Signing at Mass: Father Peter Monty, S.J., chaplain at the Manitoba Catholic Church of the Deaf in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Music from the child's toy rang out cheerily during Mass that morning in Winnipeg.
A few smiles were exchanged, but as minutes passed with the music still chiming, no attempt was made to hush its tune, and until Father Peter Monty, S.J., chaplain at the Manitoba Catholic Church of the Deaf, gently asked that it be turned off for the benefit of those who could hear, many seated around the happy child as she played with her toy had been unaware of its merry tune.
With a smile, Father Monty made that request in American Sign Language-the same language he uses to celebrate Mass for his deaf community.
Up to 65 people of all ages gather weekly for Sunday Mass at the Deaf Centre Manitoba, in Winnipeg. Most are low income-employed, on welfare or disability allowance. Many have severe handicaps such as cerebral palsy, blindness or are mentally or emotionally challenged, in addition to being deaf.
Chief organizer and guiding spirit behind the ministry at St. Francis de Sales, says Fr. Monty, is Sister Olive Fiola, M.O.
Sr. Fiola learned American Sign Language in the mid-'60s, when she was given the names of Catholic deaf people in the Winnipeg area. Weekly Mass was offered shortly afterwards for the deaf community by the then chaplain, Father Jean Paul Aubry, O.M.I.
Only a few people attended in those early days; the deaf community was isolated and scattered, and with no telephones or televisions, communication was difficult. But Sr. Fiola visited 65 families who were deaf Catholics and parents of deaf students who attended her weekly religion classes at the Manitoba School for the Deaf.
In 1975, St. Francis de Sales moved into the newly-built Deaf Centre Manitoba, and since then, Sr. Fiola says there's been a fairly steady attendance. "We have over ten nationalities in our church," she says. "We share the deaf culture. We worship and socialize together. A few Sundays ago, when Jesus met the Canaanite woman, Jesus included us-I could see the church members smiling!"
Two of those church members are Harry Wargaty and his hearing sister Jessie Bain, mother of two deaf sons.
Sr. Fiola explains that Harry and Jessie had five brothers - all of whom were deaf. She remembers how the brothers left their farm and arrived at the Centre all on the same day. Two Oblate sisters had earlier met the brothers and been to the lake near their farm. The two sisters returned to Winnipeg saying that the lake was named "Dummy Lake."
Sr. Fiola immediately wrote to the Mayor's Office saying that, while the brothers may be different from neighbours, they were not dumb. The letter must have reached its destination because soon after, Sr. Fiola says, the lake's name was changed to Blue Lake. "What a blessing!" she says.
One of today's blessings at St. Francis de Sales are Bible studies for children aged 7 to 11. Eight children and their mothers attended the sessions from March 2007 to June 2008. Children and mothers are both hearing and deaf, and it's a must that mothers attend. Children learn where to find passages in the Bible, and are given a binder in which they can write and draw themselves and their families with Jesus and in Bible scenes. Under Sr. Fiola's guidance, children and moms also act out Gospel passages.
"The Gospel becomes present in their lives," says Sr. Fiola, "because we act out the Gospel here."
One of the mothers is Anne Ware, mother of 11-year-old Alexander (also nicknamed A.J.), 13-year-old Courtney and 9-year-old Thomas. "This was the light at the end of the tunnel," Anne says. A.J. is deaf, and the family has been part of the St. Francis de Sales community for about a year. "We've felt a connection here since day one," she explains. "It's a supportive community and a great comfort. Our family is learning sign language together. It's important for Alexander to see adults here signing." Ministries at St. Francis de Sales, says Anne, made it possible for Alexander to make his First Communion.
Sacramental preparation is offered at St. Francis de Sales for baptism, reconciliation, First Communion, Confirmation, marriage preparation, as well as pastoral counselling. Sr. Fiola remembers how an aboriginal deaf woman, after attending religion classes, expressed her desire to become Catholic. She followed the year-long RCIA program, and received the sacraments at the Easter vigil. She later married a deaf man and they now have three children-all of whom were baptized at St. Francis de Sales.
"This is a unique and very important ministry," Sr. Fiola says. "I have met former Catholics who, because a priest could not sign, got married in other churches."
Newlyweds Liette and Raymond Gervais are active St. Francis de Sales parishioners: Liette, as a part-time pastoral worker who helps sign at Masses, and Raymond, as an altar server. "We come here," Liette writes, "to come close to God, to focus on God, and to have quiet time with Him."
Edith Anderson is a long-time parishioner at St. Francis de Sales. "When I was small," she writes, "Mom took me to church. I didn't understand. It was boring. In 1967 or 1968, the Church of the Deaf started and I came. It's a wonderful community."
Sr. Fiola says that she learns from her deaf community much more than they learn from her. "I feel love and, being loved and accepted, I feel gifted by God, and I feel belonging. Without these, a person cannot live fully."
Echoing Edith's gratitude, Sr. Fiola adds, "Without Catholic Missions In Canada, our church could not survive because most of our members have very small salaries-if they are working. We are fortunate to receive financial support from Catholic Missions In Canada's donors. Blessed are you!"
(Anne Hanley is a national development assistant at Catholic Missions In Canada.)