Singer says: ‘Blindness is a gift’

| May 23, 2012 | 0 Comments

Michele Denise Michaels lost most of her sight at age 9 from a condition that has yet to be diagnosed. Over the last 10 years, she has come to accept her condition, and now views it as a gift, thanks in part to the two years she spent at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

For much of her adult life, Michele Denise Michaels despised canes. Specifically, those used by blind people to get around.
She first had need of one at age 9, when she mysteriously lost most of her sight while at school.

“I was in class in the third grade,” said Michaels, 43, who grew up Catholic in Brooklyn, N.Y. “In the morning, I could see the board. I went to recess, came back, and I couldn’t see it.”

Her parents, Denis and Rita, originally from Grenada, brought her to scores of doctors to try and diagnose the problem, but to no avail. She lost all of her center vision and the ability to see details, which has never returned. All that remained was peripheral, abstract vision. So, her parents gave up hope for a cure and turned their focus to helping her live with blindness.

She was handed a cane, which she dutifully carried around, folded. She never used it. To her, the use of this instrument signified to others that she was blind.

“I didn’t mind that I couldn’t see, but I didn’t want to look like I couldn’t see — I didn’t want to look like I was blind,”?she said. “I wouldn’t use my cane, I?wouldn’t associate with blind people.”

Over the last 10 years, that attitude has changed. A big part of the transformation was the two years she spent at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute at St. Paul Seminary. She graduated a year ago and now speaks freely about her condition and how God is using it in her life.

Independent professional

She is a professional singer and voice coach who lives independently in an apartment in downtown Minneapolis and belongs to St. Olaf. Currently, she is working on a music CD she plans to release in July called “Altar Call,” and is writing a book about her life she plans to publish in the fall.

“I have accepted the blindness now,” she said. “I started seeing that blindness is a gift — my cross. It’s what God is using to sanctify me.”

Her new outlook is on display in the entryway of her apartment. On the wall is a row of nine canes. Nearby are six crucifixes. It’s hard to ignore the juxtaposition of the two.

“It’s my freedom corner,” she explained. “We know God said, ‘Pick up your cross and follow me.’ So, I have my canes.”

Michaels said she was able to manage without a cane through grade school and high school. But, when she went off to college, her refusal to use one cost her dearly. That, plus her decision not to learn Braille, led to failure. In her words, she “flunked out.”

Undaunted, she decided to move to London, where some of her relatives lived, and try to make it as a singer. She got a job as a background and studio session singer, building on her success in high school when she performed as part of a group with her brother and sister called Simply Mystique. It finished second out of 10,000 groups on Arsenio Hall’s talent competition, she said.

Taking a new direction

She came back to New York for a visit a week before 9/11, and had planned to go into the city that day. But, while she was getting dressed at her parents’ house, she got a call from her cousin in London relaying the news of the disaster.

She did not visit the city that day, and she never went back to London. Instead, she got a job at St. Vincent Ferrer as director of music. She was in charge of two choirs and did music for weddings, funerals and other liturgies. One of the funerals was for a firefighter in the parish who died in the 9/11 tragedy.

Still, she would not accept her condition and would not use a cane.

“I fought it a lot,” she said. “My parents offered me resources, but I just wasn’t open to it.”

Finally, her cou­sin in London, Jeanette Abraham, persuaded her to start doing some research on living with blindness. She suggested talking to blind people and finding out how they navigated through life.

That led her to an organization in the Twin Cities called Blind, Inc. It offers intensive training to people who are blind to help them learn how to live and work independently. Michaels moved here in 2003 and spent eight months in the program.

“What’s special about it is all the teachers are blind, so they’re role models and mentors,”?she said. “I lived blindfolded with sleep shades for eight months because it’s not efficient to do things with my residual vision.”

That experience softened her attitude about using a cane. Finally, she relented and started learning how to use one.

Bible study opens a door

She also made another important decision that ultimately brought her to the catechetical institute: She started attending Bible studies.

She heard about the ones offered by local Scripture scholar Jeff Cavins, and started attending them regularly. She went with one of her new friends, Laura Rothman, whom she calls her “Minnesota Mom.” They both found out about the catechetical institute, and eventually enrolled together.

“I love everything about the faith, but I thought there were holes in my catechism, things I didn’t know,”?Michaels said. “So, that’s why I was attracted to the catechetical institute. . . . It was just a natural progression to do this, so we both signed up.”

A look inside her apartment reveals how the institute has transformed her. There is a crucifix in every room, and she has turned a closet adjacent to her bathroom into what she calls a “prayer closet.” She has a kneeler, and the walls are filled with religious items such as her first Communion dress and her favorite crucifix, which came from Kenya.

“After catechetical, I felt differently about my space,” said Michaels, who has a large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe hanging over her bed. “I felt more comfortable about having sacramentals around.”

She also is much more confident in her faith and her understanding of it. Even though she grew up in a devout Catholic household, she feels her two years at the institute were crucial in creating a lifelong foundation for living her faith, which now includes singing at local pro-life events.

“I think it’s the remedy for those of us who were poorly catechized,” she said. “I think, a lot of times, people leave the church because of what they think the church is and their misunderstanding of it. And now, after being steeped in the catechism and understanding the treasures of the church, I could never leave.”


Institute graduates 130 students this year

The Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute at the St. Paul Seminary held its third graduation ceremony May 8, with Archbishop John Nienstedt presiding and presenting certificates to the 130 students.

Also participating in the presentation was institute director Jeff Cavins. This year’s graduates are called the Class of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. There now is a total of 357 alumni.

Applications are being accepted for the fall. The deadline for applying is July 15. The institute can accept up to 150 new students for the fall.

For more information or to apply, call (651) 962-6890, or visit http://www.saintpaulseminary.org.

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