After three decades at St. Elizabeth’s parish, deaf Catholics are about to embark on a new chapter for worship and social gatherings at St. Thomas More parish. Both parishes are located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, approximately six blocks apart.
And the faithful at St. Thomas More are more than ready to welcome them, according to the pastor.
“We’re very pleased to provide a home for the deaf community,” said Father Kevin V. Madigan, pastor of St. Thomas More.
The parish, he said, has always had a tradition of hospitality toward people and various groups seeking meeting space. “I always believe that if you can say ‘yes’ and you have the resources to be able to make that ‘yes,’” then you should.
In conjunction with decisions announced last November through the Making All Things New archdiocesan pastoral planning initiative, the parishes of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Stephen of Hungary will merge with St. Monica parish. St. Monica’s is the designated parish church. After Aug. 1, Masses and the sacraments will no longer be celebrated on a regular weekly basis at St. Elizabeth’s and St. Stephen’s.
St. Elizabeth’s, at 211 E. 83rd St., has served the deaf community for 35 years. Their Masses are customarily celebrated at 2 p.m. the first and third Sunday of the month. St. Thomas More, located at 65 E. 89th St., will offer the deaf community the same Mass schedule.
The archdiocese worked with Msgr. Patrick McCahill, pastor of St. Elizabeth’s and moderator of the archdiocesan Deaf Center headquartered there, to find a new location for the deaf community that currently meets at St. Elizabeth’s.
Cardinal Dolan personally reached out to Msgr. McCahill regarding prospective alternative worship and gathering sites for the group in another parish. Members of deaf community were also involved in the search for the new site.
“It’s the best of a bad situation, frankly,” said Msgr. McCahill. He said it is neither his choice, nor that of the deaf community, to relocate. “They’re very nice, they’re very welcoming as a parish,” he said of St. Thomas More. “They’re quite lovely—they’re the best of all we found, in terms of welcoming and being accepted.
“But,” continued Msgr. McCahill, “Is that ideal? No, it’s not ideal. They’ll be respected, but it’s still not their own place. They don’t have the same sense of ownership that they had here for three and a half decades. That’s the reality.”
He is grateful for the church’s intimate size, which will prevent his “relatively small group” from feeling lost, he said, and will provide proper sight lines to read interpreted liturgies. “It’s a size that’s certainly comfortable.”
Additionally, he appreciates the ample meeting space for socials and other non-liturgical gatherings on the rectory’s second floor.
While “accepting” of the decision, the deaf community is “not happy with it,” Msgr. McCahill said. “It’s a disappointment, a diminishment,” he added of the apostolate’s headquarters moving from St. Elizabeth’s.
This past Sunday, July 19, was the deaf community’s final Mass at St. Elizabeth’s. Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Walsh served as principal celebrant and homilist. Msgr. McCahill served as master of ceremonies.
The deaf community’s first scheduled Mass at St. Thomas More will be Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m. “The parish is going to be very, very happy to be able to welcome the deaf,” Father Madigan said, “and share what we have with people who can benefit” from it.
He also anticipates opportunities of interaction between both the deaf and hearing communities. “We can both learn from each other and grow from each other’s experience. It’s not just us giving the deaf something—I think the deaf will also give something to our parish. And that’s important to remember.”
As if often the case, Father Madigan continued, “the one who thinks that they’re extending something is the one who, in the end, winds up receiving.”
A silver lining amid the change that Msgr. McCahill sees are plans to begin a program for training seminarians in communication with the deaf this fall at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie.
That was, in fact, where both Msgr. McCahill and Father Madigan learned American Sign Language, when they were seminarians. Msgr. McCahill was ordained in 1968; Father Madigan was ordained in 1970.
Father Madigan concedes his American Sign Language abilities are basic. “I haven’t used it in 50 years,” he said. “My sign language was always pretty primitive.” However, he added, “I know how to spell my name in sign language.”
And who knows, maybe by Christmastime Father Madigan will resurface from his repertoire a special surprise for the deaf community who gather at St. Thomas More: “I used to be able to sing ‘Silent Night’ in sign language,” he said.