Interpreter translates Mass in an ‘elegant language’

Nov 22, 2023
Cassidy sits with her mother, Sandrine (left), as they watch Squitieri sign the lyrics of a song (GLENDA MEEKINS)

CLERMONT | Selene Squitieri has a passion for American Sign Language, especially if it helps her niece find a deeper love of the Eucharist.

With a cousin who is deaf, Squitieri often found herself making friends in the deaf community. When her niece, Cassidy, was born deaf, she felt motivated to learn ASL. And as the child grew up, Squitieri felt called to use her knowledge of ASL to help Cassidy and others who are deaf discover the Eucharist through Mass. Squitieri interprets portions of the Mass at St. Faustina in Clermont Sunday mornings, and believes sign language is “a very elegant language.”

Selene Squitieri signs for her niece, Cassidy at St. Faustina Parish in Clermont. Squitieri (left) and her niece , Cassidy, sign during Mass at St. Faustina Parish in Clermont, Nov. 19, 2023. Squitieri learned to sign when her niece was born deaf. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

“People think you’re just flailing your arms around, but it’s not,” she said. “We have Spanish, Italian … This is another language people need to have exposure to. I feel as though God has talked to me about doing this for the Church.”

Before Cassidy went to school, communication with her family was limited to pointing, gestures and homemade cue cards. Her family also exposed her to videos of sign language and books so she could practice.

At age 11, after attending a few years at public school, she went to summer camp at the School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. She returned and told her family this was the school for her and began that fall.

There she learned ASL, but conversation was still limited to others who knew the language. The problem became crystal clear when she attended Mass.

“It is hard for me to come to church, because I don’t know what people say,” Cassidy explained. “They stand, kneel and sit, do the sign of cross and I don’t know why — I just follow.” She said the lack of understanding distracts her, so she starts playing on her phone. “I know people are watching me, (but) I’m uncomfortable at church.”

Cassidy’s aunt realized her niece needed to fully understand her faith, along with its prayers and rituals, to receive the sacraments. Squitieri began signing the homily and music for Cassidy while in the pew, but as a young girl, Cassidy was embarrassed and often looked away because she felt others staring. Occasionally Squitieri caught her peeking out of the corner of her eye. Eventually, she grew to appreciate her aunt’s efforts.

While her aunt helped her during her First Holy Communion, Cassidy admitted it was very difficult for her. “I didn’t really understand, and I wanted to be like the other kids, talking and having fun. But when the lessons were done, I felt like a princess in my white dress. I know it is God and Jesus when I receive Communion at church,” she said.

After receiving the Sacrament, Squitieri became a parishioner at St. Faustina. She loved the “family feel” and felt welcomed there. She soon joined the choir and asked music director Kelly Mucci if she could sign music for her niece. Mucci was thrilled. She spent 10 years in the music ministry at another parish where she had several interpreters assist during Mass.

While Squitieri said she began signing for selfish reasons, Mucci disagreed, noting many others now benefit from her ministry. St. Faustina has a number of travelers due to the area theme parks and much of the congregation is also snowbirds. While the ministry has helped Squitieri’s niece, it has also felt others feel welcome.

“Through her ministry, she has helped travelers who have come up and said, ‘I can’t believe you have a signer.’ So, they return year after year,” Mucci said. “Our own people, even though they are not deaf, love watching Selene sign. They say it adds beauty to our service, so they come specifically to the 9:30 a.m. Mass.”

“The deaf are not going to go out of their way to tell you they’re deaf, just as I’m not going to go out of my way to say I can hear you and I’m Italian,” said Squitieri, who hopes signing will become more prevalent.

Since moving into St. Faustina’s new church building, Squitieri said it is easier for others to see her signing as she is slightly elevated in the sanctuary. She said she may consider signing the homilies, but at the moment she can’t commit.

“It’s a little different because I’m trying to portray God’s Word so I feel I need to be on point and make it clear, so that if there were someone in the church that is deaf and I didn’t know it, they can understand exactly what is going on and what is being told,” Squitieri said.

She noted some songs are more challenging than others and she wants to make sure she is “getting the message across.” “I want to be there for them. I want to get the deaf (to church) so they can feel the way we do as hearing people.”

For Cassidy, her aunt’s signing gets her pretty close to that experience, so much so that she joined her aunt in signing at the Christmas Mass last year.

“(Signing) helps me see what people are saying. I feel like all the other people, not singled out as not understanding,” Cassidy said. “I am happy that someone helps me understand so I am not nervous to be at church … Aunt Selene, you did a good job. Thank you.”

Click here to watch a video of Squitieri signing at Mass.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, November 22, 2023