Breaking down barriers for the deaf, hard of hearing to live the faith fully

September 14, 2021

The St. Dominic Center for the Deaf serves approximately 6,000 deaf and hard of hearing persons annually in the Archdiocese. (Photo courtesy of the St. Dominic Center for the Deaf)

HOUSTON — Providing the deaf and hard of hearing persons with a “home” where they feel accepted, cherished and empowered to fully live their Catholic faith has been the mission of St. Dominic Center for the Deaf for over 50 years. With 90% of deaf and hard of hearing children born to hearing parents, breaking down language barriers to help strengthen the family unit is key.

According to Father Len Broniak, C.Ss.R., chaplain and program director of St. Dominic Center, approximately 6,000 deaf and hard of hearing persons are served annually in the Archdiocese.

“Our ministry works to bridge the gap by providing services in sign language with voice interpreters, so children and adults can participate in the Mass and Sacraments in their own language,” said Father Broniak. “Through our ministry, deaf Catholic adults become role models for the children and their parents by serving as lectors, ushers, and extraordinary Eucharistic ministers.”

Father Broniak said a role model includes Deacon Bruce Flagg, who is deaf and has been at St. Dominic Center for the past 18 years.

Before finding St. Dominic Center, Deacon Flagg said he and his wife, who is hearing “church hopped” for many years in search of a parish where they felt comfortable worshipping in.

“Not only did we find at St. Dominic Center a welcoming environment, but also a unique place where deaf and hearing persons, as well as those that are Spanish speaking, can worship together,” said Deacon Flagg. “St. Dominic Center has strengthened our faith as a married couple and ultimately lead us to the Archdiocesan Permanent Diaconate Ministry.”

Father Broniak said St. Dominic Center gives deaf and hard of hearing Catholics and their families the opportunity to practice and to participate in their faith through the “language of their hearts.”

“They can receive the Eucharist, go to confession, get married, and have their children baptized and be confirmed, all in a language that they can understand and fully participate,” said Father Broniak. “Deaf adults also share their experiences and frustrations of growing up in a hearing world with the hearing parents, so they can be more sensitive to the needs of their children.”

In addition to Mass, Sacraments and faith formation classes taught by deaf catechists, St. Dominic Center offers American Sign Language (ASL) classes to teach parents and those interested in the language and culture of the deaf community.

Maria De Refugio Puron Sereno took advantage of these sign language classes 14 years ago so she could communicate with her deaf son, Pablo. Today, she teaches a basic sign language class herself and is grateful that the ministry has helped her family in many ways.

“St. Dominic Center helped bring my son out of his shell and provided a place where he had the freedom to be himself and be able to communicate with people just like him,” said Sereno. “We’ve had the opportunity to meet such amazing people and learn a new language.”

Sereno said that as her sign language skills developed over the years, she is able to help others that are deaf outside the community.

“Because many like me have Spanish as their first language, we’re very thankful to have Father Len, who is able to speak three languages (English, Spanish and ASL),” said Sereno. “He is such a blessing because he can break down those language barriers.”

As one of 60 ministries supported the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), Father Broniak believes it is important for the faithful to support the annual campaign so St. Dominic Center can continue to fulfill its mission to serve the deaf and hard of hearing and their families.

“Supporting the DSF helps us to continue the mission of Jesus, the mission of the Church: To bring the Good news of Salvation to everyone,” said Father Broniak. “We must reach out to those that are forgotten or overlooked. Without the DSF, deaf Catholics would once again be isolated and marginalized.”

Deacon Flagg agrees that St. Dominic Center brings God’s message of hope and love to the deaf and hard of hearing community.

“To be able to minister with my wife to a couple preparing for marriage, baptizing those entering our Church, and assisting in funeral rites in a language that the deaf community understands, as well as from a member of their own community, is a priceless gift that DSF has given to all the members of St. Dominic Center,” said Deacon Flagg.

Sereno said the DSF is very important because many families like hers rely on ministries like St. Dominic Center that exist because the fund supports them.

“There are many deaf people that need the Sacraments and other services provided by St. Dominic Center, so without the Archdiocese’s support, we can’t continue to expand our services,” said Sereno. “People need to know that we exist, so we can help those that are looking but don’t know where to go.”