Archdiocesan Deaf Ministry helps deaf, hard of hearing to live their faith to the full

August 7, 2012

HOUSTON — Catholics who have sensory challenges, such as hearing loss, or who are hard of hearing, may feel excluded from the Church at times. Ministries like St. Dominic Deaf Center are knocking down barriers for people with disabilities and bringing them into inclusion with the Church and live as disciples of Christ.

According to said Father Len Broniak, C.Ss.R., who is chaplain and program director at St. Dominic Deaf Center, the ministry’s mission is “to provide all deaf and hard of hearing persons complete accessibility to the Catholic Church, including worship, ministering to others, receiving religious education and sacramental preparation and participating in all aspects of a parish life.”

The St. Dominic Deaf Center was founded in 1975 as an outreach ministry of the then Diocese of Galveston-Houston. The Center offers Mass in sign language every Sunday and includes a voice interpreter for the hearing, so the entire family can attend Mass together. Persons with hearing disabilities serve as lectors, ushers, altar servers and Eucharistic ministers. The Center also offers hospital and home visitations for the sick and homebound, a social club that sponsors events throughout the year; and interpreters for sacramental celebrations and events at other parishes.

“Our ministry takes on what a local parish cannot do,” said Father Broniak. “We train all of our catechists, lectors and Eucharistic ministers for their roles in ministry, and also form a cultural sub-group that is proud of its language and history. This group, as individuals, would be completely overlooked in their local setting.”

“We offer the only Mass in sign language in the Archdiocese that has full participation in the liturgy,” he said. “Our religious education program, which has deaf teachers, also is unique. The classes, which are small in size so the teacher can ensure the child fully understands the lesson, are conducted in sign language with a heavy emphasis on visual presentations.”

Dana Dunkel, who lives in Texas City with her husband, Charles, and their four children, said that over the last decade they have been making the 45-minute drive to downtown Houston each Sunday for Mass, faith formation and sacramental preparation for their oldest son, Steven, who was diagnosed as deaf and autistic at the age of two. Dunkel believes St. Dominic Deaf Center’s catechists are one of the main reasons Steven has come to understand his faith and have a strong desire to know, love and serve God.

“Since the catechists are deaf, too, Steven has received the deaf interpretation of Catholicism, and this has helped him make a better connection than he would otherwise,” said Dunkel. “He is the most spiritual person I know, and I credit this to the instruction and help he has received from St. Dominic Deaf Center. We would have a hard time finding such exceptional people in our community like them that can deal with both the autism and deafness.”

According to Father Broniak, with the rise of Houston’s immigrant population over the last decade, St. Dominic Deaf Center’s membership has continued to grow over the past four decades.

“Our weekly attendance has steadily risen as people become aware of the existence of our program,” said Father Broniak. “We serve roughly 500 people each month, or about 8,000 to 10,000 a year. There has been a notable increase within the last 12 to 15 years as the immigrant population of Houston has grown and many of these families have children with specials needs that only we can accommodate.”

For families like the Dunkels and others who come to the doorsteps of St. Dominic Deaf Center for Mass and programs for the deaf and hard of hearing, the facility provides a place where their loved ones have the opportunity to serve and worship just like everyone else.

“Worshipping at St. Dominic Deaf Center is very relaxed and comfortable, a place our entire family can attend and feel included,” Dunkel said. “Everyone is accepted. I’ve learned that the deaf community is very open-minded, loving and uncritical, and for this reason, we’ll continue to worship at St. Dominic Deaf Center, which has become a very special part of Steven’s deaf world.”