ST. FRANCIS — On Feb. 12, 1911, 30 adult Catholics came together in the Milwaukee Archdiocese to continue their Christian duties “for their souls’ sake.” They were a group of deaf and hard of hearing adults trying to continue their Catholic education in an otherwise hearing world.
Fr. Eugene Gehl, a priest of the archdiocese, helped them form the organization and together they elected officers. At the end of the meeting, they held in their organization’s account a balance of $12.25. They called themselves the Ephpheta Sodality of St. John the Baptist, “Ephpheta” meaning “be open” from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7, when Jesus healed the deaf man. St. John the Baptist was chosen because he was the patron saint of St. John’s Institute for the Deaf and Mute (known today as St. John’s School for the Deaf).
One hundred years later, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011, a celebration took place to commemorate the anniversary at the Cousins Center with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, followed by a reception for the nearly 100 members, friends, family and religious who came to support the organization.
Community is based on faith
“There is only one sense that offers us total fulfillment of God, and that’s the heart,” said Archbishop Listecki during his homily. “And that is a language that all Christians must speak. It’s the singular language of reaching out to our brothers and sisters in and through the love that God gives through every one of us.
“As the new archbishop of this wonderful archdiocese, I have been learning the history of this archdiocese, and learning in particular communities that make up the wonders of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and one particular community that reflects a great deal of love and a great deal of the sense of Christ’s presence, is your community,” he said.
“Your community manifests what the Lord is telling us to do in the Gospel … you’ve created a community – a community that is based on faith.”
Although it has been a century since the first meeting of the Ephpheta Sodality of St. John the Baptist, its mission remains as strong as ever, according to Margaret Calteaux, a member and co-chairperson of the centennial celebration.
“One of our purposes of our organization is to promote a Christian bond of unity among the deaf and hard of hearing Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” Calteaux, also deaf, explained in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. “Also, one purpose is to be actively engaged in all good works pertaining to the religious, charitable, educational and social advancement of the deaf and hard of hearing of all ages in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.”
Main focus is support for members
The Ephpheta Sodality began with two groups: the gentlemen section and the ladies section, in which the former took care of the business aspect and the latter focused on the wellbeing of members. As more people joined the organization, several committees were formed to plan picnics, entertainment, visits to the sick, formation of annual mission trips and scheduling various archdiocesan priests to visit and talk about church teachings.
According to records, in 1951 the organization joined the International Catholic Deaf Association, an organization meant to unite, worship, advocate, learn and evangelize in American Sign Language Culture. Ephpheta Sodality became the Milwaukee Chapter #7, and many times hosted ICDA conventions throughout the years. While that tradition may have evolved, support for the deaf and hard of hearing community remains the focus.
“Right now we are going through some phases where there are more and more deaf and hard of hearing people being mainstreamed in the public schools,” Calteaux explained. “That’s been a challenge for us to reach out to them and promote to them about our organization, that we do have a support group, if you will, for the deaf and hard of hearing Catholics.”
In addition, they are also forming a partnership with the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministry office to help spread their services further.
Provides connection to Catholic faith
“I have been a member of this organization since 1987 and I’ve seen the changes, the growth and the diversity among our community,” Calteaux said. She recently received her certification in ministry formation programs, and this May will receive a master’s degree in pastoral ministry specializing in deaf and hard of hearing ministry.
“With that background and that involvement that I have, I would like to provide services for the deaf and hard of hearing Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” she explained.
Calteaux said many deaf and hard of hearing Catholics who join the Ephpheta Sodality are connected to their Catholic faith through resources available through the organization in two media.
“One is only for the deaf and hard of hearing, and the other one is that we want to provide interpreters and be part of the entire Catholic community,” she explained about services offered through Ephpheta Sodality.
John Reske, a deaf and blind parishioner at St. Matthias, Milwaukee, was at the celebration and explained through sign language interpretation how the organization has helped him feel connected to his Catholic faith.
“I grew up Catholic. I always went to a Catholic Church, I was born a Catholic in my family, so I’ve always been faithful and church has always been a priority to me,” he signed. “I always continue to grow with my faith and it’s really a positive thing having a deaf organization for the Catholic Church. I’m hoping that we actually have more people join our organization, that they can grow with us and grow in their faith. It would be really great and positive for the community…”
Reske encouraged deaf and hard of hearing cradle Catholics who have fallen away from their faith to come back to the church.
“Really, just for the deaf community that doesn’t go to church I would just encourage them to come and try it, and see what church is all about. Just reserve some time to come and spend some time with the Lord, to grow with us as a community,” he added.
Deaf need ‘opportunity to become leaders’
Deacon Christopher Klusman, 34, is the first deaf seminarian in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. While his road to the priesthood has been difficult, it’s one he wouldn’t trade. He will be ordained a priest in May.
“The experience has been wonderful, extremely positive. There have been challenges and bumps in the road along the way, but it’s overall been very positive,” he signed.
As a member of the Ephpheta Sodality, he feels the organization helps fill a need for deaf Catholics.
“The organization is beautiful because it gives the deaf the opportunity to become leaders. They can practice leadership skills for this organization, they can feel like they can contribute their skills to other people’s, to the church, to the archdiocese, because we really don’t have too many opportunities for them to feel inspired and for them to feel like they’re worth offering their diverse gifts to this community,” he said.