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A parish of one’s own in deaf community

NCR Staff
Vernon, Calif.

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, you’re 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 you’re listening to people on a cheap, 1960s plastic transistor radio: ra-ra-ra. I’m 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. That’s when St. Martha’s Church was built. As the city industrialized and the population dwindled, so did St. Martha’s 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. Martha’s, 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 parish’s 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 he’d helped build the community to a sustainable level. He’s 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 priest’s 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 church’s 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 they’re 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. He’s the husband of Jan McGloin, Holy Angel’s parish administrator. She’s hearing impaired.

Holy Angel’s deacon-in-preparation, David Rose, who does some of the readings at the signed English Mass, will be the archdiocese’s first deaf person to go through the regular diaconate program. Other key parish staffers include Christina Jimenez, liturgical coordinator, Jim Sweeney, who’s 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 center’s 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 Schweitzer’s 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 don’t 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 aren’t 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, don’t rule it out.

Mass at Holy Angels joyful, reverent

The priest was unyielding. He gripped the wheel, gritted his teeth and wouldn’t slow down so the driver to his left could cut in ahead to exit the freeway. The congregation laughed knowingly.

Fr. Tom Schweitzer was on the altar signing and speaking -- describing the highway scene to make the point that “what goes around comes around. If we slow down for others and let them in, maybe the next time someone will slow down and let us in.”

From that example, he built up the homily to the many ways of caring and watching out for the needs of others. He led to the point that Christians don’t always see the results of their compassion and caring. Schweitzer stressed they should not necessarily look for results. Give, act and do because it is the right thing, he said.

Many in the congregation at the Holy Angels Church of the Deaf in Vernon, Calif., silently raised hands and gestured -- they were applauding.

A Mass for the deaf is different, in some respects more reverential. When the deaf sign God, they look heavenwards. Hearing people, by contrast, say God and generally look ahead to the altar or down to the pages of their missals.

The quiet interludes at a deaf Mass are intriguing -- the children happily signing during the petitions for prayers for family and friends with birthdays. Adults more somberly sign for prayers for those who are sick and in need.

The music, felt rather than heard, offers a homily of its own.

One selection Larry McGloin played was a tape-recorded liturgical plainsong. The medieval chant-master who inspired it could never have imagined his work wafting out electronically -- particularly to an audience that could not hear it because they are deaf.

They enjoyed it, nonetheless.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001