A parish of ones own in deaf community
By ARTHUR JONES
Fr. Tom Schweitzer, baseball cap on head, a statue of an angel in the shrubbery behind him, tipped back slightly in the plastic chair. The chair was one of two dozen around little white tables on the canopy-shielded courtyard, an outdoor area behind the church that accommodates the overflow crowds from breakfast, lunch and religious education classes.
You know what deaf Catholics most want in their own Catholic church? Schweitzer asked rhetorically. The keys. In every other parish, deaf people always have to ask for the keys when they want to use the rooms.
Not at Holy Angels, he said. Lots of people have keys.
Schweitzer understands. Born hearing, he was 10 when his hearing began to deteriorate. By the time he was in high school he was seriously hard-of-hearing; in seminary he was deaf. The difference between hard-of-hearing and deaf, he said, is that once you can no longer use the telephone, youre deaf. He stopped using the phone in 1982.
Now 45, the Los Angeles-born priest was deaf for 18 years. Then, four months ago, he had a cochlear implant, a minute electronic device that has given him some of his hearing back. Not complaining but explaining, he said, It sounds like youre listening to people on a cheap, 1960s plastic transistor radio: ra-ra-ra. Im just now beginning to distinguish voices again.
The city of Vernon, where Schweitzer is pastor of Holy Angels Church of the Deaf, is an enigma even by Los Angeles County standards. It has 58 residents in its five-square miles. A dismal area of metal and brick flat-front industrial sheds and buildings, Vernon is given over to warehouses, machine shops, auto body shops and other enterprises operated by its 5,500 daytime workers who pour into it off the nearby freeways. Eighty years ago, this was all farmland. Thats when St. Marthas Church was built. As the city industrialized and the population dwindled, so did St. Marthas congregation.
Then, in the 1980s, Fr. Brian Doran, who worked in deaf ministry in Los Angeles, successfully proposed to the then-new archbishop (now cardinal), Roger Mahony, that the archdiocese establish a deaf parish. Mahony bought it. There are an estimated 30,000 deaf Catholics, 1 percent of the total Catholic population of 3 million in the archdiocese.
Doran looked around for possibilities. The location had to be physically safe, because the deaf are particularly vulnerable to street violence. St. Marthas, though a small church, was convenient to several key interstates. That was vital in an auto-oriented, sprawling archdiocese that covers 8,700 square miles. The old parishs few remaining parishioners were incorporated into a new church nearby, and the existing structure was announced as Holy Angels in 1987.
Why the name Holy Angels? Why not Frances de Sales, patron saint of the deaf? Schweitzer laughed. Well, he replied, Holy Angels is easier to sign than St. Francis de Sales.
After refurbishing, the church reopened in 1988 with Doran as pastor. By the early 1990s, Brian and I were co-pastors, Schweitzer said. Doran transferred out in 1998 when he felt hed helped build the community to a sustainable level. Hes now archdiocesan director for clergy formation and helps with deaf ministry in Orange County.
Schweitzer led a conducted tour through the compact, 180-seat church, which has two Masses in American Sign Language -- one at 8:45 a.m. that is spoken in English; another at 11:15 a.m. spoken in Spanish. Between 200 and 300 attend the Masses each Sunday.
The major sanctuary furnishings -- the altar, the pulpit stand -- are lower than in the usual church to allow the congregation to easily see the priests and readers hands. The walls behind the altar are in a muted burgundy material, dark and nonreflective.
Schweitzer explained there should be no strong light or glare behind a person signing because over time someone watching would get a headache.
The churchs artwork is subtle. A Bernini crucifix in the center and a portrait of Our Lady of Sorrows to the right are etched in glass and lighted from the side. That means the illustrations have an art deco-like soft-green glow. There is an etched window to the left revealing the room where an ornate tabernacle stands.
Probably 65 percent of the parishioners are immigrants, primarily Mexican- and Central-American, said the priest, and the ornate tabernacle would be a comforting visual reminder of the church furnishings theyre accustomed to. The church has solid oak floors with stout wooden-legged chairs to help conduct the sound, or at least vibrations, of taped liturgical music. The music is coordinated during Mass in the former choir loft by Larry McGloin. Hes the husband of Jan McGloin, Holy Angels parish administrator. Shes hearing impaired.
Holy Angels deacon-in-preparation, David Rose, who does some of the readings at the signed English Mass, will be the archdioceses first deaf person to go through the regular diaconate program. Other key parish staffers include Christina Jimenez, liturgical coordinator, Jim Sweeney, whos served on the finance committee, the parish council and other groups, and Hilda Jimenez, hall manager and liaison with the Spanish-speaking parents.
The hall is where massgoers can buy breakfast and lunch. Sundays at Holy Angels are an all-day family affair. It is the weekly opportunity for deaf and hearing-impaired Catholics, along with their hearing family members, to gather and learn.
The small parish centers few rooms are crowded as deaf and hearing-impaired children prepare for first Communion and confirmation, or attend Sunday school. Equally important, there is Sunday school for their hearing siblings, for Holy Angels is essentially a family gathering, and usually only one member of a family is deaf.
I think our common goal as hearing and deaf, native born and immigrant, high educated and low educated, is to try to make Holy Angels a place where everyone is family and is comfortable being here. I know that may sound like a cliché, said Schweitzer, but it is a real thing for us.
Schweitzer has visions beyond Sunday Eucharist and lunchtime burritos at Holy Angels. There is a major academic program for the deaf in the Valley (San Fernando Valley) at CalState Northridge.
The priest would like to make the connection between the two communities -- Holy Angels and Northridge, with some sort of outreach program. It would take a major commitment from a Valley parish to make it work, he said.
Also on Schweitzers wish list is a transportation system. Ninety percent of the deaf are unchurched, he said, and we need to evangelize beyond ourselves, bringing witness to the larger deaf community. We need to be able to pick up the older and younger deaf who dont have transportation.
An acute transportation bind, he explained, is that deaf drivers cannot get the Class B licenses to carry more than 12 passengers. You have to be able to hear a whisper five feet away.
So some people say, Why not have interpreters in all the churches? But the deaf arent much interested in that, he said. They want community. With two or three vans and drivers, he said, he could bring into the Holy Angels community dozens more deaf people from the surrounding towns.
He rubbed his chin and smiled. Something about his half grin said, dont rule it out.
National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001