Remaining ‘culturally deaf’ to hear the word of God

July 15, 2014

HOUSTON — The Catholic Church is interested in creating an inclusive and welcoming community so that all may be one in Christ. For the past 40 years, St. Dominic’s Deaf Center in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has focused on spreading God’s message and love by remaining “culturally deaf,” where languages, customs and traditions that are appropriate for the deaf and hard of hearing community are included in all celebrations.

“Our ministry provides an access for the deaf and hard of hearing that would not be possible at a regular parish,” said Father Len Broniak, C.Ss.R. “By remaining ‘culturally deaf’ at St. Dominic’s, the individual can have a feeling of self-worth and independence through participation. Family members also are able to see the deaf individual as his or her own person, not as a problem to be solved.”

Father Broniak said the mission of St. Dominic’s is to give every deaf and hard of hearing person the opportunity to fully practice their faith. He said it can happen at the center or the individual’s home parish. The ministry has a wide scope, but a singular purpose — to help improve their faith life. 

Father Broniak said St. Dominic’s, which is one of 60 ministries in the Archdiocese supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), provides a variety of programs, processes and services. This includes catechism for deaf children offered in sign language, a fully functioning liturgy team where everything is done in sign language with a voice interpreter for hearing members, and a governing council to help plan activities for the community. The ministry also offers baptism and marriage preparation for deaf adults, and can provide, upon request, interpreters for home parish events, such as funerals, weddings, baptisms, first communions and confirmations, etc.

Deacon William Koch, who was ordained in 1981 as the first deacon who was deaf in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, has benefited from participating in programs at St. Dominic’s, and through volunteer work for 33 years. He also has two sons that also have benefited; one son, who is hard of hearing, and his younger son who is deaf.

Deacon Koch said he faced challenges as a young adult in the 1960s before St. Dominic’s came into existence. There were limited services offered to the deaf and hard of hearing community at the time, and because he didn’t know sign language well then, he believes this helped prevent him from entering the seminary to become a priest.

“In my early twenties, the priest I met with said I could not communicate well enough with the hearing people to give homilies, baptisms, marriages and funerals at church, so I wasn’t able to enter the seminary,” Deacon Koch said. “A few years later, I learned sign language through friends, and when a priest came to Houston and started a church for the deaf, I became interested and involved with the deaf community at that time.”

In the late 1970s, once Deacon Koch learned he could enter the Permanent Diaconate Program, with the help of two dedicated interpreters at his side, he attended St. Mary’s Seminary for three years, and was ordained in 1981 as the first deaf deacon.

In addition to the faith formation classes at St. Dominic’s, Koch believes the main programs that have positively impacted his children was the sign language offered during Mass so they could hear the word of God, as well as having them involved in liturgical celebrations at Christmas, Lent and Easter. He also has found the RCIA program and explanations about the Sacrament of Baptism, Matrimony and funerals that are taught in sign language to be invaluable to those who seek those services.