By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published October 9, 2022
SANDY SPRINGS—At a retreat center tucked away on a hillside, Kimberly Kirkpatrick attended her first Deaf Cursillo with great anticipation.
A cradle Catholic from Ellijay, nearly 80 miles north of Atlanta, she was excited to learn more about her faith with people who spoke her language.
“At the Cursillo it’s fully accessible,” signed Kirkpatrick. “I’m just excited to learn.”
The 67th National Deaf Cursillo was held Sept. 22-25 at the Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Sandy Springs. About 25 deaf women and men from around the country gathered to learn more about their faith through programs offered in American Sign Language (ASL). This was the first event for the community since the coronavirus pandemic.
Similar to retreats, the Cursillo gathers people together to deepen their spirituality. It is a three-day experience with 15 talks teaching the Christian faith and how to be effective faith leaders. The National Deaf Cursillo is held every few years.
The people and the connections made are the best part of the experience, said Lulu Lee, lay director for the Cursillo.
“You see them signing, and it was just beautiful. All of us together, praying and learning with the signs,” she said.
For more than 50 years, the National Deaf Cursillo has hosted events for the Catholic community in the United States.
Cursillo weekend is “a renewal of your faith. To be able to be in community with people who communicate like you do…you’re able to relax and be yourself,” said Maggie Rousseau, director of Disabilities Ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported in March about 11.5 million Americans have some sort of hearing impairment, ranging from difficulty hearing conversations to total hearing loss.
The National Catholic Partnership on Disability reports approximately 600,000 people in the United States are deaf across all age groups.
“I wish there were interpreters everywhere so I can go to church near my home, so I can have friends and meet my neighbors and be involved in my community,” said Kirkpatrick.
Once a month, she drives some 60 miles to Transfiguration Church in Marietta, a parish that provides an interpreter for Mass on Sundays.
“It can be very frustrating for the deaf sometimes,” she said.
Despite these challenges, Kirkpatrick continues to find opportunities to learn more about her faith. “Being closer to God is a big important thing,” she said.
The National Deaf Cursillo is “the best adult education we do at all for the deaf,” said its spiritual director Father Bill Key.
The senior priest was first involved with the community when he volunteered to coach a basketball team of deaf players while in seminary. After that experience, he learned ASL as a student at Gallaudet University, a private college in Washington, D.C. for deaf and hard of hearing students. He made his first National Deaf Cursillo in 1982 and has been a board member for 25 years.
Hearing the stories of the Deaf community has had a great impact on Father Key’s faith.
“I’m always impressed by somebody else’s story, somebody else’s message,” he said.
The Deaf Catholic community is small, but our faith is still burning, said Lee. She has been the lay director for National Deaf Cursillo for more than seven years. Lee travels to Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chicago for deaf Masses and events as there are no services in her small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Lee looks at the people attending to help her in the work.
“I don’t work alone; I can’t do this all myself,” she said. “This is happening through different people and that’s why this is wonderful.”
Coming to Atlanta
Members of the National Deaf Cursillo core team suggested Atlanta for the 67th event, explained Rousseau. Plans for the event began in 2019. The Cursillo was scheduled for 2020, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was worth the wait because more people could participate, she said.
Atlanta’s Disabilities Ministry works to assist communities with accommodations for those with special needs. The Office of Deaf Services provides ASL interpretation services for reconciliation, Mass and sacramental preparation.
The ministry and office plan the ASL track at the Eucharistic Congress and celebrate a quarterly deaf Mass with a priest from a neighboring diocese. There are no priests who know ASL within the Atlanta Archdiocese.
This was the first National Deaf Cursillo for Christine Eckel, a member of the deaf ministry at Transfiguration Church. She was a volunteer at the Cursillo, helping behind the scenes. She also teaches first Communion at her church and volunteers with Toni’s Camp, an annual retreat for people with mild to moderate developmental delays.
“My hope is for all that are candidates, all that attended, to get to know God on a more deeper level, and also learn to love God more and for them to be able to share that love…so that they can become more active within the Deaf community,” said Eckel.
A parish offering to host a deaf Mass and volunteering to learn ASL are a couple of ways Catholics can support the Deaf community. Attending a deaf Mass is also a beautiful experience, said Rousseau.
“It’s a silent Mass, and you just see this incredible ballet of praise to Jesus. Even though you’re going to Mass in a different language, you can still understand what’s going on, which is the same all over the world,” said Rousseau. “That’s what’s wonderful about the universal church.”