Deaf communities find new home in Newton

Two groups that are part of the Archdiocese of Boston’s deaf community — one made homeless in the reconfiguration process and one looking for a permanent location after a previous parish closing — have come together to worship at Sacred Heart in Newton.

Both groups have gone through several moves in recent years and hope to make Sacred Heart their home. So far, the welcome has been even warmer than expected, deaf community members said.

"The parish has been very considerate of us. They have been very welcoming," said Cheryl Johnston, a member of the deaf community. Johnston spoke to The Pilot with the help of an interpreter, Father Michael Medas, director the Deaf Apostolate.

Sacred Heart has even changed its registration form for new parishioners to include “hearing” and “deaf” checkboxes.

"It shows they're thinking of us," Johnston said.

Johnston, from Marlborough, is part of one group of the deaf community that was at St. Theresa Church in Watertown a year ago. The community has had seven homes in a little over seven years. Moving began in March 1997 when St. Jean of Newton closed. Then community members worshiped at the chancery, first at St. Clement Hall and then St. William Hall. They temporarily moved to Sacred Heart in Newton before settling at St. Theresa’s, which closed in August 2003. They have been worshiping in Bishop Peterson Chapel at St. John’s Seminary for the last year.

"We've moved so many times, I've lost track," said Johnston. "The community stays small when we keep moving like that. It doesn't allow the community to be rooted and grow."

The second group, the Deaf Community Center, was in Framingham on the grounds of the Sisters of St. Joseph retirement center for several years before they moved to St. Anselm Church in Sudbury less than a year ago. St. Anselm’s was closed as a result of parish reconfiguration on Sept. 15.

The process of finding a place for both communities began in March, after it was announced that St. Anselm’s would close. A new pastoral plan of unity for the Deaf Apostolate emerged out of two meetings, one with each community. Archbishop Seán O’Malley accepted the plan and asked members of the deaf community to evaluate several churches in order to find a new home. They recommended three parishes, listing the strengths and weaknesses of each. The archbishop chose Sacred Heart in early September.

Although both groups worship in the same place, not all of their activities have come together.

"Some events were not merged," Johnston said. "We really wish everybody from both groups would come together, no split, no divisions."

Many other deaf Catholics in the archdiocese attend Masses that are interpreted, rather than fully celebrated in American Sign Language (ASL). The Deaf Chaplaincy offers two Sunday Masses celebrated in ASL, one at Sacred Heart and the other at the New England Home for the Deaf in Danvers. Every Sunday, five Masses throughout the archdiocese and one televised Mass are interpreted in ASL.

Annemaria Folkard, formerly a member of the St. Theresa deaf community, stressed the importance of Mass in ASL. Folkard said, through an interpreter, that she stopped attending church with her family when she was a teenager because they had no signing at Mass. She attended a Protestant service for a time, but did not feel comfortable leaving her Catholic faith. When she heard about the deaf Catholic community, she came back to Mass.

"I feel like I'm a full member of the Church now," she said. "I never miss going to church."

The move to Sacred Heart has caused Folkard to feel a strong sense of community, she said. She was overwhelmed by the sensitivity of parishioners there.

"Finally we have a place that feels like home," she said. "I really want the Deaf Community Center people and the St. Theresa people to feel welcome as one community. I want everyone to feel comfortable together, like one family."

For now, the deaf community celebrates Mass in the lower church at Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart’s Mass schedule will be changed to accommodate an ASL Mass on the second Sunday of Advent, said Johnston.

"I'm hoping it will be the last move," said Johnston. Hearing parishioners will be welcome at the ASL Mass, she added.

One in four members of the deaf community at Sacred Heart are hearing, said Johnston. There are many family members, including Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA) and parents of deaf children.

Paul Lualdi is one such parent. He has an eight-year-old son who is deaf and wanted him to have the same opportunities at Mass as Lualdi had when he was a boy.

"He can do all the things I did, things he couldn't do at a hearing church," he said.

Lauldi’s son can be an altar boy and socialize with deaf people of all ages, he added. His son is excited about going to church, Lualdi said.

"I have to admit that I wasn't like that when I was eight or nine," he added.

Johnston and other members of the deaf community want to expand the community now that it has a stable home.

"We always have plans for the deaf community. We always want the community to grow," Johnston said.

Sacred Heart has just hired a religious education director, and Johnston hopes to have classes offered with both hearing and deaf children, she said.

Johnston has started teaching a sign-language class for hearing parishioners at Sacred Heart.

"The motivation came from hearing parishioners," said Father Medas. "They wanted to communicate with their new deaf brothers and sisters."