New religious community will minister to deaf Catholics

admindominican News March 18, 2021

New religious community will minister to deaf Catholics – By Lisa Dahm
Catholic News Service

Father Thomas Coughlin’s lifelong dream to start a religious community where sign language is the primary means of expression at both the Eucharistic table and the dinner table is finally becoming a reality.

Deaf since birth, Father Coughlin has founded the new order, the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate, headquartered in Hayward.

The priest of the Diocese of Honolulu was one of five men who made their first profession of vows as Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate, Aug. 27, at St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Honolulu Diocese, in an interview by e-mail. “I saw how badly we need a religious community of deaf priests and brothers dedicated to a deeper spiritual life and the deaf apostolate in the language of signs and the deaf culture milieu.”

The five men pronounced their vows before Oakland’s Bishop Allen H. Vigneron, who formally recognized the new community in 2004 as a Private Association of the Faithful. Father Coughlin will remain a diocesan priest until he makes his final vows in a few years.

The other four men are in various stages of preparation for the priesthood, and the religious community also has two novices. One of the newly professed is studying at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley. The others are finishing their undergraduate studies at Ohlone College in Fremont and Cal State East Bay.

Creating this order has been a challenge for Father Coughlin, who has been making his case before bishops and cardinals for nearly three decades.

Father Coughlin was ordained in the Trinitarian order in 1977 and he came to Honolulu 10 years later at the invitation of then-Bishop Joseph A. Ferrario of Honolulu, who was perhaps the only bishop in the United States at the time skilled in American Sign Language.

The bishop, who died in 2003, welcomed Father Coughlin into the diocese and assigned him to Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Honolulu where he celebrated the Mass in sign language and created a ministry to the deaf. An interpreted Mass for the deaf continues there today.

In a 1987 interview with the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the priest expressed his determination to start an order of priests who are deaf and would minister to the deaf. At the time, few if any seminaries and religious orders welcomed deaf candidates. St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park admitted its first deaf seminarians in 2002.

Father Coughlin left Hawaii in the early 1990s to follow his dream. In 1993 in Denver he joined the Dominicans. Although he remained a Dominican for only a year, he was encouraged by the head of the Dominican order to form a new Dominican branch designed specifically for the deaf candidates and apostolate.

He approached the bishops and vicars general of several dioceses seeking authorization to form a religious community, but they all turned him away.

The reaction, he said, was typical. Many viewed priests who are deaf as a people who need special accommodations and treatment — in other words, a “problem.”

But to Father Coughlin, deaf priests are a solution, particularly since only a small fraction of deaf Catholics go to Masses that aren’t signed or interpreted for them.

“I have accepted this challenge along with its pain and sorrow because I have come to realize that this is the kind of road that God has placed me on,” the priest said.

In 2002, then-Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco heard Father Coughlin’s story and invited him to his archdiocese to minister at St. Benedict Parish for the Deaf. Last year at the invitation of Bishop Vigneron, Father Coughlin established the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate to “preach the Gospel to deaf people in sign language and to give opportunities for deaf men to study for the priesthood in their native language, which is sign language.” They moved into the vacant convent at All Saints Parish in Hayward.

Father Coughlin said the men follow the rule of St. Augustine, the framework of Dominican life but are not officially members of the Dominican Order. They hope to become formally affiliated sometime in the future. “We are relatively a new kid on the block,” said the priest, “and everyone is watching us.

“I think the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) are waiting to see how much we have evolved and stabilized before anything can happen.”
In the e-mail interview, the pioneer priest said he is especially proud of the four men who took first vows with him because they had “the courage to join this new religious community with an uncertain future.”

They are Brother Gregoire Youbara of Cameroon; Brother Isidore Niyongabo of Burundi; Brother Adam Zawadzki of Indianapolis; and Brother Andrew Sanchez of El Paso, Texas.

Not all the community’s members are deaf. Both Brother Adam, 21, and Brother Andrew, 49, can hear but say they feel called to work with people who are deaf. Brother Andrew has spent most of his professional life working among the deaf community.

Two men — Brother David Gitundu of Nairobi, Kenya and Brother Derrick Elkins of Lafayette, Louisiana, began their novitiate, Aug. 25.
Father Coughlin said the trials of starting a new community have caused him “many sleepless nights,” but he believes that it is part of God’s design.

“I am only an instrument of his divine plan,” he said. Paraphrasing Trappist Father Thomas Merton, he added, “I do not know where the road goes or what lies ahead, but I ask for God’s grace to go on.”

Brother Derrick Elkins, a novice with the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate, interprets the prayers of the Mass celebrated by Bishop Allen Vigneron during the community’s first profession of vows, Aug. 27, in the chapel of St. Albert’s Priory.

During their profession of vows, the five men prostrate themselves before the altar.

During their profession of vows, the five men prostrate themselves before the altar.

Father Thomas Coughlin (left), prior general of the new community, listens to Brother Adam Zawadzki make his first profession of vows.

Bishop Vigneron blesses the habit of Brother Brother Isidore Niyongabo

Using American Sign Language, Brother Derrick Elkins leads the newly professed missionaries in a song during the Aug. 27 liturgy.

Father Thomas Coughlin makes his profession of obedience to Bishop Vigneron.

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