Deaf priest — one of just 10 worldwide — ministers to area hearing-impaired

Fr. Depcik, OSFS, serves at St. John’s Deaf Center

DETROIT — Hearing-impaired Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit have one of the rarest things in the world — a deaf priest to minister to them.

Fr. Michael Depcik signs to the congregation at St. John’s Deaf Center in Warren as three new members are welcomed at the Easter Vigil Mass.

Fr. Michel Depcik, OSFS, one of only 10 deaf Catholic priests on the planet, celebrates Mass at the St. John’s Deaf Center in Warren and at Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Redford Township in American Sign Language, which he described as “the native language of deaf people.”

Fr. Depcik, who has been deaf since birth, responded to questions from The Michigan Catholic via email.

The St. John’s Deaf Center was founded in 1974 as an outreach ministry of the Archdiocese of Detroit. It is one of the ministries funded by the Catholic Services Appeal, the annual campaign now under way in parishes throughout the archdiocese.

Typically, about 120 people attend Sunday Mass at the center, and about 30 at Our Lady of Loretto, which was added in the early 1980s to serve deaf people on the west side of the Metro area. The local deaf Catholic community number about 300, but not all are able to make it to Mass every Sunday.

Having Mass available in ASL is essential if deaf people are going to fully participate, Fr. Depcik explained: “At hearing churches without interpreters, deaf people are lost — not able to follow Masses.”

He said there is usually no music at Mass, “although on occasion we do have had a group of people sign a song or two.”

“In place of music, we attempt to use visual enhancements to bring a sense of the sacred to the liturgy. This might include the use of incense, holy water, use of a projector and screen, environment, et cetera,” Fr. Depcik said.

Mass times

Mass is celebrated in American Sign Language at St. John’s Deaf Center, 14057 Nine Mile Road, Warren, on Sundays at 11 a.m. (with voice interpreter for hearing people who do not know sign language), and on Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. (but with no voice interpreter); and in the Our Lady of Loretto school chapel, 17175 Olympia, Redford Township, on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. (with no voice interpreter). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is offered in ASL upon request and during Advent and Lent.

Besides attending Mass in sign language, “people arrive early and stay several hours after Mass for a variety of programs and services, including parish council meetings, religious education, confession and spiritual direction, socializing and fellowship, committee meetings, et cetera,” he continued.

Because of the distance most of the people have to travel, as much as possible takes place on Sundays, but the community also offers programs and services at other times.

“We also provide various services such as Bible study classes, marriage preparation and other sacrament preparation classes, counseling, English/ASL classes for deaf adults who recently immigrated and need to learn English and ASL,” Fr. Depcik said.

Not all members of the worshipping community are deaf themselves, because there are also hearing parents of deaf children and hearing children of deaf adults, he said, adding that there are also several members who can hear but who, for various reasons, belong to the community.

Fr. Depcik came from a deaf family of seven. He drifted away from the Church in his teen years, but found his way back and felt the call to become priest at 21 years old. In response to that call, he joined the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.

“Like many priests today, I am challenged to meet all the requests that come across my desk or that people ask of me in person. Many dioceses, due to shortage of priests and the bad economy, no longer are able to provide priests for deaf people,” he said.

“As I travel all over the United States and Canada, it pains me to see deaf Catholics without priests or adequate service to meet their spiritual needs,” he said.

Fr. Depcik spoke of the importance of CSA support to the Deaf Center.

“CSA is the lifeline of St. John’s Dear Center. Through CSA, the archdiocese is able to keep our deaf chaplaincy going, including my salary and funds to keep our center open. In this way, CSA helps every parish in the archdiocese by providing for them services that an individual parish would be challenged to provide.

“Without St. John’s, parishes would struggle to minister to deaf people — finding qualified interpreters for Mass and other sacraments and services, incorporating them into parish ministries, finding a teacher who knew sign language to do sacramental preparation class, and so forth,” he said.

While the deaf ministry has had a permanent home since Cardinal John Dearden established the St. John’s Deaf Center, the Archdiocese of Detroit has had priests ministering to deaf people since 1914. Before 1974, however, the deaf community had to relocate every time its chaplain was reassigned.

For more information about St. John’s Deaf Cehnter, email Fr. Depcik at [email protected].