Bringing life to the deaf, hard of hearing in the Church

April 10, 2018

The St. Dominic Center for the Deaf provides deaf and hard of hearing persons full access to a life in the Catholic Church, and offers many events including a Christmas event with Santa for children in the deaf and hard of hearing community. Photo courtesy of The St. Dominic Center for the Deaf.

HOUSTON — In an effort to include those who are often overlooked in society, St. Dominic Center for the Deaf provides deaf and hard of hearing persons full access to a life in the Catholic Church. Its mission is to provide an inclusive and welcoming community that offers all programs and services found at a “hearing” parish.

“It is important to understand that the deaf are a ‘hidden disability’; you cannot tell by looking at someone whether they are deaf or not,” said Father Len Broniak, C.Ss.R., chaplain and program director of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s St. Dominic Center for the Deaf. The center is one of sixty ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), “The result is that they are often overlooked, and their needs don’t get met. Our programs recognize the talents and abilities of these people that they can contribute to the life of the Church.” 

Father Broniak said currently, St. Dominic’s offers sign language at the 11:15 a.m. Sunday Mass at the Warren Chapel in St. Dominic Village in the Texas Medical Center, as well as a voice interpreter for the hearing family members.

A fully-functioning liturgy team is in place so deaf and hard of hearing members may serve as lectors, ushers and eucharistic ministers. Faith formation, sacramental preparation and social programs also are provided, with interpreters for baptisms, weddings, funerals and church events offered to churches and hospital/home visitations to those who are sick and shut in within the Archdiocese.

Deaf and hard of hearing persons account for approximately three-percent of the general population. St. Dominic’s serves approximately 5,000 to 6,000 each year. Father Broniak feels that slowly, but surely, the ministry’s presence is becoming more known within the Archdiocese due to the efforts of its clergy, staff, and volunteers.

For example, Bruce Flagg, a diaconate candidate who is deaf, and his wife Toni, who is hearing, have been active members of St. Dominic’s for close to a decade. After attending several hearing churches, the couple felt more at home at St. Dominic’s and part of a community where deaf and hearing come together without fear or ridicule, but with understanding and love.

“Coming to Mass on Sunday may be the only opportunity that a family with both deaf and hearing individuals can come together and worship in a way that is understandable to all,” said Toni Flagg. “Each person, with his or her differences is welcomed and treasured. St. Dominic’s is unique in that we offer Mass in Sign Language every Sunday and once a month, simultaneously in Spanish, so parents who speak only Spanish and children who only sign can enter on an equal footing into the worship of our Lord.”

The Flaggs are committed to making St. Dominic’s home for other deaf and hard of hearing families through faith sharing and fellowship opportunities. Bruce is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, altar server, lector and president of the organization that decides many activities for the church. Toni lends her services as the voice interpreter during Mass. They both are responsible for several monthly social dinners and assist in the after Mass gatherings. They are committed to ensuring that all persons speak the same language—that of acceptance.

“I believe St. Dominic’s makes deaf people feel warm and at home,” said Bruce Flagg. “If they go to a hearing Mass without an interpreter, they will be lost.”

Sometimes even with an interpreter, many in the deaf community lack strong education access so they may not understand everything the interpreter signs that the priest said, according to Bruce Flagg.

Bruce said Father Broniak is very familiar with the problems that the deaf and hard of hearing community faces, so they will feel supported and comfortable at St. Dominic’s in comparison to a hearing church. For example, he said Father Broniak matches the people’s educational level and talks in a manner that they all can understand. St. Dominic’s is always looking for new ways to support the deaf community with God’s love and mercy.

“I plan to set up adult classes so that the deaf community will have a better understanding of the Bible and a deeper understanding of our Catholic faith,” said Bruce. “Many of our people do not even have a basic understanding and I want to help them gain this knowledge. As a part of the diaconate formation program, I am also planning on becoming involved with the deaf prison ministry soon.”

The couple believes that St. Dominic’s needs more awareness with the staff and volunteers at hearing churches so they can better utilize its programs and services offered for the deaf and hard of hearing persons in their faith communities.

“When an individual wants to become Catholic through RCIA, or a child is of an age to make his or her first communion, or an individual wants to go through the annulment process, or any of the other offerings of our Church, the people in charge of those programs sometimes panic trying to figure out how to deal with the communication needs presented to them,” said Toni. “As a result, that individual or that child or that couple misses out on all the beauty that our Church has to offer. If the parishes were more aware of what St. Dominic’s can provide, this could easily lessen their fears, knowing that we even exist and either a referral or a request for services could easily be made.”

The Flaggs feel that without the assistance of the DSF, there would be no St. Dominic’s and the needs of the deaf community would go unmet.

“There would be no priests to ‘see’ confession, no future deacons to assist those deaf who are incarcerated or visit those in hospitals or in need of the sacraments,” said Toni. “The deaf would leave the Church, and either attend different services were there was a visual mode of communication or not attend any church at all. We are so grateful to St. Dominic’s, for giving us the opportunity to worship together, to make our marriage stronger, for leading us to the Diaconate program, and finally, for bringing us into a stronger communion with God and our community.”

“Many deaf people are excluded from the hearing world for various reasons and are disadvantaged in many ways.” said Bruce. “Many deaf people don’t know how to say the rosary and I wish to teach them so that they will understand what each of the mysteries means. There is a definite problem in the deaf community regarding education about our Catholic faith, and I know this because I am deaf, and I was one of those who had a lack of a theological education.”