“God Created Me a Deaf Person for His Glory.”

23 02 2009

Father Tom Coughlin began seriously thinking about a priestly vocation in high school when his eighth grade teacher, a Sister, gave him the book, “Burnt Out Incense” by Father Raymond, O.C.S.O. When he decided to pursue the idea of becoming a priest, little did he realize how long and winding the road would be.

n began seriously thinking about a priestly vocation in high school when his eighth grade teacher, a Sister, gave him the book, “Burnt Out Incense” by Father Raymond, O.C.S.O. When he decided to pursue the idea of becoming a priest, little did he realize how long and winding the road would be.

He began applying to various seminaries after he graduated from high school and each turned him down because he is deaf. He even approached the Carmelites and was refused due to the fact he could not participate in their choral office. He went on to graduate from Gallaudet University* in 1972 with a BA in English and in 1976 obtained his MA in Religious Studies from Catholic University. He entered the Trinitarians in 1972 and was ordained by Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan of Baltimore in 1977, thus becoming the first deaf priest to be ordained in the United States.

 

Father Tom Coughlin

Father Tom Coughlin

It was at this time that Fr. Tom began a Catholic camp for youth and adults called Camp Mark Seven. He worked as a home missionary priest for the International Catholic Deaf Association for four years.

In 1985, he left the Trinitarians and was transferred to the Honolulu Diocese where he was assigned as chaplain for the deaf in 1987. In the process, he also earned a nursing degree as he was not able to find a nurse who could sign at his camp for deaf children because one was required in order for it to stay open. In 1993, he joined the Dominicans and later left after temporary vows. Cardinal O’Connor of New York invited Fr. Tom to set up a House of Studies for deaf seminarians in Yonkers, New York. The program was transferred to the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2002 at the death of Cardinal O’Conner. Bishop Allen Vigneron of the Oakland Diocese erected Fr. Tom’s deaf community to the status of Private Association of the Faithful – one of the first steps in the creation of a creation of a religious institute. As result, the community moved from San Francisco to Oakland. In 2007 the community moved from California to San Antonio, Texas as the cost of living there was too high.

During those years, he met with so much opposition before and after ordination that he almost quit. “Most people were not prepared to welcome a deaf person. I was all alone but the vocation director Father Joseph Lupo told me ‘You have to open the door. You have to suffer so others won’t.’ And I saw his point. Following Christ you have to make sacrifices. One has to enter the mystery of suffering in order to pray better. Mary, Joseph, the apostles all suffered but they understood the meaning of God’s love.”

Another person who was supportive was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, now the former master general of the Dominican Order. He was the one who suggested that Fr. Tom start his own Dominican community for the deaf. Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the United States, also gave his support to Fr. Tom’s effort to start a community that would minister to the deaf.**

What has become of Fr. Tom’s move to San Antonio? As he puts it, “The vocations are coming to us.” That translates to nine members. One is in theology and hopefully will be ordained in about two years. There are three novices, one postulant, two are in philosophy and one is earning a master’s in Spanish. As all of the prayers and formation is done in sign language, if someone is interested he would have to proficient in signing in order to join.

Fr. Tom’s statement about vocations also refers to the fact that he is in contact with ten men who are interested in joining. At present, the down side to this community is that they depend one hundred percent on donations. And with today’s economy, that can be a real struggle. Along with his regular duties, Fr. Tom has been asked to officiate at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. When I ask him what his usual stipend was for administering these sacraments outside his usual commitments to deaf communities in Austin, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi, he replied that he sometimes has had to pay his own way as often these people are very poor.

When our conversation came back to his community and vocations, he mentioned that at the present his house is full. However, he is very interested in admitting more men so that the deaf in other cities such as Chicago and New York can benefit from their charism. For those who are not familiar with that term, it means gift. God gives a special gift or charism to each religious community to live out. And for Fr. Tom, that is best part of his ministry. He described it simply, “The Word became Flesh. In sign language God’s word is more clear’ not just verbal but made flesh. This is our charism.” Fr. Tom also commented, “I am profoundly grateful to Bishop Allen Vigeron for his support in helping to start my community for the deaf.”

There is also an everyday, ordinary reality that profound theology of the Incarnation. When I asked Fr. Tom what he thought the most important item he wanted people to know about ministering to the hearing impaired, he paused for a long moment. Direct and to the point, he replied, “To communicate in sign language. Deaf people shy away because speaking with voice is so difficult to communicate with the deaf.”

Like the various other cultures which enrich the American Church, deaf culture can also be a rewarding experience when approached with an open heart and respect. In fact, places I visited where the deaf and hard of hearing gather, I found were busy and active as well as inviting. I also found that learning only a few signs like hello and thank you went a long way in establishing a relationship.

While a definite deaf culture does exist outside my convent, in one sense, I also live in a deaf culture of sorts as I have been influenced by a number of my community sisters with various levels of hearing loss. One sister in her nineties teaches me how to stay young at heart thanks to her head-set hooked up to her small screen television. As a result she never misses a Notre Dame football game. Another sister in her eighties helped me become a better verbal poet. For her I had to choose my words carefully and as tersely as possible. Profoundly hard of hearing, she still relished conversation and interaction with the younger sisters. Those of us who took the time to be with her were enriched with her spiritual insight and great sense of humor. The operative word here is time.

Those experiences spilled over into my meeting the various deaf and hard of hearing women at the Diocese of Corpus Christi Office for Persons with a Disability. While there I discovered how eager they are to learn new skills as their hands danced like beautiful butterflies. This meeting helped me research a story for National Deaf Awareness Week. And as stories and meeting are wont to do, that story led to this one on Fr. Tom and after this story, there is no telling where this adventure will end. During Fr. Tom’s interview, he commented, “The deaf are still marginalized. They don’t know how to tell their stories. And that is important.” In the end, isn’t that’s what we all want—to tell our story and have someone really listen. But for someone to be there to truly listen, the question remains, “Who will respond to God’s invitation like Isaiah who said, ‘Here I am, send me.’?”

Litany in Honor of St. Francis de Sales, Patron of the Deaf

For the Church, that we may become more aware of the great giftedness of those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us. For the Church, that we may like Christ, reach out and empower those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us. For each local Church, that we may respond with care and respect to the needs of those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us. For an increase of religious vocations to and by those with disabilities. — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us.

*Gallaudet University is the world’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing. It is located in Washington, D.C. **To learn more about Fr. Tom’s community go to Dominicanmissionaries.org.

Important Religious and Secular Facts about the Deaf and the Hearing Impaired (nationally, state, and locally in my own area)

There are 5.7 million deaf or hearing impaired Catholics in the United States and only four percent of them attend Mass. I found in another article that a study that was done in 1961 found that 22 percent of American Deaf Catholics practiced their faith.

As of 2008, there are only nine deaf priests who serve this segment of the Church and only two deaf seminarians studying for the priesthood. One of these seminarians will be ordained in May of 2009 in San Francisco. The first deaf priest in South Korea studied here in the United States.

The Corpus Christi Diocese population is 392,430 of a total population of 560,614. When I asked Celia Mendez of the Office for Persons with a Disability the approximate number of deaf or hearing impaired persons in diocese, she said she didn’t know as many of the hearing impaired go to other faiths who are able to do more for them. Sad to say, Catholics with a disability are really feeling the pinch of the priest shortage. With priests already stretched very thin in terms of their many responsibilities, as a result, even with the best of intentions; persons with disabilities are often given little or no spiritual nourishment.

In the United States, there are approximately 1.2 million hearing impaired persons under the age of 18.

According the website http://www.deafunderstanding.com: “Approximately 1 of every 1,000 infants is born deaf while 6 of every 1,000 are born with some degree of hearing loss.” “93 percent of deaf children are born into hearing families; only 7 percent are born into deaf families.

In 1994, the National Institute on Deafness and Communications Disorders reported that 28 million people had significant hearing loss. Some 500,000-750,000 people had a profound hearing loss and some 10 million people had permanent hearing loss due to loud noise. The third most widely used language in the United States is American Sign Language. In Texas, 17 percent of the population age 18 and over have some level of difficulty in hearing. Vinton Cerf, “the father of the Internet” is partially deaf. The number of deaf/hard of hearing people in Nueces County is approximately 3,000. Last, but not least, for a young woman who would be interested in religious life and is hearing impaired, she can contact: Sr. Marianne Keena, CSJ., Vocation Director at http://www.csjsl.org . Her community came from France to the United States in order to teach the deaf.

He began applying to various seminaries after he graduated from high school and each turned him down because he is deaf. He even approached the Carmelites and was refused due to the fact he could not participate in their choral office. He went on to graduate from Gallaudet University* in 1972 with a BA in English and in 1976 obtained his MA in Religious Studies from Catholic University. He entered the Trinitarians in 1972 and was ordained by Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan of Baltimore in 1977, thus becoming the first deaf priest to be ordained in the United States.

It was at this time that Fr. Tom began a Catholic camp for youth and adults called Camp Mark Seven. He worked as a home missionary priest for the International Catholic Deaf Association for four years.

In 1985, he left the Trinitarians and was transferred to the Honolulu Diocese where he was assigned as chaplain for the deaf in 1987. In the process, he also earned a nursing degree as he was not able to find a nurse who could sign at his camp for deaf children because one was required in order for it to stay open. In 1993, he joined the Dominicans and later left after temporary vows. Cardinal O’Connor of New York invited Fr. Tom to set up a House of Studies for deaf seminarians in Yonkers, New York. The program was transferred to the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2002 at the death of Cardinal O’Conner. Bishop Allen Vigneron of the Oakland Diocese erected Fr. Tom’s deaf community to the status of Private Association of the Faithful – one of the first steps in the creation of a creation of a religious institute. As result, the community moved from San Francisco to Oakland. In 2007 the community moved from California to San Antonio, Texas as the cost of living there was too high.

During those years, he met with so much opposition before and after ordination that he almost quit. “Most people were not prepared to welcome a deaf person. I was all alone but the vocation director Father Joseph Lupo told me ‘You have to open the door. You have to suffer so others won’t.’ And I saw his point. Following Christ you have to make sacrifices. One has to enter the mystery of suffering in order to pray better. Mary, Joseph, the apostles all suffered but they understood the meaning of God’s love.”

Another person who was supportive was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, now the former master general of the Dominican Order. He was the one who suggested that Fr. Tom start his own Dominican community for the deaf. Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the United States, also gave his support to Fr. Tom’s effort to start a community that would minister to the deaf.**

What has become of Fr. Tom’s move to San Antonio? As he puts it, “The vocations are coming to us.” That translates to nine members. One is in theology and hopefully will be ordained in about two years. There are three novices, one postulant, two are in philosophy and one is earning a master’s in Spanish. As all of the prayers and formation is done in sign language, if someone is interested he would have to proficient in signing in order to join.

Fr. Tom’s statement about vocations also refers to the fact that he is in contact with ten men who are interested in joining. At present, the down side to this community is that they depend one hundred percent on donations. And with today’s economy, that can be a real struggle. Along with his regular duties, Fr. Tom has been asked to officiate at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. When I ask him what his usual stipend was for administering these sacraments outside his usual commitments to deaf communities in Austin, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi, he replied that he sometimes has had to pay his own way as often these people are very poor.

When our conversation came back to his community and vocations, he mentioned that at the present his house is full. However, he is very interested in admitting more men so that the deaf in other cities such as Chicago and New York can benefit from their charism. For those who are not familiar with that term, it means gift. God gives a special gift or charism to each religious community to live out. And for Fr. Tom, that is best part of his ministry. He described it simply, “The Word became Flesh. In sign language God’s word is more clear’ not just verbal but made flesh. This is our charism.” Fr. Tom also commented, “I am profoundly grateful to Bishop Allen Vigeron for his support in helping to start my community for the deaf.”

There is also an everyday, ordinary reality that profound theology of the Incarnation. When I asked Fr. Tom what he thought the most important item he wanted people to know about ministering to the hearing impaired, he paused for a long moment. Direct and to the point, he replied, “To communicate in sign language. Deaf people shy away because speaking with voice is so difficult to communicate with the deaf.”

Like the various other cultures which enrich the American Church, deaf culture can also be a rewarding experience when approached with an open heart and respect. In fact, places I visited where the deaf and hard of hearing gather, I found were busy and active as well as inviting. I also found that learning only a few signs like hello and thank you went a long way in establishing a relationship.

While a definite deaf culture does exist outside my convent, in one sense, I also live in a deaf culture of sorts as I have been influenced by a number of my community sisters with various levels of hearing loss. One sister in her nineties teaches me how to stay young at heart thanks to her head-set hooked up to her small screen television. As a result she never misses a Notre Dame football game. Another sister in her eighties helped me become a better verbal poet. For her I had to choose my words carefully and as tersely as possible. Profoundly hard of hearing, she still relished conversation and interaction with the younger sisters. Those of us who took the time to be with her were enriched with her spiritual insight and great sense of humor. The operative word here is time.

Those experiences spilled over into my meeting the various deaf and hard of hearing women at the Diocese of Corpus Christi Office for Persons with a Disability. While there I discovered how eager they are to learn new skills as their hands danced like beautiful butterflies. This meeting helped me research a story for National Deaf Awareness Week. And as stories and meeting are wont to do, that story led to this one on Fr. Tom and after this story, there is no telling where this adventure will end. During Fr. Tom’s interview, he commented, “The deaf are still marginalized. They don’t know how to tell their stories. And that is important.” In the end, isn’t that’s what we all want—to tell our story and have someone really listen. But for someone to be there to truly listen, the question remains, “Who will respond to God’s invitation like Isaiah who said, ‘Here I am, send me.’?”

Litany in Honor of St. Francis de Sales, Patron of the Deaf

For the Church, that we may become more aware of the great giftedness of those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us. For the Church, that we may like Christ, reach out and empower those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us. For each local Church, that we may respond with care and respect to the needs of those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us. For an increase of religious vocations to and by those with disabilities. — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us.

*Gallaudet University is the world’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing. It is located in Washington, D.C. **To learn more about Fr. Tom’s community go to Dominicanmissionaries.org.

Important Religious and Secular Facts about the Deaf and the Hearing Impaired (nationally, state, and locally in my own area)

There are 5.7 million deaf or hearing impaired Catholics in the United States and only four percent of them attend Mass. I found in another article that a study that was done in 1961 found that 22 percent of American Deaf Catholics practiced their faith.

As of 2008, there are only nine deaf priests who serve this segment of the Church and only two deaf seminarians studying for the priesthood. One of these seminarians will be ordained in May of 2009 in San Francisco. The first deaf priest in South Korea studied here in the United States.

The Corpus Christi Diocese population is 392,430 of a total population of 560,614. When I asked Celia Mendez of the Office for Persons with a Disability the approximate number of deaf or hearing impaired persons in diocese, she said she didn’t know as many of the hearing impaired go to other faiths who are able to do more for them. Sad to say, Catholics with a disability are really feeling the pinch of the priest shortage. With priests already stretched very thin in terms of their many responsibilities, as a result, even with the best of intentions; persons with disabilities are often given little or no spiritual nourishment.

In the United States, there are approximately 1.2 million hearing impaired persons under the age of 18.

According the website http://www.deafunderstanding.com: “Approximately 1 of every 1,000 infants is born deaf while 6 of every 1,000 are born with some degree of hearing loss.” “93 percent of deaf children are born into hearing families; only 7 percent are born into deaf families.

In 1994, the National Institute on Deafness and Communications Disorders reported that 28 million people had significant hearing loss. Some 500,000-750,000 people had a profound hearing loss and some 10 million people had permanent hearing loss due to loud noise. The third most widely used language in the United States is American Sign Language. In Texas, 17 percent of the population age 18 and over have some level of difficulty in hearing. Vinton Cerf, “the father of the Internet” is partially deaf. The number of deaf/hard of hearing people in Nueces County is approximately 3,000. Last, but not least, for a young woman who would be interested in religious life and is hearing impaired, she can contact: Sr. Marianne Keena, CSJ., Vocation Director at http://www.csjsl.org . Her community came from France to the United States in order to teach the deaf.

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