May 13, 2016

‘It is my language’: Deaf priest offers ‘very rare’ Mass in American Sign Language for local deaf community

Oblates of St. Francis de Sales Father Michael Depcik, a deaf priest from the Archdiocese of Detroit, signs his homily in American Sign Language during a special Mass for deaf Catholics of central and southern Indiana at St. Matthew the Apostle Church in Indianapolis on April 20. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Oblates of St. Francis de Sales Father Michael Depcik, a deaf priest from the Archdiocese of Detroit, signs his homily in American Sign Language during a special Mass for deaf Catholics of central and southern Indiana at St. Matthew the Apostle Church in Indianapolis on April 20. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

The conversation before Mass was boisterous—words of welcome, friends greeting each other, catching up, talking of their excitement about the upcoming Mass and presentation.

The volume would have raised a racket—had it been verbal.

But the chatter was communicated in a flurry of fingers using American Sign Language (ASL).

The exchange took place at St. Matthew the Apostle Church in Indianapolis on April 20, where the archdiocesan Office of Catechesis arranged for a special Mass, dinner and talk for the archdiocese’s deaf community.

Oblates of St. Francis de Sales Father Michael Depcik, a priest who ministers in the Archdiocese of Detroit and who was born deaf, served as the celebrant of the Mass, with about 35 people in attendance. At a dinner afterward, he spoke on “Celebrating the Year of Mercy.” Both the Mass and the presentation were entirely signed—a rare treat for deaf Catholics.

Erin Jeffries, archdiocesan coordinator of catechesis for those with special needs, hopes the evening is just the beginning of building up the archdiocese’s efforts to meet the needs of the deaf community.

“It’s taken a little while to build up a network,” she admitted. “It really was literally two or three people I connected with initially” when she took on the special needs coordinator role more than two years ago. “We’re trying to build up our group of Mass interpreters. Right now, there are only a few who are comfortable signing Masses, and they get called on quite a bit.”

Jeffries is trying to remedy the situation.

“One of our first big initiatives is a workshop series to help people become more comfortable in signing in religious settings,” she explained.

The first training session, which was held on April 19, focused on “getting to know the liturgy, getting to know some of the basic liturgical signs and prayers, and really conveying the story, the message in ASL.”

The difference between interpreting other languages and interpreting ASL is that “interpretation is not verbatim,” said Jeffries.

“You have to consider how to build a scene and present the story visually. When you tell a story by voice, it’s very linear. When your focus is visual, you really have to develop the scene and decide which points are most important so the message doesn’t get lost. ASL really is its own language. You’re not just conveying word for word.”

In addition to increasing the number of ASL Mass interpreters, Jeffries is also hoping to increase the number of opportunities to build the deaf Catholic community.

“We’re working to form a regular schedule of Masses that are at least interpreted, with some community time afterward, maybe a pitch-in to help bring the community together,” she said.

“We’re also looking forward to the future, and exploring ways to help make the sacraments more readily available for deaf Catholics.”

Through interpreter Joyce Ellinger, a member of St. Matthew Parish, Father Depcik spoke with The Criterion about the importance to deaf Catholics of having a priest who knows ASL.

“That’s where the deaf can have direct involvement in the Church, direct communication with the priest as opposed to [communicating] through an interpreter,” he said.

Father Depcik knows the benefits of having an ASL-signing priest for deaf Catholics firsthand. He is pastor of St. John’s Deaf Center on the east side of Detroit, and he offers a signed Mass each weekend at Our Lady of Loretto Parish on the city’s west side. He is responsible for the deaf ministry throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit. He also posts ASL-signed videos (with voiceovers) of weekly homilies, prayers, interviews, talks and more on his blog, “Fr. MD’s Kitchen Table.”

At the most basic level, ASL-signing priests are necessary for providing sacraments to the deaf, he said. Take confession, for instance.

“Many deaf people have not been to confession in years and years,” Father Depcik noted. “Because they do not want to use an interpreter in the confessional, many deaf people will write [their sins] in confession. But English is their second language, so they don’t feel comfortable with that [process].

“And there are a lot of nuances in the confessional. You need a signing priest to do that. And anointing for the sick—people who are deaf need access [to a signing priest].”

Father Depcik noted that there are things a parish can do to make their community more welcoming to deaf Catholics, even if the priest does not sign.

One suggestion he offered is to decrease the amount of music time during Masses that are interpreted for the deaf. He also stressed the importance of good lighting “because deaf people are visual—they depend on their vision, so they have to be able to see things clearly.”

For the same reason, it is important to have seating for the deaf up front where they can see the altar and the interpreter, he said.

“Sometimes the deaf people are invisible, and it’s easy for them to be overlooked,” noted Father Depcik. “Other groups like Hispanics, they’re such a huge group. Or the disabled or the blind—[their needs are] so recognizable. But the deaf, it’s not a visibly recognizable group.

“A lot of priests say they don’t have any deaf in their parish. Well, they probably don’t see that they’re there, compared with other groups.”

But they may in fact truly not be there—at the Mass, anyway. According to Father Depcik, 96 percent of deaf people do not attend church because of communication issues and the lack of communication accessibility.

“For deaf people, a lot of time their experience with religion is negative,” he said. “They’ve been taken to a church with no [ASL] accessibility. They just sit through the service or they simply get left out” of the family’s faith participation.

That’s why having an entire Mass signed in ASL was such a joy for the deaf Catholics who participated in the Mass Father Depcik celebrated at St. Matthew.

Roger and Christine Kraft are deaf members of the northeast side parish. Having a deaf priest was “awesome,” said Roger through the interpretation of Diane Hazel Jones, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis.

“It’s always nice if the core language is ASL,” Roger said. “That’s why tonight is a really nice evening. Not only with church but with anything we attend—work, school—if the [person] can sign, you feel an automatic connection. You understand what’s happening rather than having to go through a third party. On a typical Sunday, it almost feels like you’re an outsider coming in. But tonight I felt like we were one community.”

Christine agreed.

“I go to church every Sunday, but the regular words in the Mass tonight made me well up,” she said. “I was teary-eyed because it was so much more powerful.

“I grew up Catholic, and those opportunities to have direct connections with a priest are very, very rare. …

“I’m really happy that the archdiocese made it possible. I know it takes money and time and organization. We really appreciate the archdiocese making this a priority.”

Still, Christine would like to see more events for the deaf community.

“I know we can’t always have a deaf priest,” she acknowledged. “But to keep different events going on in the community so we can feed our faith would be wonderful.”

For Danny Lucero, also a deaf member of St. Matthew Parish, the evening was “beautiful.”

“I’ve always learned that going to Mass is about me and God, and my relationship with God,” he said through Jones’ interpretation. But participating in a priest-signed Mass provides “a feeling that touches my heart, because it is my language.

“My wife [Marcela, who is also deaf] and I looked at each other during Mass and said, ‘I miss this.’

“It was very nice to have something that is a part of me—it’s a beautiful thing, very inspiring. It brings tears to your eyes.”

(For more information on deaf ministry in the archdiocese or on the workshops on signing the Mass in American Sign Language, log on to or call Erin Jeffries at 317-236-1448 or 800-382-9836, ext. 1448.)

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