Sign language Mass provides spiritual nourishment to deaf community in Archdiocese

February 8, 2011

HOUSTON — One recent Sunday morning in the Warren Chapel at St. Dominic Village, children enjoyed a last minute a run-around, adults engaged in friendly greetings and a few teens hung out in the back as late comers trickled in for Mass. It was by all accounts the typical pre-Mass scene. 
Atypical however, was the general quiet in the room. 

Many of the 140 or so adults and children were deaf and communicated with one another in sign language, just as Father Len Broniak, who was to conduct the service, would communicate with them during the Mass.

The deaf ministry at St. Dominic receives funding through the Diocesan Services Fund, which provides financial support for programs and services that aid people of Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

Father Broniak, 57, began working in the deaf ministry more than 30 years ago while studying in the seminary in Wisconsin. He said he was drawn to the deaf language and culture and consequently made it his life's mission to minister to the deaf.

In his homily, Father Broniak, signing and speaking simultaneously to a larger than usual crowd due to the preceding Continuing Christian Education classes, compared the deaf to those who had experienced exclusion and rejection but had been the first to be brought into the light by Jesus Christ. He talked of God's love for the deaf community and encouraged congregants to be the apostles to others who feel left out.

Father Broniak's words and commitment to this deaf community — not quite a parish, but close — were strong comfort for new and long-time members alike.

"Everyone is friendly and nice," said Claudia Herebia, the mother of 9-year-old Andrea, who has been hearing impaired since birth.

Herebia recently switched parishes so that her daughter, in third grade at South Houston Elementary School, would be able to participate meaningfully in the Sacraments.

"Before it was hard for her to pay attention, because she didn't understand what's going on," Herebia said. "It's hard to find these kinds of places."
David Bass, deaf since birth, has been part of the community for 25 years or so. He said he enjoys coming and loves Father Broniak.

"He's cool. He's helpful. He's funny. He's hard working," Bass said.

St. Dominic Deaf Center is one of only two places in the greater Houston area to offer a sign language Mass, the other being St. Justin Martyr Catholic Community in west Houston. However, Father Broniak said St. Dominic's offers other services for the deaf and gives members the opportunity to participate in their own spiritual community. 

"With our Mass, the deaf run it themselves," said Father Broniak, who is neither deaf nor hearing impaired. "They do the Liturgy, Sunday school classes, everything."

Father Broniak pointed to the group he calls his crew, members of the center's Deaf Club, who serve as lectors, ushers and Eucharistic ministers and help organize social events, education classes and advocate for the deaf.

Deacon William Koch, profoundly deaf since contracting meningitis at 9-months-old, assists Father Broniak with the Mass. Juan Bazan, deaf from birth, is the club's president.

"This a great opportunity for the deaf to be involved in the community," signed Bazan, for whom Father Broniak interpreted. "I am working hard to make some changes — to have more deaf priests, to encourage more education and more advocacy, to help the sick and offer a social network. I want to be a good role model for other deaf people." †