For ministry to deaf, all signs point to welcome

By Gianna Canevari | Contributor
Sunday, August 28, 2011

Children assist Father Joseph Mulcrone in signing the Our Father July 24 at the St. Francis Borgia Deaf Center, 8025 W. Addison St. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

The thriving ministry at the Catholic Office for the Deaf is continuing to expand and serve Chicago, not only with religious education programs and interpreted Masses, but with support and inspiration for the deaf community.

It is a place where the deaf can celebrate the Mass, including children and their families and hearing-impaired family members, friends and neighbors they brought along. Aside from the director of the Office for the Deaf, Father Joseph Mulcrone, everyone who has a role in the celebration of the liturgy is deaf.

Mulcrone signs and speaks his Sunday 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Francis Borgia at 8318 W. Addison St. for the 150 to 300 deaf individuals and their families who attend each Sunday.

“The deaf feel very welcome here,” said Mulcrone, just before heading to a quinceañera and then a wedding ceremony in Lombard, Ill., for deaf members of the community.

Two of Mulcrone’s grandparents were deaf, so when Cardinal Cody approached him and offered him a place at St. Francis Borgia, he took the opportunity to learn American Sign Language. It has been nearly 25 years since Mulcrone began working in deaf ministry.

“Most parents can’t sign so they are very glad their child can come and receive religious education for the sacraments,” Mulcrone said.

Some parishes will turn families with deaf children away, so the parents who bring their children to St. Francis Borgia are hesitant and doubtful, Mulcrone said. For the children, however, it is a place where they can freely communicate with others, resulting in their hearing parents being the minority.

Long-lived ministry

Since 1884, there has been continuous ministry for the deaf in Chicago. The first, at Holy Family Parish, was expanding so quickly that it needed a place to relocate. Deaf ministry was moved to St. Francis Borgia nearly a century after it began, in 1983. religious education, Margaret Swatek, gets a more intimate perspective on how deaf ministry affects children. Since many children don’t want to be singled out by letting others see that they have an interpreter at Mass, Swatek says, they are deprived of understanding the Mass in terms of their own communication.

Offering role models

“It’s nice for the kids to see role models in the community,” Swatek said. “They can have a good example to live by and see that they’re capable.”

Swatek has been working in deaf ministry for three years and has two deaf children herself. She oversees the 12 teachers and their aides who instruct deaf children in religious education. Ideally, she finds teachers who can sign and talk at the same time, but this is not always possible, especially since the large Hispanic population also calls for most teachers to be bilingual. When she does find bilingual teachers, it is especially helpful for the parents of the children who, most often, are not fluent in English.

“We reach out to kids who are deaf, kids who may have deaf parents, family members and friends who are also deaf, and this makes a big difference in the community” Swatek said. There are many families who come from all over the Chicago area to the Masses and programs offered by St. Francis Borgia.

“All the pastors we’ve had here and all the religious education teachers,” says Mulcrone, “everyone here at St. Francis Borgia takes pride in what they do.”

For more information, call (312) 534-7899 or TTY (312) 534-8368.