Communicating in American Sign Language, Deacon David Sommers leads the Bible study class at St. Andrew Parish in Delavan during a gathering earlier this year. A Bible study for the deaf is one of the outreach efforts at St. Andrew. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Waking to the buzz of Saturday morning lawn mowers, hearing elevator music and listening to the homily during Sunday morning Mass are sounds often taken for granted.

While some parishes offer an interpreter to sign and speak with their hands to the deaf population, most deaf and hearing-impaired Catholics sit in silence, paging through the missalette, possibly wondering what is going on or feeling left out or choosing not to attend Mass at all. Comparatively few resources are available to assist the deaf in worship or within the Catholic community. The hearing members do the readings, music is designed for those who can listen to the tones and in some cases an interpreter signs what the priest is saying.

In an attempt to address the needs of the Catholic deaf community worldwide, the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry organized a Nov. 19-21 conference held at the Vatican, “The Deaf Person in the Life of the Church.” (See accompanying story, Page 7)

In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ministry to the deaf and hard of hearing community is part of the intercultural ministry overseen by Eva Diaz.

Masses for the deaf/hard of hearing

Saturdays – weekly

St. Joseph, 1533 Erie St.,
Racine, 4:30 p.m. (interpreted)

St. Joseph, 1619 Washington St., Grafton, 4 p.m. (First Saturday of the month only) (interpreted)

Blessed Trinity, 327 Giddings Ave., Sheboygan Falls, 4 p.m. (Second, fourth Saturdays of the month only) (interpreted)


Immaculate Conception, 1610 Monroe St., West Bend, 10 a.m. (Second Sunday of the month only) (interpreted)

St. Joseph, 1619 Washington St., Grafton, 10:30 a.m. (Third Sunday of the month only) (interpreted)

St. Paul the Apostle, 6400 Sprint St., Racine, 10:30 a.m. (interpreted)

St. Joseph, 824 N. East Ave., Waukesha, 9:30 a.m. (interpreted)

St. Peter, 2224 30th Ave.,Kenosha, 9:30 a.m. (interpreted)

St. Andrew, 714 E. Walworth Ave., Delavan, 9:30 a.m. (interpreted)

St. Matthias, 9306 W. Beloit Road, Milwaukee, 9 a.m. (First, second and fourth Sundays interpreted; Third Sunday signed)

Good Shepherd, N88 W17658 Christman Road, Menomonee Falls,
11 a.m. (interpreted)

Shepherd of the Hills, W1562 County Road B, Eden, 8:15 a.m.
(First Sunday of the month only.)

Terri Matenaer, coordinator for deaf ministry, is pleased the archdiocese offers interpreted and signed Masses, but she acknowledged that there is much to do in reaching out in the community. Much of the parish outreach to the deaf takes place through St. Andrew Parish, Delavan and St. Matthias Parish, Milwaukee.

“We have a newsletter called ‘Hand in Hand,’ and religious education for children at St. Matthias and St. Andrew. We also have a Deaf Advisory Council and are trying to come together and build plans for the future ministry program in the whole archdiocese, not just in Milwaukee or Delavan,” she said. “We are trying to have several activities available whenever we have a gathering together of the deaf community.”


Deaf Ministry

For more information on deaf ministry in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, contact Terri Matenaer at (262) 321-0464 or by e-mail.

Matenaer, who is also deaf, said that many in the deaf community remain passive about their needs and either attend Mass without the benefit of an interpreter or don’t attend at all.

“With the hearing population, people can choose to listen or not to listen,” she said. “But with the deaf, if we don’t have an interpreter, we don’t understand what is going on and many just decide not to go. I am afraid we are losing many deaf Catholics because we don’t have enough to offer to them.”

For Fr. Brian Holbus, administrator of St. Roman Parish, Milwaukee, addressing the needs of the deaf religious and laypeople hits close to home. Fr. Holbus has a deaf brother and sister.

“We have hearing loss in our family,” he said, adding, “And it was hard for my brother and sister while we were growing up – they couldn’t hear what was going on at Mass. But I was the confirmation sponsor for my brother, and although my sign language was not great, I was happy to help him prepare to receive the sacrament.”

Taking classes as a teen to learn American Sign Language and cued speech helped Fr. Holbus to better communicate with his brother and sister, and ultimately prepared him to serve for nearly seven years as pastor of St. Andrew Parish, Delavan.

The Wisconsin School for the Deaf is located in Delavan. Catholic youth from the school attend religious education programs and Mass at St. Andrew. In working with the deaf community, Fr. Holbus realized how left out hearing impaired Catholics are in everyday life, from participating in Mass to the sacrament of reconciliation.

“My sign language is not all that good,” he explained, “But I always try to be there for the deaf who want to go to confession. It’s hard to address the entire needs of the deaf community because there are so few clergy who are able to communicate. I think it is very important to have a deaf priest, such as Chris Klusman, who was my intern in Delavan and will be ordained in 2011. There is a real future here with priests who are deaf.”

While there are only two hearing impaired members attending St. Roman Parish, Fr. Holbus is regularly called to assist with situations among the Hispanic deaf community in Milwaukee.

“I grew up in Racine and learned some Spanish while growing up,” he said. “So now there are times I am called to translate for the deaf Hispanic community at the hospitals or doctors’ offices and it really puts me in an awkward place having to translate for them. For instance, I might have to talk to young women about personal matters and medications, and it just isn’t something I feel I should be talking with them about.”

According to Fr. Holbus, the local Catholic deaf community still suffers from fallout following the sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by the late Fr. Lawrence Murphy who, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is believed to have molested as many as 200 boys from 1950 to 1974. Murphy, who died in 1998, was placed on the archdiocese’s list of priests with substantiated claims of sexual abuse in 2004.

“It is very important for the church to listen to the deaf and to rebuild the ministry – so many left the church not only because of the sexual abuse scandal, but because we are not meeting their needs,” said Fr. Holbus. “It is hard to encourage these people to remain Catholic when there is such a bad history and when we have nothing to offer them.

“To me, the ministry needs to grow to having deaf Catholics evangelizing and ministering to other deaf Catholics,” said Fr. Holbus, adding, “Confession is a big thing – how do deaf Catholics go to confession with a priest who is unable to communicate via sign language?”

Slowly, the deaf community in Delavan is growing in numbers and confidence with the help of Patty Kostechka, coordinator of deaf ministry at St. Andrew, and Deacon David Sommers, who is also deaf.

Deacon Sommers also coordinates deaf ministry at St. Matthias and assists with the celebration of Mass in sign language each week. St. Matthias offers an archdiocesan religious education program for deaf children and the International Catholic Deaf Association (ICDA) meets at the parish monthly. A signed Bible study is also offered to deaf adults.

Members of the St. Matthias deaf community offer sign language classes to the broader parish and perform in a signing choir to help hearing parishioners be more aware of deaf culture and language.

Yet, Fr. Holbus said the Catholic Church as a whole needs to embrace and encourage all hearing impaired Catholics.

“They organized a program that included deaf catechists and those devoted to the faith who ministered well to each other as deaf people – we need to do that all over the world,” said Fr. Holbus.

Matenaer is hopeful that with the Vatican’s concern about the deaf community more will be encouraged to assume some leadership roles in the church.

“We have a few who are more outspoken, but we really need to reach out to the younger Catholics and help them to grow in their faith by giving them the same opportunities as those in the hearing population,” she said.