NYTimes finds 'signs' of life in imperiled parish catering to deaf

Having expertly covered the Fulton Sheen body battle, the New York Times' Sharon Otterman turns her reporter's eye to a new conflict taking place in Manhattan's Catholic community: the efforts of an Upper East Side parish to convince the Archdiocese of New York to allow it to stay open so that it might continue its ministry to the deaf.

The story's headline is long and pensive -- "On the Upper East Side, Silent Prayers to Save a Sanctuary for the Deaf" -- and so is the lede, but it pays off:

The choir members filed up to the altar in robes the color of the red roses of Saint Elizabeth, the patron saint of their beloved church. They arrayed themselves on two risers and looked to the choir director for a cue. Then they raised their hands in unison and began to sign.
“Jesus,” they signed together, touching their middle fingers to their opposite palm to represent the crucifixion. “Lord,” they signed, sweeping their fingers in an “L” formation across and off their chests. When it came time for the congregation to give the sign of peace, the worshipers, about 75 of them, raised their palms with their ring and middle fingers pointed down. They waved exuberantly. “I love you,” their hands silently said.
The deaf were celebrating Mass on a recent Sunday in the intimate Upper East Side sanctuary where they have prayed since 1980, when Cardinal Terence Cooke named the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary on East 83rd Street New York’s Roman Catholic parish for the deaf.
The church has become a haven to nearly 500 deaf New Yorkers, who not only pray there, but also come through the week to study religion, meet with clergy members and socialize. That era is about to end. On Nov. 2, the Archdiocese of New York announced that St. Elizabeth’s would be among 31 churches closing for regular use by next August, part of a sweeping series of parish mergers and closings.

Take a moment and read those first two paragraphs again. That is the kind of classic, relaxed, Sunday morning writing one hardly sees in any newspaper save for the New York Times on a good day. It is meant to be read in bed over coffee and a toasted bagel.

I like it that Otterman, in presenting the archdiocese's reasons for closing the parish, simply gives the facts rather than painting the diocese as insensitive, as one of her colleagues did in in a similar story:

The archdiocese says the closings are propelled by financial concerns, dwindling church attendance and a shortage of clergymen. But at St. Elizabeth’s, the news came as a particular shock, because many parishioners, and the pastor, had believed that the church’s special status as a sanctuary for the deaf would protect it.

There are good quotes from the pastor, who admits he missed an opportunity to advocate for the parish before the axe fell:

Msgr. Patrick McCahill, 71, has guided the church since Cardinal Cooke’s designation and is the only priest fluent in American Sign Language who is left in the archdiocese, which stretches from the Catskills to Staten Island. He has officiated over countless baptisms, confirmations and weddings in A.S.L. and in the process has become the quiet spiritual leader of much of the practicing Catholic deaf community in New York.
Though the church knew as early as last April that an advisory panel had recommended it for closing, Father McCahill, who is hearing, decided to not make a fuss, quietly trusting that the archdiocese would realize that the deaf community and St. Elizabeth’s parish had fused together in a rare and special way, he said. There are about 240 hearing parishioners at the church. Despite their small numbers, they provide most of the financial support for the church, saying its work with the deaf community is part of what makes it vital.
Father McCahill now considers his decision naïve and says he believes that the archdiocese must have inadvertently overlooked the deaf Catholics in the complexity of deciding the fate of hundreds of parishes.
“I can’t understand why it can’t stay open and independent,” he said after the closing was announced. After all, he said, the parish is financially sound and the church building is in good condition.

“I understand that the archdiocese has problems, but you are not going to solve those problems by going against your basic instincts of serving people,” he said. His role now, he said, is to remind people: “Please, don’t let these people, who are marginalized in so many ways by society, be marginalized by the church.” 

Toward the end of the story is a quote from archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling, here tasked with the thankless job of passing on vague and unsatisfying information about the future of the archdiocese's ministry to the deaf:

The archdiocese has not yet spoken with the clergy or parishioners at St. Elizabeth’s about what will happen to the deaf community. The parishioners have been assuming they will move to St. Monica’s, even though Father McCahill complains that the church, with its cathedral-size sanctuary and lack of a handicapped-accessible social hall, is inappropriate.
The spokesman for the archdiocese, Joseph Zwilling, said on Nov. 19 that such thinking was “a misconception.”
The deaf will not be able to stay at St. Elizabeth’s, he said, but “finding another location that can be their new home is very doable once we get a good handle on what their needs are and what they would be looking for.”

Read the whole piece and enjoy Otterman's flair for visual detail, which is an especially appropriate touch given that she is writing about people who use their eyes in place of their ears.

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