Annamae Anderson was born deaf. For her, attending Mass in her own language — American Sign Language — is a special thing.
“It’s wonderful,” she signed through interpreter Nicole Bunting at Christ Our Light Parish in Zimmerman Jan. 13.
Although she learned English as a child as well as sign language, she never taught her children to sign. But later in life, her son, Father Kevin Anderson, saw a need for it in the Catholic Church and took a sabbatical in 2002 to study sign language. He attended Boston University and came back to his parish at the time — Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud — and began celebrating a bilingual Mass using what he learned.
In 2007, he was reassigned to the parishes in Princeton and Zimmerman, now called Christ Our Light, and has continued the tradition there.
“The deaf really are the forgotten people in the Catholic Church,” Father Anderson said. “A lot of places don’t have in their budget for an interpreter so it just goes by the wayside. It’s a need we have in the diocese. It’s our duty, our responsibility, to reach out to them.
“Unfortunately, what happens with the deaf is that they don’t go to church or they end up going to another [non-Catholic] church because they’ll have interpreters there. What I have been hearing is they feel they don’t have a place in the Catholic Church. Here’s your place,” he said.
On the second Saturday of each month, the regular Mass becomes a bilingual Mass. Father Anderson works in tandem with Bunting, who drives from St. Cloud, where she lives, to Zimmerman to assist.
“I look at it as an opportunity for people to learn because the more you know in life the further you are going to go in life,” Bunting said. “So even if you just pick up a couple of signs here and there, it’s going to help you somewhere along the road when you run into a deaf person or somebody that has special needs who signs.”
During the Mass, Bunting signs the songs and Mass parts. Members of the deaf community sign the readings while Bunting reads them aloud for the hearing community.
Father Anderson uses Pidgin Signed English, a combination of English and ASL together. He speaks, sings and signs various parts of the Mass and the homily. He also teaches the congregation some of the responses in sign language.
“I’m very proud of our parishioners because they have embraced this ministry. They are welcoming. They are trying to learn the signs. They try to interact with the deaf people,” he said.
“A lot of people, especially elderly people, also really enjoy this Mass because even though they can hear it, they can hear better because when I’m signing, I’m speaking slower. It’s so deliberate.”
Phil and Teri Johnson, members of Christ Our Light, enjoy attending the bilingual Mass.
“When we hear, we only absorb so much,” Phil Johnson said. “The visual aspect helps us all to ‘lock in.’ That visual addition to the Mass helps us all pay closer attention. We are always impressed with Father Kevin’s homilies but his great singing voice combined with his talking and signing just adds to the whole experience.”
Father Anderson agreed that it is not just beneficial for the deaf, but for the whole community, including himself.
“When you see Nicole praying the songs, it becomes a different level,” he said. “From where I stand, to see the community — young and old, hearing and deaf — actively engaged and involved in the Mass is a powerful thing.”