Speech program for international seminarians at St. Mary Seminary to advance clearer communication

March 13, 2012

HOUSTON - As a highly qualified speech pathologist, Dr. Elizabeth Woolfolk was aware of the corrective techniques that could be easily deployed to help international priests with heavy accents deliver their homilies with clearer communication.

At the request of Father Michael Grey, Vice Rector of St. Mary's Seminary, Woolfolk, a nationally recognized expert in communication disorders, volunteered her services to help priests from other countries, who struggle to be understood, polish their English.

"Many people have said they didn't understand the priest at one time or another, and sometimes they leave for another church," Woolfolk said on a recent Friday afternoon after conducting a two-hour session in the program she helped develop at the seminary.

With $11,000 in funding from an anonymous donor, Woolfolk started the "Phonetics of American English" program, which evolved from an earlier "accent modification" program, aimed at international seminarians and priests. With more funding, more focus and a group of committed volunteers with backgrounds mostly in speech pathology or teaching English as a second language, the new program, launched in the fall, is proving effective.

Of the 80 seminarians at St. Mary's and 10 from other religious orders who come to study there, 19 are international, hailing from such countries as Colombia, Nigeria, Mexico, Cameroon, Vietnam and South Korea.

That Friday, the international seminarians were working on rhythm and intonation exercises and reading aloud pieces they might use in typical liturgy. Volunteers worked with small groups of students, listening intently, gently pointing out mistakes and offering encouragement.

The students, many of whom spoke English fluently – albeit with accents – were only too eager to improve their pronunciation.

"I never recognized I had a strong accent until it was pointed out to me," said Dung Dinh, a Vietnamese who learned English in England and has been in the U.S. for more than a decade. "I think now my accent is easier for people to hear."

Alejandro Reyes, from Mexico, understands how important it is to speak clearly and be understood.

"We can better proclaim the Gospel," he said. "We are in America serving a variety of communities … and they need the best from us."
St. Mary's Rector Father Trung Nguyen, originally from Vietnam, credited Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza and Daniel Cardinal DiNardo for initiating the new program. Nguyen said the need to grow and enhance the program is pressing as more and more priests from different countries come to the seminary to train and preach, and parishioners need to be able to understand their priest.

With Woolfolk set to bow out from coordinating the program in May – she will stay in an advisory role – Nguyen said they are looking into hiring a director to take over. 

"We have a good program for the first year," he said. "Now we want to make it better." †


Volunteers who have a background in speech pathology, teaching English as a second language or any other relevant training are being sought to help conduct small group and one-on-one lessons in communication for the "Phonetics of American English" program. The new program, nearing the end of its first year, involves two hours a week on Friday afternoon. For more information, contact Sister Rosalie Karstedt, C.D.P., Associate Director of Pastoral Formation at St. Mary Seminary, at rkarstedt@smseminary