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Deaf Catholic community in Maryland grows with new chaplain, retreat, Eucharistic Congress

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Father Mike Depcik offer Mass at the Seton Shrine Basilica in Emmitsburg, Maryland, during a recent retreat at the shrine. / Credit: Courtesy of the Seton Shrine

CNA Staff, May 7, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

One of the few Deaf Catholic priests in the United States is working to renew the Church’s ministry to the Deaf in Maryland and beyond through signed Masses, retreats, and an upcoming Eucharistic congress for the Deaf. 

Father Michael Depcik, who last year became the chaplain for the Deaf Ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was born deaf and grew up in a Deaf Catholic family in Chicago. According to Depcik, being “culturally Deaf” (a culture signified by the uppercase Deaf) is vastly different than losing hearing later in life. The distinction is important, Depcik explained, because the Deaf community is its own culture, with its own language. 

“We’re proud to be Deaf, and we identify as Deaf people, and we use American Sign Language as the primary language,” Depcik explained through sign language to an interpreter in a phone call with CNA.

While an estimated 11 million Americans are deaf, about 3.6% of the population, many Deaf Catholics go unreached. Some were never fully catechized when they were young and taught to attend a Mass that they didn’t understand. With just 10 Deaf priests and four Deaf permanent deacons in the U.S., going to confession and attending Mass is just one of many barriers for an estimated 2 million Deaf Catholics, and another 7.5 million Catholics with hearing loss, according to an estimate by the National Catholic Office for the Deaf (NCOD).  

As chaplain, Depcik serves the “unique needs” of the Deaf community through serving in Deaf parishes. Being Deaf is a “linguistic difference,” meaning that creating accessibility requires a different approach than a disability such as blindness or mobility, he explained. 

“The language is the problem, and so there is no access for [Deaf Catholics] because unfortunately, many churches do not provide [for] their needs appropriately,” he said. “So most of the time, they do not go to church. And so that’s always been my worry and my concern.”

Having an interpreter isn’t enough for most Deaf people — attending Mass in their first language, ASL, is essential, Depcik explained.

“There’s a void between the Deaf and the hearing,” he continued. “And so it’s the same idea as Spanish-speaking people; they prefer to go to a Spanish-speaking church for Mass. Vietnamese people prefer to go to Vietnamese church with a Vietnamese Mass, because of the language, the culture.”

“And so that’s the same idea with the Deaf,” Depcik continued. “But the problem is many [Church leaders] do not understand and think that it will save a lot of money by providing an interpreter, and that’s it. But that is not the case — and it doesn’t work.”

But the Deaf Catholic community is growing in Maryland, where there are more than 1.2 million Deaf or hard-of-hearing Marylanders, according to a 2021 survey. Meanwhile, a number of hearing priests and religious are learning ASL, while organizations like NCOD and Ascension Press are developing ASL catechetical resources.

“We try to do what other churches do,” he noted. “We have Bible study classes, we have RCIA classes for people who want to become Catholic. We have visitations in the hospitals, visiting senior citizens, encouraging people to get leadership in their churches, serving the church [on] council meetings, taking the commission and the religious education classes.” 

It’s “starting to build up,” Depcik said. Baltimore was the first archdiocese in the country to ordain a Deaf priest — Trinitarian Father Thomas Coughlin in 1977. 

While past bishops emphasized having interpreters at Masses, the ministry has grown since Depcik joined.

“In the past, the Deaf typically went to interpreted Masses, and it was very wonderful for the hearing Church to provide a sign language interpreter, but the Deaf always felt like outsiders,” he said. “They weren’t really a part of a full Church life. And so now that our community, our people can take a role in doing readings and usher[ing] and Christmas parties, things like that, they can be further a part of it, and I’m happy to see the progress that we’re making so far.”

Challenges facing Deaf Catholics 

Even though ASL is the third most commonly used language in the U.S. after English and Spanish, fewer than 8 in 100 Deaf people attend church, suggesting that the population is underreached and under-evangelized.

Though a growing number of catechetical resources are being made available for Deaf Catholics, Catholic evangelism for the Deaf falls behind other Christian denominations.

Depcik said that many Deaf people will become Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses because they have more outreach to Deaf communities, while in the Catholic Church, budget cuts following the sexual abuse crisis have impacted smaller ministries such as the Deaf community the most, he explained. 

Because of this, many Deaf Catholics will leave for a church where the pastor is learning sign language and “meeting their spiritual needs,” Depcik said. 

In addition, most Deaf children are born to a hearing family that does not have an in-depth understanding of ASL. 

“So, many of them grow up having no understanding of religion. They go to a hearing church, but they’re not understanding what’s happening,” Depcik explained. 

“Ninety-eight percent of Deaf people do not go to church … because there is not accessibl[ity],” he explained. “Oftentimes, they are overlooked by the Church. And I always like to say, the people in the Church are the deaf to Deaf people, because the communication, there is no link there with other groups.”

In response, Depcik is organizing a Eucharistic Congress for the Deaf in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in April 2025. While the National Eucharistic Congress has partnered with NCOD to have interpreters and accessibility for Deaf Catholics, the Eucharistic Congress for the Deaf will “be spoken in sign language for people to come pray together,” Depcik said. 

‘Inspiring’ retreat for the Deaf at Seton Shrine

There is a history of bringing the Deaf community together at the Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The first retreat was held about 10 years ago, according to retreat organizer Sarah Heil. 

Initially, Heil and Depcik thought the retreat would draw about 30-35 people. But as the date approached, the attendees became closer to 100, with attendees traveling from Virginia, D.C., New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia for the one-day retreat. 

“We couldn’t get the group out of our visitor center because they were just so excited to see each other and to meet new people. … It was like the community formed up so quickly,” Heil told CNA in a phone call.

Depcik said it’s “always inspiring” to come together with Deaf Catholics from different areas because they share “the same faith, the same language, the same culture.”

“And it’s a good experience for local Deaf Catholic communities to be surprised that there [are] more deaf Catholic[s] out there,” he said. “And they always feel alone because the Church is in their own world, and when they see other groups getting together, they feel proud.”

Following the call of Pope Francis, the Seton Shrine is reaching out to the margins through its retreat program “Seeds of Hope,” which recently hosted a retreat for men recovering from drug addiction, and will host a mental health and wellness retreat this May.  

Depcik said that the people at the shrine “really make us feel very welcomed and inspired to pray there and celebrate Mass there as well.”

“We take it for granted that we can hear Mass in our home language,” Heil said, “and we take for granted that we have the opportunity to go to confession with somebody that can understand us in the way that confession should be administered. [Deaf Catholics] don’t have that opportunity. And that was incredibly striking.”

Several hearing priests who were serving at the event were inspired after attending a Deaf Mass, Heil said. They “saw what an impact it had to have a priest who could sign” and were inspired to learn some sign language, she added. 

“So this literally could have a life-changing impact on not only those gentlemen, but then the people that they will be serving, which I think long term, that is fantastic,” she said. “If that were the only thing that came out of this, that would be wonderful.”


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