Deaf Ministry Finds God through Community

The 11:00 a.m. Mass is signed by an American Sign Language interpreter, enabling the deaf community to active participants in the Mass. Words to songs are projected to encourage singing and signing. PHOTO BY GLENDA MEEKINS

by Glenda Meekins and Laura Dodson                   

Brian Seeber said it all began in 2009 when he and his wife, Lynne  began bringing their friend Sue to Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Daytona Beach. “She began coming to Mass with us, but she sat there completely unconnected to what was happening,” said Seeber. He assumed that when it came time for the Our Father, she would join in. “But she didn’t,” he said, still surprised.  “She had been going 40 years to Mass and she didn’t know the Our Father.” Although a lifelong Catholic, no one had catechized her because she was deaf.

Brian learned to sign the prayer and taught it to her so that she could more fully participate in the Mass. “That connection began to bring her in,” remembers Seeber.  “She wanted Lynne to sign the homilies and it dawned on us that there was a need there. So we decided to start an outreach and get people to come.”

In 2011, the Seebers enlisted the help of Stephanie Olin, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. Initially an interpreted Mass was only offered once a month but the need has grown so that starting on Sept 11, 2016, an interpreted Mass is now offered each week. Up to 30 people participate in the Mass and Deaf Coffee Chat beforehand, giving them the chance for fellowship.

As their ministry grew, the Seebers, working together with Father Phillip Egitto, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, have helped parishioners who are deaf prepare for the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. In August 2016, a group of six parishioners received their first Communion before the parish community.

“It was so deeply emotional and touching” recalled Lynne Seeber. “It is mighty, reaching out to those who are on the periphery. God called us and we answered.”

Father Phil has encouraged the congregation to learn how to sign the Alleluia. He said, “We believe that we are intentional disciples and we have to bring the Good News to people. So we have intentionally reached out into the community to people who were not feeling wanted, or were visibly absent from the community. So it has impacted us because we do not feel whole without them.”

Among those grateful for the ministry is Selena, a 15 year old who comes each week from Deland.  “I like being a part of everything and seeing everybody else signing,” said Selena. “This is the first time I’m a part of a community.”

Oblates of St. Francis de Sales Father Michael Depcik, a priest who is deaf in the Archdiocese of Detroit, says that being part of a community is especially important for those who are deaf, who can often feel like outsiders among people who can hear.

“With deaf people, their disability is invisible. It’s a very big challenge. When you’re in your group and everyone is enjoying themselves, if they’re not using ASL, the deaf person is isolated. They’re left out.”

Father Depcik visited Ascension Parish in Melbourne on Sept. 10 to celebrate a memorial Mass with their Deaf Ministry. Formed 26 years ago by Pat Stoner, the ministry has developed a strong community over the years of deaf and hearing members. They were reminded recently of the importance of community as they came together to grieve the loss and celebrate the life of Father Rene Robert, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine who served the deaf community and was tragically killed this past spring.

“Once a month, we were able to celebrate Mass with a priest signing,” Stoner said. “I could call Father Rene at any time and he never said, ‘No’ to anybody.”

Born September 2, 1944 and ordained a priest August 19, 1989, Father Robert was fully hearing but committed early in life to working with people who are deaf. In recent years, Father Robert had been teaching at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine and traveling at least monthly to Brevard County to celebrate Mass in American Sign Language and as needed for baptisms and weddings.

“Father Rene followed the beatitudes,” Father Depcik said through an interpreter during the memorial Mass. “He had a pure heart. It’s one of the many reasons God put him into our lives – to give us an example of living the beatitudes.”