Fr. Christopher Klusman, one of five deaf priests in the United States, was named the Reverend Walsh Pastoral Worker of the Year by the National Catholic Office for the Deaf. He received the award from Minette Sternke, the newly elected President of the NCOD. (Photo by Rachel Uchytil)

Fr. Christopher Klusman’s trademark big smile and double thumbs up were on full display the evening of Saturday, Feb. 17, at St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Milwaukee.

Fr. Klusman was awarded the Reverend Walsh Pastoral Worker of the Year Award for his outstanding service to the Catholic Deaf and hard of hearing community, which was awarded by the National Catholic Office for the Deaf.

“I kept telling everyone that it was a dream come true,” said Fr. Klusman, who is the Director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Deaf Apostolate. “I kept wondering (over and over) if it was a dream or not, as I kept pinching myself on the arm. It truly meant so much to me in so many ways, more than words could ever express.”

Minette Sternke, the newly elected President of the NCOD, said, “In selecting Fr. Klusman for this award, the board made note of the fact that he is a ‘kind and tender-hearted priest,’ and his significant involvement in many things related to Deaf ministry. His nominators noted that his retreats and workshops are particularly spiritually rewarding.  Most of all, he has been a tremendous channel of God’s peace and healing to the Deaf community in Milwaukee.  His humble nature and actions, and his constant prioritization of the Deaf community over his own needs, speak so well to his leadership within Catholic Deaf ministry.”

Some of the activities and projects the NCOD noted were the ASL YouCat project with the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, young adult groups, men’s groups, Deaf Cursillo and the International Catholic Deaf Association.  They also noted his organization of trips to Steubenville with Deaf youth, catechesis programs such as liturgical signs and Mariology, and support for interpreters.

Fr. Klusman provides regular retreat days and prayer opportunities to the Deaf Catholic community in Milwaukee, and also regularly travels up to Green Bay to provide for the pastoral needs of the Deaf community in that area.  He is also willing to travel to other areas in the country to provide retreats when his time allows. His involvement in the ASL YouCat and other projects has provided additional catechesis resources for the Deaf community that can be used throughout the U.S. and internationally. He is very well known within the Deaf Catholic community through his involvement with NCOD and is a sought-after retreat leader.

The NCOD annual conference was held in early February in Houston, but Fr. Klusman wasn’t able to attend. He appeared on a big screen via Zoom at the conference to share his gratitude. Fr. Shawn Carey, a deaf priest for the Archdiocese of Boston, who is also on the NCOD Board, gave the introduction for the award.

“It was a special memory that I’ll keep close in my heart,” Fr. Klusman said.

A couple of weeks later, Sternke braved snowy conditions and drove up from Champaign, Illinois, to present the award in person.

“I mentioned how generous and kind it was of her to take the time to make the long trip,” Fr. Klusman said.

At present, there are five deaf priests in the U.S.  There is one deaf man in seminary who will be ordained a transitional deacon in May 2024.  Sternke also said there are a number of hearing priests who are fluent in ASL who minister to the Deaf community. There are three deaf permanent deacons in the US.

“Our community is constantly praying for an increase in vocations within the Deaf community,” Sternke said. “Given the amount of formation necessary to ordain priests, we also pray for an increase in hearing priests/seminarians who are willing to learn ASL and minister to the community.”

The National Catholic Office for the Deaf was founded by the Rev. David Walsh in 1971 to strengthen pastoral ministry to Catholics who are deaf or hard of hearing.