunting and richly diverse mountains of material I’ve collected into one coherent story of a people’s religious history!

Everyday Preaching in ASL

Moving Works is a film making ministry that makes innovative shorts about Jesus. This one is about Sarah, a student and Starbucks barista who learned ASL just to connect with the chance Deaf customer who might happen to walk in the door. What she does in this short is preach as a witness, not only to Deaf viewers but to hearing ones who are touched by her example and her expression of love. Sacred eloquence in sign language: it’s not all about homilies, and women can do it, too.

Be Open! A Special Message from Rome in ASL


Fr. Matthew Hysell is the first Deaf Catholic priest in Canada, and is currently at St. Mark’s Deaf Catholic Community in Edmonton, Alberta. He sends Word&Sign a special message from Rome.

Dissing the Deaf

St Elizabeth PBS still

Here is a great video about the subject matter of Word & Sign. This little Deaf parish in NY, St. Elizabeth’s, is petitioning the Pope himself in order to keep from closing for budgetary reasons. Look at them, how beautiful they are in their sign language Mass and choir! If the Deaf can’t come first in their own historically Deaf parish, what does the gospel mean to the Archdiocese of NY? Must the larger, richer parish down the street always run the show and sweep these devout, long-suffering people into some kind of second-class, off-schedule, “charitable” service?

You can find more comments from the reporter at the Huff Post online, here.

“Shun Not the Struggle”: An Upcoming U.S. Catholic Historian Article

FrontSign04Happy New Year! It’s been a busy year for me as I continue research on preaching in sign language around the world.

During January I’ll post the fruits of a few of those projects, but in the meantime I will share a teaser from my upcoming article in U.S. Catholic Historian, “‘Shun Not the Struggle’: The Language and Culture of Deaf Catholics in the U.S., 1949-1977.”  The title is the motto of St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo.

Here’s the abstract:

Culturally Deaf Catholics in the U.S. define themselves not by their disability but by their shared history, language, and traditions. This article narrates a history of Deaf Catholics from the founding of their central membership organization (the International Catholic Deaf Association) in 1949 to the ordination of the first culturally Deaf priest in North America in 1977. The work of hearing priests and pastoral workers resulted in improved availability of religious education and sacraments in sign language in the 1950s through the 1970s. However, this article argues that Deaf Catholics themselves laid the groundwork which would result in a needed increase in Deaf religious vocations. Other conditions that resulted in the expansion of ministry by the Deaf, for the Deaf include the institution of vernacular Masses after Vatican II, the acceptance of American Sign Language (ASL) as a true language in the 1960s, and the development of preaching in ASL. These conditions set the stage for a core group of Deaf Catholic leaders to organize national camps, Cursillos, and retreats in ASL in an attempt to include this marginalized group in the life of the Church.

The article has been accepted for a special 2015 issue on language in Church in North America. It represents several trips to the Deaf Catholic Archives at Holy Cross College in Worcester and abundant (and deeply appreciated) editorial advice from my reviewers. I hope it will invite scholarly dialog on Deaf Catholics as a cultural group with its own history and language conventions, since more perspectives can only improve the small but growing body of scholarship this area.

This post wouldn’t make a very good teaser without at least a few paragraphs from the article itself. So, I’ll leave you with an excerpt on changes in Deaf Catholic communities in the 1960s:

After Vatican II concluded in December 1965, Deaf Catholics became keenly interested in the institution of vernacular Masses and the development of Eucharistic services for specific language communities. Two days after the close of the Council, Pope Paul VI granted permission for sign language to be used at Mass by both the priest and the people. The language used in the pope’s decree indicates a less-than-perfect understanding of the nature of ASL as a true visual and spatial language with a grammar that cannot synch with speech (as opposed to signs used artificially in English word order). The decree permitted, for instance, sign language to be used along with speech only for the parts of the Mass celebrated in the vernacular, implying that thoughts expressed in Latin could not be rendered into sign language. [See Edward Peters, “Canonical and Cultural Developments Culminating in the Ordination of Deaf Men,” Josephinum Journal of Theology, 2008).] Nevertheless, the pope’s permission opened the door for Deaf participation and leadership in liturgy, and the ICDA prominently announced this in a March 1966 ICDA News headline: “Mass in Language of Signs: Approval Granted by His Holiness Pope Paul VI”. For the American Deaf community, this took place at an adventitious time, just as academics and schools for the deaf were recognizing ASL as a true language, providing the Deaf Catholic community with authoritative arguments to include marginalized people in this cultural and linguistic group. A Catholic Universe Bulletin article exemplifies the excitement among Deaf Catholics across North America during this time of change:

“The scene is St. Augustine Church [Cleveland, Ohio]. The people are some of the hundreds of Catholics here-abouts who are deaf or hard of hearing…This congregation uses its own kind of vernacular—that of signs….It has been only about a year since permission was given for congregational use of sign language. Previously, someone stood to the side, outside the sanctuary, explaining in sign language what was taking place. Now, not only do the congregation and the priest use sign language, but the commentator, song leader and altar boys—all deaf—use it too.”

The congregation at St. Augustine signed all the prayers and responses, although the hearing priest, Father Ralph Coletta, spoke and signed simultaneously rather than using ASL. The article goes on to explain that the Deaf considered St. Augustine an essential community center. For the women there was Mary’s Rosary Guild and the men had a Deaf Holy Name Society chapter.

The Deaf Catholic community in America was invigorated by the educational and linguistic developments of the 1960s, and the ICDA did not fail to make use of the increasing visibility of Deaf culture. In particular, Father David Walsh, who became ICDA’s official missionary in 1962, led a nationwide effort to establish Deaf services in every diocese. Called “the great Apostle to Deaf people for the United States” in his obituary, Walsh traveled widely, visiting the bishop or archbishop everywhere he went, often with local Deaf lay leaders accompanying him. If there were no priest or pastoral worker assigned to Deaf ministry in the diocese, Walsh would seek the bishop’s agreement to appoint someone. As more chapters were founded in regions across the U.S., the ICDA came more fully to represent the Deaf Catholic community. Between 1961 and 1971, almost 40 more chapters were established in as many cities.

These developments after Vatican II begged the question of whether there could be culturally Deaf priests whose native language was ASL and who would therefore be able to communicate fully and directly with a Deaf apostolate. Because the Deaf in America were not at this time aware of any culturally Deaf priest except for the Brazilian Vincente Burnier, Deaf Catholic Americans had never seen a priest who could demonstrate preaching or Mass in native ASL. Not until 1983 would the revised Code of Canon Law eliminate physical defect as an irregularity for holy orders, marking a new era for Deaf men who discerned a vocation to serve their community as priests.