November 5, 2021

2021 Vocations Awareness Supplement

Postulant with speech challenges finds spiritual home with Oldenburg Franciscans

Hannah Houser, a postulant with the Franciscan Sisters in Oldenburg, uses American Sign Language (ASL) by a statue of St. Clare of Assisi on the campus of the sisters’ motherhouse. Although not hearing impaired, Hannah has learned ASL because a disability she has called apraxia can make it difficult for her to speak. (Photo by Sara Geer)

Hannah Houser, a postulant with the Franciscan Sisters in Oldenburg, uses American Sign Language (ASL) by a statue of St. Clare of Assisi on the campus of the sisters’ motherhouse. Although not hearing impaired, Hannah has learned ASL because a disability she has called apraxia can make it difficult for her to speak. (Photo by Sara Geer)

By Sara Geer (Special to The Criterion)

OLDENBURG—God’s call to be a Sister of Saint Francis came to Hannah Houser through a familiar Disney song that, unbeknownst to listeners, incorporates Franciscan undertones within the lyrics.

“While I was listening to ‘Colors of the Wind’ sang by Pocahontas one day, I realized that God had been calling me my whole life to become a Franciscan sister,” Hannah said.

It was a big realization for her. She started following his call shortly after her first Communion. Then, during her confirmation, the call strengthened and became more apparent to her through prayers and songs.

She said the Blessed Mother Mary was always calling her through songs and that one day she felt Mary wanted her to use another gift to share the Gospel with others at Mass—American Sign Language.

Hannah learned American Sign Language in school while attending St. Rita School for the Deaf in Cincinnati, located about 20 miles from her hometown in Hamilton, Ohio. While not deaf, Hannah was born with a severe speech disability called apraxia that makes it difficult for her to speak.

A teacher and she worked together to start a program at the school to help children with other speech impediments succeed. Hence, sign language became a second language for her to talk with her family, other students and teachers and to use to share her love for following Jesus Christ. St. Rita “holds a special place” in her heart.

“Apraxia is a speech impediment that affects how the messages are sent from the brain to the mouth,” Hannah explained. “So, sometimes what I want to say, and what I do say, doesn’t always connect correctly. I have to remind myself throughout the day to slow down, pronounce and to use proper grammar.”

Growing up in a family of seven and having two loving parents who were also teachers, her disability was never a problem. Yet, when she attended grade school at St. Joseph Consolidated School in Hamilton, other students teased her because of her disability. The experience, however, was not negative for Hannah. Instead, it helped her become who she is today.

“It taught me a lot about how to stand up for myself and to stand up for others,” she said. “I learned during this time how to accept God into my life and how to be a disciple for others.”

God planted other seeds in her journey to religious life as well. The Franciscan charisms that she now lives by daily were not foreign to her growing up. An uncle is a Franciscan priest, and a great aunt was a Franciscan sister. Her mother, grandmother and several aunts were students at the Oldenburg Academy of the Immaculate Conception in Oldenburg, which is a ministry of the Franciscan sisters there. Hannah remembers fondly visiting the sisters and has many Franciscan roots in her life.

“I grew up knowing the Franciscan way of life, and I’m learning how to adopt the Franciscan charisms into my life right now through formation,” Hannah said.

Hannah also has a strong love for nurturing animals and caring for the environment, another Franciscan value ingrained in her. She attended college at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, where she studied sociology with a focus on animal and environmental issues. And during the summers, she worked as a camp counselor and taught the nature program at the Cleveland Sight Center Highbrook Camp in Chardon, Ohio, for children, families and adults with vision impairments.

“I was trying to connect my love of animals, and faith, and many other things from my life,” Hannah said. “Then when I graduated college and met vocations director Sister Kathleen, I found my vocation calling to be a Franciscan sister. It came full circle.”

Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, the vocations director at Sisters of Saint Francis in Oldenburg, explained the uphill battle Hannah experienced through gaining acceptance to join a religious community due to her speech disability,

Hannah had written an initial letter to many religious communities introducing herself and asking for guidance with God’s call for her. She had learned writing and grammar differently in school because of her use of American Sign Language. She received many letters and e-mails back stating they could not accept her.

Sister Kathleen said after reading the letter several times, a red flag went off that Hannah may be deaf. She was not going to turn someone down until she met her. After an initial meeting, connections and clarifications were made and there was a better understanding for her about Hannah.

Sister Kathleen said accepting Hannah to join the Sisters of Saint Francis has been a gift given to all the sisters. She explained since the community has a history of sisters who are educators, many sisters have volunteered their time to help tutor Hannah with improving her writing and grammar. And the congregation is in the process of expanding its education and evangelistic efforts with introducing American Sign Language classes and having Hannah sign at each Mass.

With the help of Laboure Society, an organization that provided financial assistance and spiritual support to pay off $60,000 in educational debt, Hannah has now entered fully into the discernment process and became a postulant in April.

“I love being a disciple of God, walking the faith and living out the Franciscan way of life,” Hannah said. “I didn’t always see it, but God has been calling me to come home my entire life.”
 

(Sara Geer is a freelance writer and a member of St. Louis de Montfort Parish in Fishers, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. To learn more about the Sisters of St. Francis in Oldenburg, visit www.oldenburgfranciscans.org.)

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