Deaf Catholic says Church has come a long way in 100 years

Helen Booker, who turned 100 years old on March 30, is a mainstay at St. John’s Deaf Center in Eastpointe. Booker, whose family immigrated to Detroit from Belgium when she was 4 years old, grew up facing challenges as a Deaf Catholic, but says Detroit’s Catholic community has embraced the hearing-impaired in recent decades.

EASTPOINTE — In 100 years, Helen Booker has seen plenty of changes to the world and the Church.

And there is an emphasis on just that, “seeing” the change around her.

Booker turned 100 years old on March 30. The Clinton Township resident is a mainstay at the St. John Deaf Center in Eastpointe, providing context and perspective on the transformation in the Catholic Church, and the world.

Booker was born March 30, 1918, in a small town outside Brussels, Belgium, to a Norwegian mother and a Belgian father who was killed in World War I. Booker and her mother boarded the New Amsterdam and arrived at Ellis Island in January 1922 before moving to Detroit.

While living in a small apartment with her mother on Baldwin Street, Booker developed a case of the whooping cough the summer she arrived in America, causing her loss of hearing.

“My mother said I spoke French, but I don’t remember any of it,” Booker said through a sign-language interpreter, Jacquelyn Felix, office manager at the St. John Deaf Center. “My mother was born in Oslo, Norway; she could speak Norwegian, French and English, but didn’t know sign language.”

Booker’s mother remarried June 14, 1924, and the family of three moved to 6045 Stanton St. in Detroit, right across the street from the Detroit Day School for the Deaf.

In addition to taking classes there, Booker attended classes in a room at St. Mary Hospital, 1420 St. Antoine, taught by St. Joseph Parish pastor Fr. Henry Kaufmann, a pioneer in ministering to the Deaf Catholic community in Detroit.

During her school days, she met her husband while playing in the neighborhood. The couple married at St. Leo Parish on Grand River Avenue in 1941. It wasn’t until 1974 that Cardinal John Dearden established the St. John Deaf Center in Warren as a permanent place for Deaf Catholics to celebrate Mass.

“I’m very thankful to the center, to Sr. Dolores Beere (a minister at the center), who asked me to come help her at the center on Fisher Street (in Warren),” Booker said. “She was working in the kitchen and needed help with the senior citizens, everything from going out and buying groceries to helping prepare food at the center.” The pastor at the St. John Deaf Center, Fr. Raymond Ellis, asked Booker to be a member of the Legion of Mary and a Eucharistic minister and to join the International Catholic Deaf Association, even traveling to New York with her husband and Sr. Beere to meet Fr. Thomas Coughlin, OP, a Dominican who was the first ordained deaf priest in the United States.

In 1984, the Toledo-based Oblates of St. Francis were tasked with serving the Deaf community in Detroit. In 1985, Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka established another Deaf center at Our Lady of Loretto in Redford Township, while the east-side St. John Deaf Center moved to its current location on Chesterfield Avenue in Eastpointe in 2015, having Mass a few blocks north at Holy Innocents Church in Roseville.

Booker remembers the struggle she and other deaf Catholics dealt with growing up, from priests not knowing sign language to being shut off from homilies before the Vatican II reforms when Mass was celebrated ad orientem in Latin, but the homily was delivered in English — still inaccessible to the deaf community.

Helen Booker plays cards March 12 at the St. John’s Deaf Center in Eastpointe during a celebration of her 100th birthday.

“It wasn’t that long ago we didn’t have closed-caption television,” Booker said. “I’m thankful to Fr. Ellis, who really made some changes. The priests were facing away from us at the altar, back to the congregation. He explained to the bishop the deaf couldn’t see what was happening, couldn’t read the lips of the priest.

“A long time ago in the Church, you would go to confession by writing down your sins on a slip of paper and inserting it underneath the door,” Booker explains. “Then the priest would write back what you needed to pray for your penance. But with Fr. Mike (Depcik, OSFS) we have improved communication; we can do it face to face.”

Fr. Depcik — who himself is deaf — has been at St. John’s Deaf Center since 2010. He celebrates Mass for the Deaf at Our Lady of Loretto at 9:30 a.m. and at Holy Innocents at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday and holy days of obligation. His offices are at the St. John’s Deaf Center.

“There is a shortage of counseling services for the Deaf community, so we are here to fill that gap,” Fr. Depcik said through an interpreter. “We have social workers who come here to help out, and we offer everything a parish offers, from the sacrament of reconciliation and the Eucharist, to Bible study.”

Fr. Depcik is the third Oblate to serve as director of the Deaf Center, continuing the tradition of Fr. Kaufmann.

“Fr. Kaufmann started the Deaf ministry at St. Joseph in 1914 because the Deaf had no one to minster to them,” Fr. Depcik said. “So he learned some sign language. He performed the first Mass for the Deaf at St. Joseph’s with 37 Deaf Catholics in attendance.”

Fr. Depcik said the Archdiocese of Detroit is the only diocese in Michigan with a priest trained to minister to the Deaf community, a shortfall the Catholic Church needs to address, he says.

A birthday cake in honor of Helen Booker’s 100th birthday is seen at the St. John’s Deaf Center in Eastpointe.

“I travel all over the U.S. to give retreats, and it’s sad how many dioceses don’t have a priest working with the Deaf. It’s why so many Deaf Catholics join other denominations, like Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Methodists, who do great work with the Deaf. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, we’re fortunate to have Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who has remained committed to the Deaf community.”

Surrounded by the fellow members of the St. John’s Deaf Center, Booker celebrated her 100th birthday with cake and playing cards in a community she calls home.

She said the Catholic Church has come a long way in ministering to Deaf Catholics, but could still do more to make them feel more included in parishes.

“Everything is all improved now; things are much better and are getting better,” Booker said. “I’m very happy we have the St. John Deaf Center; we’re very lucky. I’m always learning something new. I’m almost 100 and still learning; just as the Church is still learning (how to relate to the Deaf community). And we will all learn until we die. It’s never too late.”

Mass for the Deaf

Masses for the Deaf are held on Sunday and holy days at Our Lady of Loretto, 17116 Olympia, Redford Township, at 9:30 a.m., and Holy Innocents Church, 26100 Ridgemont St., Roseville, at 11:30 a.m. The St. John’s Deaf Center, 16103 Chesterfield Ave., Eastpointe, is open Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.