Episcopal deaf ministries continue long history of service in new ways

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Jul 11, 2013
The Rev. Cathy Deats signs and sings during a Eucharist at General Convention on July 10, 2009. The woman singing next to her is the Rev. Lisa Tucker-Gray, Diocese of Michigan canon to the ordinary. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg / Episcopal News Service

The Rev. Cathy Deats signs and sings during a July 10 Eucharist at General Convention in 2009, when she was a first-time deputy. During a previous convention, she served as a volunteer sign-language interpreter. Her church, St.James’ in Hackettstown, New Jersey, is the center of the Diocese of Newark’s deaf ministries program. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg / Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] When the Rev. Marianne Stuart celebrates Eucharist on a Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama, the worshipers may be in pews a few hours south in Mobile or more than a day’s drive north in New York.

The hearing daughter of deaf parents, Stuart simultaneously signs and speaks services as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church for the Deaf in the Diocese of Alabama. Her weekly Eucharists are “livestreamed” over the Internet using Skype to allow Episcopalians in deaf congregations without priests to participate in the service at their own locations and receive the bread and wine using reserved sacraments from local parishes. Stuart also sends DVDs of each week’s upcoming Gospel and sermon to about 30 addresses – mostly for individuals, but also a handful of churches that use them during Morning Prayer and one woman who uses the Gospel for a deaf Bible study in North Carolina. Elsewhere, Episcopal churches such as St. James’ in Hackettstown, New Jersey, offer American Sign Language interpretation of their services.

It’s all part of an effort to minister to the spiritual needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing people and is the latest incarnation in a long history of deaf ministries within the Episcopal Church.

Pictured with the Rev. Henry Buzzard, seated, are, from left, lay leader Melissa Inniss, New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche and lay leader Evelyn Schafer at St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf. Buzzard, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, is retired priest of St. Ann’s and was the first deaf and blind priest in America. He is one of the authors of “Thomas Gallaudet Apostle to the Deaf.”

Pictured with the Rev. Henry Buzzard, seated, are, from left, lay leader Melissa Inniss, New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche and lay leader Evelyn Schafer at St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf. Buzzard, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, is retired priest of St. Ann’s and was the first deaf and blind priest in America. He is one of the authors of “Thomas Gallaudet Apostle to the Deaf.”

“The Episcopal Church began ministry among deaf people more than 150 years ago – when the Rev. Thomas Gallaudet began services in sign language in New York City in 1852,” reports the website of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf. Gallaudet began St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf – believed to be the first organized church for deaf people in any denomination – and organized other Episcopal deaf congregations throughout the country.

The Episcopal Church also was the first denomination to ordain a deaf person – the Rev. Henry Winter Syle in 1876, according to the website. He and Gallaudet share a feast day (Aug. 27) on the Episcopal calendar.

Gallaudet’s father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, “was the one who brought sign language and the idea of education for the deaf to the U.S.,” Stuart noted. And his brother, Edward Miner Gallaudet, “founded Gallaudet College, now University, with congressional support and Abraham Lincoln’s signature in 1864. This is the only liberal arts university specifically dedicated to the education of the deaf in the world.”

Changing demographics
The Episcopal Church probably has 25 deaf churches today, most run by hard-of-hearing or deaf lay leaders, said Stuart, ECD president.

Years ago, there were many more deaf priests because “the unemployment opportunities for those who were deaf were limited to things like teachers for the deaf, preachers, manual labor,” she said. “Now, in 2013, the whole world has opened up.” Deaf people today “can be anything they want to be.”

The decrease in deaf priests also reflects general cultural trends, she said. “It’s the same for the hearing churches, too. There aren’t that many young people marching to priesthood.”

The deaf community also is shrinking, said Bishop Philip Duncan of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, which includes St. Mark’s Church for the Deaf in Mobile. “Some of the things that were not able to be cured are able to be changed to allow people to hear, with the Cochlear implant and things like that.”

Stuart’s father was priest-in-charge of St. Mark’s. After he died in 2011, no sign language-proficient priest was available to serve the deaf congregation, located 381 miles from Birmingham. “I am closest, and I could go down there, but I couldn’t go down there very often,” she said.

Then Duncan participated in a service where he received a man into the Episcopal Church via long-distance video connection. The man had recently been deployed by the military. “We could see him, he could see us,” the bishop recalled. “We had him up on a big screen, and everybody in the congregation watched, and it was just fabulous.”

That experience inspired launching similar weekly live broadcasts from Stuart’s church to allow St. Mark’s and other deaf churches to participate in a Eucharist. The distant churches receive the video via laptop and projected it onto a screen in their sanctuaries.

“The idea is, when we go through the service … it’s just like you’re sitting in the pew with me at St. John’s,” Stuart said. “We say the prayers together.”

Unlike passively watching a television broadcast, congregants participate by pausing the live feed and reading the day’s lessons themselves. “When we get to the Gospel, they come back in,” Stuart explained. “I read the Gospel. I give them the sermon. And then they all join back in to the Nicene Creed. … I go slow, and I give directions on what’s coming next.”

When it’s time to deliver Communion, lay eucharistic ministers in the local deaf churches use presanctified bread and wine, Stuart said.

So far, four churches, including St. Ann’s, have used the livestreamed services, either regularly or intermittently.

St. Ann’s congregation first met at New York University in 1852 and today worships in the lower chapel at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York. It “attracts deaf, deaf/blind, hard-of-hearing, multiply handicapped as well as hearing individuals from other communities including university students interested in learning about deaf culture and participating in our Holy Eucharist,” said lay eucharistic minister and worship leader Evelyn Schafer, who is deaf, in an interview via e-mail.

“As [the] Rev. Thomas Gallaudet taught us, we welcome everyone. Our congregants are from a variety of ethnic, socioeconomic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds; this makes us very diverse in our ministry. On any given Sunday one can expect between 15 to 35 or more participants. After the service we provide a hot lunch, as many deaf [people] travel from afar in the metropolitan area to attend the services.”

St. Ann’s previous priest, the Rev. Maria Santiviago, retired in 2011. A deaf supply priest, the Rev. William Erich Krengel of Connecticut, now preaches once or twice a month and officiates at services using his voice and sign language. The other Sundays, the church uses Stuart’s DVD and/or the livestream, said Schafer, one of two lay members leading the church. “The use of the DVD has been a blessing. The livestream has some technical problems which must be resolved.”

The congregation also holds an increasing number of ASL-interpreted joint services with its host Parish of Calvary-St. George’s and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Schafer said.

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church of the Deaf, a mission started by Thomas Gaullaudet in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, also has used the live video but not frequently because the services are broadcast at 11 a.m. but the East Coast church typically worships at 10 a.m., said licensed eucharistic minister Thomas Hattaway. Deaf since he was 18 months old, he communicated over the phone through an interpreter, with whom he was connected via videophone.

About 40 members belong to the church, with 10 to 15 attending on an average Sunday, meeting in the chapel at St. John’s Norwood in Chevy Chase, Maryland, he said. Like St. Ann’s, St. Barnabas is between priests, with Hattaway and two other lay ministers leading the congregation. Sometimes, he leads Morning Prayer. Sometimes guest preachers – including Lutheran ministers – will visit.

Hattaway makes some pastoral visits. “In the past, we did have interpreters who would come in and interpret for people who were deaf and blind,” he said. The church also had a children’s ministry. “Without having a priest in place, everything’s been kind of put on hold at this point.”

St. Ann’s, which the Diocese of New York considered closing before Santiviago arrived in 2007, continues a variety of ministries beyond Sunday services, Schafer said. A Thursday Outreach Ministry provides an opportunity for socializing.

“Some of our congregants are homeless, unemployed and isolated,” she said. “In order to help them grow, they require motivation and encouragement. Therefore, we have expanded our Thursday program by exposing our congregants to various social and educational programs in the community and beyond.”

A General Theological Seminary student, Deacon Arlette Benoit, recently led Bible classes for the church, which she has chosen as the place where she will officiate at her first service after becoming ordained a priest, Schafer.

Offering ASL-interpreted services
While not all dioceses have deaf churches, some congregations throughout the church offer ASL-interpreted services. ECD provides funding for up to three years to help congregations establish interpreted services and also provides grants to pay part-time clergy salaries or to assist deaf seminarians, Stuart said. ECD receives funding from the Episcopal Church – $24,000 over the current triennium – and also supports itself with endowments and donations, she said.

The Diocese of Newark’s deaf ministry is housed at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Hackettstown, New Jersey, which offers sign-language interpretation for all its services and events. The church’s deacon, the Rev. Sheila Shuford, is deaf, and the rector, the Rev. Cathy Deats, herself an interpreter, is hard-of-hearing.

“We do mostly information and referral,” Deats said. In 2012, the ministry reported to diocesan convention that its outreach efforts included six months of chaplaincy services to deaf patients at a psychiatric hospital, mentoring a deacon postulant regarding deaf ministry and providing emergency interpreting services to Hackettstown’s hospital.

According to the report, 17 percent of American adults – 36 million people – report some degree of hearing loss. “The hard-of-hearing and late-deafened (becoming deaf in adulthood) are by far the majority of people with hearing loss which our churches will encounter.”

Having experienced hearing loss herself, Deats, who has worked as both interpreter and deputy at General Convention as well as signing at diocesan events, understands the frustration of trying to follow what’s being said. “People don’t realize, it’s not volume. It’s the size of the room. It’s background noise.” Wearing an assisted listening device may mean “you can’t hear anything that doesn’t come through a microphone.”

But people at a meeting may ignore repeated requests to use the microphone or repeat a question.

“At some point, you give up,” she said. “After awhile, I’d say, ‘I’ll get what I can get, and maybe I’ll think twice about going to such a meeting,’ because it’s frustrating, and I don’t want to be the one – oh, there’s that pain … who’s always talking about microphones.”

In advocating for deaf churches, “There are a number of deaf people who are fearful that their culture of deafness and language will be lost. I share the fear about the language,” Deats said.

But she also thinks there is a tremendous mission opportunity in reaching out to those with some hearing loss.

“There’s such a huge population of hard-of-hearing individuals,” she said. “I can’t believe we can’t include them in some kind of outreach. … It affects more and more people. We’re all going there, like it or not: If you get old enough, you’re not going to hear as well.”

She added, “I really do respect a deaf person wanting to be in worship where they don’t have to watch an interpreter. I think there should be deaf liturgy, no question about it.”

With an interpreted service, Deats said, “you have to watch constantly” and pay attention to both the person talking and the interpreter. “Then there’s the responsive readings. We read the psalms like our pants are on fire, and that’s almost impossible for a deaf person to participate in, whereas in a deaf service they make accommodation for that.”

Hattaway attended church with an interpreter in Florida and now attends St. Barnabas in the Washington, D.C. area. He’s comfortable with either an interpreter or signed service, he said. “It doesn’t matter, either way.”

But Schafer said she feels more comfortable at St. Ann’s. “At our deaf church, the sermons are shorter and consequently less tiring on the eye. I feel more connected to the priest as he invites us to ask questions after his sermon. In a hearing church, there is a greater physical distance between me and the priest. Also, although interpreters are useful and necessary, they create an invisible barrier between a deaf person and the priest.”

“I grew up in the hearing world struggling to understand and to learn about my Christian faith in a hearing church,” she said. “I attended hearing services, studied in Bible classes, was confirmed but did not hear my ministers and teachers. I depended on the reading of books to teach myself. I also depended on my family, especially my loving mother who took the extra time to assist in my religion and educational growth.”

Today, she feels she has the best of both churches: St. Ann’s and the hearing church that supports and sometimes worships with them, Calvary-St. George’s, she said.

And she appreciates her church’s history, as America’s first church for the deaf, she said. “I enjoy sharing the history of St. Ann’s with people from all over the country and the world. I can fully share my faith with other deaf and hearing people alike.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent. Churches or individuals interested in learning more about the DVDs or livestreamed services from St. John’s can contact Marianne Stuart at mariannedstuart@gmail.com.

Comments (11)

  1. Jay Croft says:

    Thank you for this article. Publicity about this often-overlooked ministry is very helpful!

    Over the years I have served several of the locations mentioned—St. Ann’s, New York City; St. Barnabas’, Maryland; St. John’s, Birmingham and St. Mark’s, Mobile.

    Since the word “retirement” is not in the Bible, I now serve a congregation of Deaf people based at the Church of the Holy Comforter, Montgomery. The service is signed, not interpreted or voiced. It is liturgically correct but very informal.

    The sermon is more like a forum, with plenty of lively comments from everyone. I liked a comment from one parishioner last Sunday, concerning the calling of the Seventy: “They never taught us that in the Baptist church!”

    The Rev. Jay L. Croft
    Priest Associate for Ministry in the Deaf Community
    Church of the Holy Comforter, Montgomery AL

  2. Thomas Hattaway says:

    FYI We St Barnabas do joint service with St John’s Norwood occasionnally. Father Sari and Mother Sarah of St John’s Norwood have included me as LEM in their worship service which is nice thing to do. Thank you St John’s Norwood for the use of St Mary’s chapel for Deaf services and the office for our Deaf ministry.

    Thomas Hattaway

  3. Bruce Green says:

    I cannot imagine an article on this subject that does not include the rev. Mr. Fletcher, longtime minister to the deaf in the southeast of thi country. One of his daughters received an Oscar for her work in One Flew Over the Coconest as nurse Ratchet. Another son is a priest – John. I served on the board of All Saint’s, Vicksburg with another daughter. I met Fr. Fletcher when the Convocation for the Deaf met at Camp McDowell in the summer of 1958.
    We have a very short institutional memory!

    1. Jay Croft says:

      Mr. Green, the Rev. Dr. Fletcher was indeed a giant in this ministry. I knew him for many years and would visit him and his wife Estelle at their retirement home in Alexandria VA.

      Louise Fletcher is indeed famous for her many roles in movies and television over the years. I believe she lives in Paris now. Her sister Bobbie is in Virginia. Sadly, John Fletcher passed away some years ago. He was an internationally-respected bioethicist.

      Dr. Fletcher was one of a number of such giants. Homer “Daddy” Grace in the West, Bill Lange in the four dioceses of upper New York State, Otto Berg in Washington DC and J. Stanley Light in New England. I was privileged to meet and know them all except Dr. Light.

      Since this article is about contemporary ministries, not a historical account, I’m not upset about the omission of Dr. Fletcher. I was once bitterly lambasted by the daughter of one of my predecessors for not including him in an article even though he had retired many years previously.

    2. Marianne D. Stuart says:

      Mr. Green,
      The Rev. Dr. Fletcher and his family continue to be fondly remembered and history has not forgotten them. I invite you to come to St John’s Church for the Deaf in Birmingham and see what we have done to build upon his decades of work to bring the love of Christ to the Deaf.
      This is all an effort to keep the good works of Fletcher, Grace, Hirte, Lange, Light, Berg, and all those apostles to the Deaf who came before them and followed them, alive, and continuing on into the future.

  4. David Myers says:

    It’s impressive and terrific that the Episcopal Church continues to be a leader in supporting Deaf persons with ASL. The 36 million Americans with hearing loss, proportionately few of whom know Sign, need to hear . . . and, thankfully, many Episcopal Churches, including the one in my own community, have also led the way by installing hearing loops that transmit sound directly to hearing aids and cochlear implants equipped with an inexpensive telecoil receiver (which most now are, and with others being served with headsets–though few people with hearing loss use such). Happily, this technology–which is omnipresent in Anglican churches and cathedrals in the UK–is now rapidly spreading the USA. See http://www.hearingloop.org

  5. As an Episcopalian who has a lifelong hearing loss, I rejoice in articles like this about churches who serve the deaf.

    Currently there are up to 50 million in this country who have some degree of hearing loss. Of these, about 5% use ASL as their primary language so that leaves out the other 95% of us. We use FM receivers, we use hearing loops and the t-coils on our hearing aids and our cochlear implants, we use captioning – but we don’t use sign language. l look forward to the day when the majority of Episcopal churches in this country will accommodate “the rest of us.”

    Again, thank you for this very inspiring and educational article.

    Judy in Jacksonville, FL
    Former almost-lifelong New Yorker born in Nebraska.

  6. The Rev. Suzanne Johnston says:

    The characteristics of the Deaf world are rapidly changing – with our technological advances in communication as well as new hearing technology. This is complicated by an encroaching aging population and the needs/demands of this strong sub-group. My hope is that the needs of the Deaf are not diminished by these changes; that instead they serve to empower the Deaf, and that the culture continues to be valued and respected, and, finally, that the message of the Gospel remains available through direct teaching and service in sign language. Thank God for the work of the ECD in its support of these efforts.

  7. Jay Woods says:

    I wonder: could the Gallaudet & Styles commemoration on the Church Calendar be expanded to include The Rev. Dr Fletcher and other “apostles to the deaf” and those who had significant systematic ministry with deaf persons? Those interested could contact the Standing Liturgical Commission & Dr. Meyers about forming a resolution for General Convention to expand the title for that day.

  8. Kat Brockway says:

    Don’t forget Grace Deaf Mission was in Baltimore as well. It was affiliated to St. Ann Deaf Church. It will be mentioned in the Baltimore’s Deaf Heritage book to be released soon.

    Soon to be an author,

    Kat Brockway

  9. Karen A. Hill says:

    The article says, “Deaf people today can be anything they want to be.”

    This is not true, so let’s not dupe deaf children into believing this.

Comments are closed.