PORTLAND — The Rev. Kevin Hughes has worked with deaf Catholic communities in Missouri, New York and Ontario, Canada, to translate Mass into American Sign Language and now is ready to bring that ministry to his new faith community.

The Rev. Kevin Hughes will be offering a Mass in sign language once a month at St. Pius X Church as part of the Roman Catholic Diocese’s Deaf Ministry. Courtesy / Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

Hughes will offer a signed Mass every third Sunday of the month at 9 a.m. at St. Pius X Church on Ocean Avenue, beginning Sept. 20. Newly ordained, Hughes officially joined the parish, Our Lady of Hope, Aug. 8.

While others churches in the area offer American Sign Language interpretation for their services, Hughes’ Mass will be different in that he will be signing as he also leads the service verbally.

Hughes was inspired to learn American Sign Language after attending a sign-interpreted Mass in Syracuse, New York. He attended Gallaudet University, a private university for the deaf and hearing impaired, in Washington, D.C., to begin studying American Sign Language in 2010. Most recently he was a deacon at St. Francis de Salle Catholic Deaf Ministry at St. Stephen’s Chapel in Toronto.

The experience of a deaf person attending a Mass without American Sign Language, he said, is akin to a native English speaker attending a Mass in a language they are not familiar with.

“They could still attend Mass and things would look more or less the same, but they would have difficulty sitting there and being able to actively participate,” Hughes said.

Deacon Peter Bernier, who oversees specialized ministries for the diocese, said he couldn’t put a number on how many parishioners are deaf or hearing impaired. The diocese, he said, has four American Sign Language interpreters who interpret Masses around the greater Portland area and has had The Rev. Joseph Bruce, a deaf priest from Massachusetts, sign a Mass once a month at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Scarborough, but the pandemic has put those offerings on hold. Bernier said the hope is to restart interpreted Masses soon.

“We want to make sure those who are deaf and hearing impaired fell welcome. We want them to be able to fully participate in Masses,” Bernier said.

Mass in American Sign Language, according to the diocese, allows those who are hearing impaired to focus on the liturgy instead of moving their eyes back and forth between an interpreter and the priest.

“We are so pleased to be offering this new ministry to the deaf and hearing-impaired community,” said the Rev. Paul Sullivan, S.J., pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish.

The pandemic has presented a challenging set of circumstances for churches, which this spring began offering virtual services in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The diocese has started in-person Masses again, but the number of those who can attend is limited and participants have to wear masks, “an obstacle to easy communication,” the diocese said.

The signed Mass, Hughes said, will offer a much better experience for those who are deaf of hard of hearing and remove that communication barrier.

“The value of deaf ministry is the deaf community in church and those who know sign (language) can participate and visually respond to prayers from the priest rather than sitting there, not hearing that is being said and participating in the Mass through an interpreter,” he said.

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