It was a marriage proposal that set the wheels in motion to establish the St. Francis Catholic Deaf Community 100 years ago this month.
In 1918, Frank Crough, a young deaf man, proposed to his girlfriend – a non-Catholic member of the deaf community. As a part of their marriage preparation, he wanted her to learn more about his faith, so he reached out to one of his old teachers, Rev. Mother Columbiere.
"She was very happy to meet with Frank," explains Carol Stokes, Co-ordinator of Deaf Ministry in the Archdiocese of Toronto. "After their conversation, she said she was worried about the Catholic deaf who were finished school. She lost no time in asking Frank to find and bring community members to Loretto College, where she worked as a bursar."
Pictured above, members of the deaf community attend the 2017 Easter Vigil at St. Stephen's Chapel.
As a next step, Columbiere contacted the archbishop at the time, Bishop Neil McNeil, who put her in charge of the Religious Services for the Deaf. From there, she got in touch with the Paulist Fathers at St. Peter's Church, who began delivering a sermon for the deaf every Sunday.
From these humble beginnings, the deaf ministry has blossomed through the years to ensure the deaf can fully participate in Mass and the sacraments, through the assistance of an American Sign Language interpreter. At present, there are four regularly interpreted Masses in the Archdiocese of Toronto: St. Stephen's Chapel in the central region; St. Maximillian Kolbe in the western region; St. Gertrude's Parish to the east and Holy Spirit Parish in the northern region.
Stokes estimates there are about 600 deaf Catholics actively practicing their faith in this region – and she prays that number will continue growing, as has been the trend in recent years.
"During my time as co-ordinator, I have seen the deaf grow in their faith. Their feeling of acceptance and involvement with the family of faith in the archdiocese has, I think, made them feel they are members of a larger community – and has encouraged them to learn more about their faith, through monthly Bible study, workshops and retreats."
In 1974, a public grant enabled them to create the first summer Sign Language Camp for children in the Archdiocese of Toronto.
"I benefitted from attending Silent Voice Camp because it provided me a space to interact and socialize with other children within the deaf community," says Sarah Avarell, whose mother is deaf, while her father is hard of hearing. "Going to a camp with other children who had deaf parents or who were deaf or hard of hearing themselves provided me with a sense of community and better understanding of our culture. I was able to enjoy summer activities but also learn about compassion, understanding and acceptance."
The 14th International Catholic Deaf Association Canadian Section conference runs from August 22 to 26 at the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto, with a Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Collins, on August 25 to mark St. Francis Catholic Deaf Community's centennial.