Seminarian: ASL brings faith to life for deaf Catholics

Joshua Bartlett

Seminarian Joshua Barlett, flanked by his mom, Maryann Barlett (left) and his ASL tutor, Robin Sizemore, hopes to minister to deaf Catholics through American Sign Language in the future. (Photo courtesy Kathie Conwell)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — Many of us use our hands as much as our voice when we talk, for emphasis or to express emotion. But what if we couldn’t hear, and possibly couldn’t speak as a result? How would we communicate and how would others communicate with us? In the U.S., since the early years of the 19th century, a gestural language known as American Sign Language has been taught to the deaf, to enable them to interact with both deaf and hearing persons.

We’ve all seen interpreters, men and women specially trained in American Sign Language, signing at conventions, speeches and other events to interpret the spoken words to deaf people.

“There is a huge need for ASL,” said seminarian Joshua Barlett, 22, who graduated in May from Conception Seminary College with a degree in Philosophy. He will begin his theology coursework at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, later this month, and keep practicing and learning ASL for use in future ministries. “ASL helps the deaf ‘talk’ to other deaf people,” he said, “and to hearing people who know how to sign. Knowing ASL would reach out to them; if a deaf person needed a one-on-one talk with a priest or especially during the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

Joshua, a hearing person, began learning American Sign Language as a child. Joshua, his brothers and sister were all homeschooled through grade 12.

“I think I was around 9 years old,” he recalled. “It was time for us all to learn a foreign language. Mom did some research and found that, in this country, Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language and American Sign Language is third. (Some sources say it is the fourth most common.) We started with Spanish, but we wanted something different. So Mom went to the library and found some things out about ASL, and we decided signing was the language we wanted to learn.”

“Mom,” Maryann Barlett, started teaching herself sign language with what was available at the neighborhood library and her children learned along with her. When the library’s resources were exhausted, Joshua said, Maryann began taking courses in ASL at Maple Woods Community College, and brought home what she learned to teach her children.

Maryann Barlett eventually went to work for Catholic Charities as the Coordinator for Deaf Services.

Joshua first thought about being a priest when he was about eight and serving Mass for the first time. “When I walked back down the aisle with the other server and Father, an elderly lady stopped me. ‘Oh, you look just like Father, are you going to be a priest?’ Well, I loved attention and that started me thinking maybe I would like to be a priest. School and other things took over and I pushed it away almost until the end of high school. Then it came back. I decided to attend Conception and check it out. After I’d only been there a short time, I realized I loved it. This is what God is calling me to do. I’m looking forward to Josephinum, and it’s only 10 minutes away from the Ohio School for the Deaf, so I can keep up with ASL.”

Joshua and his siblings continued to learn ASL as they grew older. Sign language is not just hand signals, he said, it’s a language, with its own grammar structure. It requires constant memorization and, even more, a change in thought processes. It’s a language of concepts, not words, he said, and as such has its own difficulties.

American Sign Language is a complex language that employs signs using the hands, with movements of the fingers, arms and head, accompanied by facial grammar (expressions) and posture. “Sometimes it’s hard to get it through my mind that you can’t just translate English into hand signals,” Joshua said. “Using your hands, face and body, you have to describe a concept so it can be visualized. You can’t just sign bear, you have to sign that it’s a big, brown, hairy animal. You have to connect the motion with the idea: the sign for banana is the motion of peeling your index finger.”

This summer, Joshua worked at Bishop Sullivan Center, and received American Sign Language tutoring from Robin Sizemore. He was able to do this because of a grant for seminarians from the Catherin V. Merrill Foundation which is to be used to give them a chance to work and further their education, especially in Spanish, while involving them in social services. Seminarians are able to work at Bishop Sullivan Center and Seton Center under the terms of the grant.

Joshua had already done some studying Spanish, and approached Father Richard Rocha, Kansas City-St. Joseph vocations director, requesting to learn more sign language. Father Rocha and Maryann Barlett joined forces to find a tutor, and Bishop Sullivan Center director Tom Turner spoke with attorneys for the Merrill Foundation to get an agreement that ASL would fit the terms of the grant. When the agreement came through, Joshua was ready to begin his summer of working with the poor and learning more ASL.

He spent four hours each workday with Sizemore. One of the first things she did was present Joshua with a pair of ear plugs and told him to wear them when they went outside the Bishop Sullivan Center. The ear plugs enabled him to get a sense of what it is like to not be able to hear. He had to communicate with other people as though he was deaf.

ASL is the first language of many of the deaf in North America, and differs dramatically from British Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language and most other sign languages.

ASL was originally derived from French Sign Language as taught to the deaf and mute by a French priest, Abbe Charles-Michel l’Epee, as early as 1750. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), l’Epee’s method of teaching the deaf was based on the principle that “The education of deaf mutes must teach them through the eye what other people acquire through the ear.”

Unlike other teachers of the deaf at the time, l’Epee did not attempt to teach spoken French to his students. He observed and then learned from the students their own sign language, and after using it to communicate with them, he made it the basis of instruction for teaching them the French language and French culture. L’Epee, and others over the next 200 years, called it “the natural language of signs,” according to an essay written in 1960 by William C. Stokoe, Jr., a long-time instructor and administrator at Gallaudet University. While l’Epee used this “natural language” as the basis of his model of visual communication, he recognized that there would be differences in regional cultures and styles that rendered it less than sufficient in teaching students from different parts of the country. So he coined “methodical” signs that would be more widely understood. An example of a methodical sign still used today in American Sign Language is the sign of the preposition “for.” Stokoe said, “… it begins with the index finger pressed against the forehead the seat of reason or intention, and terminates with the finger pointing to the object.”

L’Epee devised a way for deaf people to have a standardized language of their own.

L’Epee died in 1789 and was succeeded by a former student, the Abbe Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard, who had been made principal of a school for the deaf in Bordeaux three years before. One of his students, Laurent Clerc, became a sign language instructor at the Paris School for the Deaf.

In 1815, a group of residents of Hartford, Conn., underwrote the expense of sending Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to Europe to study methods of teaching the deaf. He went to England first, believing that since the basic spoken language of both the United States and England was English, that learning their form of sign language would be the best for American deaf people. But officials at Watson’s London Asylum for the Deaf refused to teach him. While deciding what avenue to try next, Gallaudet met l’Abbe Sicard, who was traveling in England and was invited to come to France and visit the Paris School.

While in Paris, Gallaudet learned the language and established a friendship with Laurent Clerc, whom Sicard later sent with Gallaudet when he returned to America. Clerc became the first deaf teacher of the deaf in this country.

The American School for the Deaf was established in 1817 in Hartford, with Gallaudet as its headmaster. The New York School for the Deaf was also established in 1817. The language system devised by Abbe l’Epee, using both natural and methodical signs, was the basis of the instruction, and has continued as such for almost two centuries.

In 1856, Amos Kendall, postmaster general during the administrations of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, donated part of his estate in northeast Washington, D.C., to establish a residential school for 12 deaf and six blind students. In 1857 he persuaded Congress to incorporate the new school, named the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind. Edward M. Gallaudet, son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, founder of the American School for the Deaf, became the new school’s first superintendent.

Congress passed a law authorizing the school to confer college degrees in 1864, which was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. Edward Gallaudet was made president of the institution, including the college, which that year had eight students enrolled. He presided over the first college graduation in June 1869 when three young men received diplomas signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. The diplomas of all Gallaudet graduates have been signed by the presiding U.S. president to this day.

The institution’s name was changed to Gallaudet College through an act of Congress in 1954, in honor of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, and is now Gallaudet University.

Other schools for the deaf were eventually established all over the country. In the early 1830s, Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of St. Louis, invited the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a French order, to come to St. Louis to open a school. In March, 1835, six young nuns arrived in New Orleans, and were met there by Bishop Rosati, who accompanied them upriver to St. Louis by steamboat. By 1837, they had established the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf, where the sisters communicated with the students using l’Epee’s sign language system. Today, the institute works to help deaf children develop oral language and speech without the use of sign language. This is done through the use of hearing aids and cochlear implants.

Many schools, including the Missouri School for the Deaf, founded in Fulton in 1851, use visual aids, sign language and auditory instruction when appropriate.

Maryann Barlett said American Sign Language is regionally and culturally based. Signing in Kansas City, Mo., is very much like signing in Johnson County, Kansas, while signing in St. Louis has many differences (e.g. much as a hearing person in Kansas City might call a soft drink a “Coke,” a St. Louis native would call it a soda). The sign for trash in Kansas City, she said, is the same as the sign for cabbage in Minnesota. American signers cannot automatically understand Spanish, German or even British sign language.

In the past 184 years, American Sign Language has expanded to include signs for new customs, new technologies and new phenomena, including a sign for the Internet. Maryann said before 9-11, there was no sign for terrorism. The deaf community in New York devised a sign and within a few months, through conversations and over the Internet, deaf people all over the country were using it. To visualize the sign, think of two airplanes crashing into two tall buildings.

Writing in the Catholic Sentinel, of Portland, Ore., in 2007, Archbishop John Vlazney noted that “Presently there are actually seven deaf priests who minister in the United States. Reportedly there are also four deaf seminarians studying to be priests…About half the dioceses in the United States offer deaf-ministry programs. Most … have Masses interpreted into American Sign Language. The biggest change here and elsewhere is that more deaf lay people are attending church and becoming involved in parish life.

Even with updated sign language and interpreters, Joshua said many in the deaf community don’t feel accepted by hearing persons and the hearing culture — don’t feel they are part of the larger community. Especially when it comes to their faith, he said. “Finding out that a seminarian has been learning ASL excited them. Deaf Catholics don’t often get opportunities to learn about their faith. It’s crucial to reach out to them to help them grow in faith and community acceptance.”

Arvilla Rank, Executive Director of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf (NCOD), reported, again in 2007, that only about 4 percent of deaf Catholic adults nationwide attend Mass. For them “the experience of attending a spoken Mass falls flat. For others a signed Mass doesn’t adequately convey inflections and nuances of a speaking priest’s homily.”

Father Rocha said that as far as he knows, only Father Bernard Branson, pastor of St. Ann Parish in Independence, knows how to communicate in American Sign Language.

Joshua and other young people have reached out to the deaf community in their parishes, serving as interpreters and animators. In high school, Joshua participated in a hand choir at St. James of Liberty, which signed the words of the music the hearing congregation was singing during Mass.

“ASL becomes part of you,” he said. “Spoken words and sign language often blend. I’ll be driving down the road with my left hand on the steering wheel, and realize my right hand is signing the words to the music on the radio. My friends yell, ‘Josh, you’re doing it again!’”

His right hand again signing of its own accord he said, “Music and language have morphed into a kind of prayer, different from what you’re familiar with, but definitely a kind of prayer for me.”

He said because of ASL, he’s more aware of what he is saying. “It changes your thought processes — you talk to describe.”

Joshua said it’s integral to get into the mindset of a deaf person to really begin to understand him or her. “What would it be like to not have one of your senses? Just thinking about not being able to hear increases your overall awareness. You begin to understand some of the difficulties a deaf person faces living in a hearing world, the things you and I take for granted. Like at a Royals game. If a deaf person is paying too close attention to the closed captioning on the Jumbotron, he or she might miss a line drive into the opposite field or vice versa.”

Joshua expects to celebrate his ordination to the priesthood in 2015. What would he like to see happen in 10 years? “I would love to see ASL take off,” he said without hesitation. “There is a good and growing awareness of deaf ministry in this diocese. It would take some doing, but maybe a priest who knew American Sign Language could sign while saying Mass. Maybe even somewhere down the road, it’d be fantastic to have a deaf parish.”


  1. July 13, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

    I feel called to finish my interpreting license and service for the death community. I would love to start a group of interpreters who volunteer to go to Catholic conventions/events and be there for the death community. Even provide software for some events that can add live captions on a screen if needed. I have friends who stopped going to the Catholic Church because they could not find a deaf service. I am saving the money to go back to school and finish my license.

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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph