Reproduced with kind permission. Originally appeared in the March edition of the Oremus Magazine.
By Shell Roca
'This Church is your home.'
This was the message from Bishop Konstant welcoming the Deaf Community to Westminster Cathedral back in the 1980’s, a message that has stayed with members of the Deaf Community right up to this day. Some of you will have seen Caritas Deaf Service in the Cathedral, interpreting for the Deaf Community on occasions like the Chrism Mass or the Lourdes Mass, or you might have seen the Deaf Community leading the Stations of the Cross each Friday throughout Lent. But did you know that the Deaf Community’s link with the Cathedral goes back even further than that?
Prior to the Second World War, priests from Westminster Cathedral would go to St Peter’s Hall and hear confessions from the Deaf Community, and every month there was a Mass for the Deaf Community in the Cathedral. This was followed by breakfast in Cathedral Hall, with up to 200 Deaf people attending. After the war, the events for the Deaf Community moved to Cathedral Hall. Over the years, the Vincentian Order supported the Deaf Community and it was in 1976 that the Deaf Service became part of the Diocese of Westminster with the service being headed up by Fr Peter Sharp.
'Ephphatha', the name for the Deaf Service back at this time, once again organised Mass in the Cathedral with Cardinal Hume presiding. In the Westminster Cathedral Bulletin from April 1980, Fr Peter explained that 'this is a unique occasion – a Mass celebrated in Word and Sign to enable deaf and hearing people to share… "Ephphatha" because on this occasion the Mass will be truly "open" for deaf people as well as for hearing people.'
By 1985, the ‘Westminster & Brentwood Pastoral Service for the Deaf’ had become an agency of Westminster Diocese, though offering continued support to the Brentwood Pastoral Service. Fr Peter returned to parish ministry and the service, then known as Social and Pastoral Action (SPA), was run by Sr Eileen McColgan, and then by Susan Line.
By 2000, Westminster Diocese Deaf Service (WDDS), was headed by lay people, with a Deaf-led management committee, something that continues to this day. The current team at Caritas Deaf Service have all worked here for over 15 years, a testimony to the joy and privilege of working with the Deaf Community, sharing their journey in faith, as well as learning from them.
Although there have been changes to the name and form of work undertaken, one thing that has remained constant in the Diocese’s 90 year history of pastoral ministry with Deaf people is that the Cathedral continues to be an importance place for the Deaf Community. Wherever they live in the Diocese, the cathedral is their spiritual home. We are blessed in Westminster Diocese that we have clergy with signing skills, currently a team of 7, but there is always room for more! 13th – 19th March 2022 is Sign Language Week so maybe take this month as the opportunity to start to learn to sign?
Caritas Westminster is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and the team have been reflecting on the past 10 years. Delving into the history with the Deaf Community has brought back many happy memories from the past 10 years and beyond, with generations of Deaf people worshipping and practicing their faith in the Church they think of as their home.
For more information about Caritas Deaf Service visit their website.
Caritas Deaf Service is one of the many services supported by the Cardinal's Appeal. Support their continued work by donating here.