Blind father, deaf daughter share lectoring ministry

| February 5, 2019 | 0 Comments
Justin, right, and Maeve McDevitt use Braille and American Sign Language to proclaim the first reading during Mass Dec. 30 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in northeast Minneapolis.

Justin, right, and Maeve McDevitt use Braille and American Sign Language to proclaim the first reading during Mass Dec. 30 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in northeast Minneapolis.

Minneapolis parish is home to archdiocese’s ministry to deaf, hard of hearing

A father and his 20-year-old daughter stand side-by-side as lectors at the ambo at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in northeast Minneapolis.

They help each other in this ministry, as well as the broader congregation, in unique and special ways.

Justin McDevitt is blind, using his hands to read in Braille and proclaim aloud the first and second readings at Sunday Mass Dec. 30. As he begins, he taps the shoulder of his daughter, Maeve, who is hard of hearing and uses his prompt to start reading and using her hands in American Sign Language, sharing the same Scripture with a congregation of deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing people in this parish that is home to the deaf ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. She taps him on the hand when she is done, and the Mass can continue. They read every other month at the parish’s 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass.

“We share the faith through proclaiming God’s word to the congregation,” Justin said of sharing the readings with Maeve. “We all need to be nourished. And God’s word nourishes us.”

Ten parishioners recently sang in the choir at the back of the church, while three people at the front signed the lyrics in a beautiful, poetic melding of hands, body and facial expressions. There was organ and piano, and people in the congregation responded by signing the lyrics or singing.

John Heinn of Andover, left, and Michael Hile of Minneapolis pray using American Sign Language at the Dec. 30 Mass.

John Heinn of Andover, left, and Michael Hile of Minneapolis pray using American Sign Language at
the Dec. 30 Mass.

In addition to Masses, the parish nourishes the deaf, hard-of-hearing and other parishioners with activities including a faith-building book and movie club that meets before Mass, time to visit for hours at potlucks in the church basement after Mass, monthly meetings of elderly who are deaf, and an annual fall festival.

The McDevitts live in St. Paul, and deaf and hard-of-hearing parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel come from across the Twin Cities, as well as from New Prague, Monticello and towns in western Wisconsin.

About 50 of the parish’s 170 members are deaf or hard of hearing. Several said the fellowship they have created is important to them.

“It’s big-time important,” said Mary Jane Novotny, a parishioner from Bloomington who spoke through fellow parishioner and ASL interpreter Susan Sweezo. “We have a community.”

Novotny and her husband, Richard, are deaf. So are their two children, Amy and Sarah, who were visiting for the Christmas season from their homes in Colorado and California, respectively. Sarah’s husband, Michael, is deaf, and she was with her daughter, Audrey, 5, who also is deaf. Richard’s mother was deaf, making it four generations of deaf people in the Novotny family.

That is highly unusual, Sweezo said. Only 10 percent of deaf people are born to deaf parents. Many people who are deaf consider having a deaf child a blessing, because communication is so much easier, she said.

Being able to communicate with one another is a challenge for Justin and Maeve. Maeve has a cochlear implant that helps her hear when she is spoken to directly. That allows father and daughter to talk with one another. Justin’s wife, Liz, knows ASL. Their older daughter, Maura, knows some ASL signs.

“It was a challenge to my faith, wondering what kind of God would give a deaf child to a blind father,” Justin said. “I had to trust enough in God’s providence and his support.”

Liz shares those challenges, and she also turns her trust to God. She also enjoys the people at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

“We’ve always had a strong faith,” she said. “Like any parent I pray for patience and guidance, and lots of times I want to pray for the right answers. Being here, it’s great for me to have role models, people who are deaf carrying out their faith.”

Meeting the challenges has allowed Justin to work in business training, organizational development and purchasing. He also volunteers at a hospice center. Maeve is a sophomore at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, studying English and ASL in hopes of teaching those languages to others.

“We’ve had to find ways to adapt the best we can and not let our disabilities become a hindrance,” Justin said. “We have opportunities to work and participate in the world around us.”

Sarah Novotny, left, uses sign language to communicate with her daughter, Audrey, 5, before Dec. 30 mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in northeast Minneapolis.

Sarah Novotny, left, uses sign language to communicate with her daughter, Audrey, 5, before Dec. 30 mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in northeast Minneapolis.

Embracing community

In addition to lectoring, Justin and Maeve’s participation at Our Lady of Mount Carmel includes volunteering at fundraising and other events. The parish is warm and embracing, Maeve said, and having ASL widely shared among parishioners helps her learn more about her faith and hold firm to her own identity as a deaf person.

“At this parish I am able to talk with deaf people,” Maeve said. “I’m learning so much about religion. For me, it’s easier to learn it. It’s helped my life spiritually.”

Growing up, it seemed well-meaning people would encourage her to pray for healing of her deafness, Maeve said. Now, she embraces being deaf, including ASL and its combining of language and body movement, and the kind of word play and humor that is uniquely its own.

“It was almost like I was losing my identity as a deaf person,” Maeve said of past experience. “Now I can better concentrate on what’s going on in my life. I want people to have faith in deaf people. We have a culture.”

Father Paul Moudry, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Frances Cabrini, also in Minneapolis, said Our Lady offers a home for the deaf and hard of hearing ministry that it lacked before joining the parish in 1986.

“It’s kind of like a small-town parish,” he said.

Finding a home

Father William Kenney, now retired and living in St. Paul, was chaplain for the archdiocese’s deaf community for 40 years. While working in the mid-1980s as the archdiocese’s personnel director in addition to his chaplaincy, he received a telephone call from a departing pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel offering the parish as a potential home for the deaf community. The community had been sharing Mass once a month at other churches and at the Newman Center on the University of Minnesota campus.

One important advantage for the deaf community at Our Lady of Mount Carmel is the church’s construction, with theater-style seating and no pillars or other obstructions. That helps with sight lines as music and readings are shared with the congregation through ASL. Established in 1910 for the Italian community in northeast Minneapolis, the parish also had become smaller by the mid-1980s and hoped for new members, Father Kenney said.

“I went over there to see the layout and I met with the Italian community,” Father Kenney said. They welcomed the newcomers, he said.

At the same time, Father Kenney was named pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where he served even past his retirement in 1999 until 2005. Prior to that, he spent time as director and associate director of the archdiocese’s Office for the Deaf and at state-run schools for the blind and the deaf in Faribault.

Justin, right, and Maeve McDevitt use Braille and American Sign Language to proclaim the first reading during Mass Dec. 30 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in northeast Minneapolis.

Justin, right, and Maeve McDevitt use Braille and American Sign Language to proclaim the first reading during Mass Dec. 30 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in northeast Minneapolis.

Serving and being accepted by the deaf community has been an important part of his ministry, for which he is grateful, Father Kenney said. He also has learned a great deal about those he served.

“I think for so many years we tended to tell deaf people what was good for them, and tell them what they should believe is best for them,” he said. “Only in the 1970s was American Sign Language recognized as a valid language. Now we recognize they have great insight into what they need, and they determine what’s going to happen.”

Part of Maeve’s dream is to share the faith with others who cannot hear.

“I’d like to be able to teach other deaf people the Hail Mary and just about the Bible,” she said. “I’d like to be a deaf missionary, but I have a lot more learning to do.”

PHOTOS BY JIM BOVIN | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

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