Spirituality for Today – June 2009 – Volume 13, Issue 11

God Created Me a Deaf Person for His Glory
An Interview with Fr. Tom Coughlin, O.P. Miss.

By Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

A photo of Fr. Thomas CoughlinFr. Thomas Coughlin

Father Tom Coughlin began seriously thinking about a priestly vocation in high school when his eighth grader teacher, a Sister, gave him the book, Burnt Out Incense by Father Raymond, O.C.S.O. When he decided to pursue the idea of becoming a priest, little did he realize how long and winding the road would be.

He began applying to various seminaries after he graduated from high school and each turned him down because he is deaf. He even approached the Carmelites and was refused due to the fact he could not participate in their choral office. He went on to graduate from Gallaudet University in 1972 with a BA in English and in 1976 obtained his MA in Religious Studies from Catholic University. He entered the Trinitarians in 1972 and was ordained by Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan of Baltimore in 1977, thus becoming the first deaf priest to be ordained in the United States.

It was at this time that Fr. Tom began a Catholic camp for youth and adults called Camp Mark Seven. He worked as a home missionary priest for the International Catholic Deaf Association for four years. In 1985, he left the Trinitarians and was transferred to the Honolulu Diocese where he was assigned as chaplain for the deaf in 1987. In the process, he also earned a nursing degree as he was not able to find a nurse who could sign at his camp for deaf children because one was required in order for it to stay open. In 1993, he joined the Dominicans and later left after temporary vows. Cardinal O'Connor of New York invited Fr. Tom to set up a House of Studies for deaf seminarians in Yonkers, New York. The program was transferred to the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2002 at the death of Cardinal O'Conner. Bishop Allen Vigneron of the Oakland Diocese erected Fr. Tom's deaf community to the status of Private Association of the Faithful-one of the first steps in the creation of a creation of a religious institute. As result, the community moved from San Francisco to Oakland. In 2007 the community moved from California to San Antonio, Texas as the cost of living there was too high.

During those years, he met with so much opposition before and after ordination that he almost quit. "Most people were not prepared to welcome a deaf person. I was all alone but the vocation director Father Joseph Lupo told me 'You have to open the door. You have to suffer so others won't.' And I saw his point. Following Christ you have to make sacrifices. One has to enter the mystery of suffering in order to pray better. Mary, Joseph, the apostles all suffered but the understood the meaning of God's love."

Another person who was supportive was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, now the former master general of the Dominican Order. He was the one who suggested that Fr. Tom start his own Dominican community for the deaf. Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the United States, also gave his support to Fr. Tom's effort to start a community that would minister to the deaf.*

What has become of Fr. Tom's move to San Antonio? As he puts it, "The vocations are coming to us." That translates to nine members. One is in theology and hopefully will be ordained in about two years. There are three novices, one postulant, two are in philosophy and one is earning a master's in Spanish. As all of the prayers and formation is done in sign language; if someone is interested he would have to proficient in signing in order to join. Fr. Tom's statement about vocations also refers to the fact that he is in contact with ten men who are interested in joining. At present, the down side to this community is that they depend one hundred percent on donations. And with today's economy, that can be a real struggle. Along with his regular duties, Fr. Tom has been asked to officiate at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. When I ask him what his usual stipend was for administering these sacraments outside his usual commitments to deaf communities in Austin, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi, he replied that he sometimes has had to pay his own way as often these people are very poor.

When our conversation came back to his community and vocations, he mentioned that at the present his house is full. However, he is very interested in admitting more men so that the deaf in other cities such as Chicago and New York can benefit from their charism. For those who are not familiar with that term, it means gift. God gives a special gift or charism to each religious community to live out. And for Fr. Tom, that is best part of his ministry. He described it simply, "The Word became Flesh. In sign language God's word is more clear' not just verbal but made flesh. This is our charism." Fr. Tom also commented, "I am profoundly grateful to Bishop Allen Vigeron for his support in helping to start my community for the deaf."

There is also an everyday, ordinary reality that profound theology of the Incarnation. When I asked Fr. Tom what he thought the most important item he wanted people to know about ministering to the hearing impaired, he paused for a long moment. Direct and to the point, he replied, "To communicate in sign language. Deaf people shy away because speaking with voice is so difficult to communicate with the deaf."

Like the various other cultures which enrich the American Church, deaf culture can also be a rewarding experience when approached with an open heart and respect. In fact, places I visited where the deaf and hard of hearing gather, I found were busy and active as well as inviting. I also found that learning only a few signs like hello and thank you went a long way in establishing a relationship.

Experiences of my own religious sisters who are hard of hearing (as well as encountering one of my former students) lead me into meeting the various deaf and hard of hearing women at the Office for Persons with a Disability. While there I discovered how eager they are to learn new skills as their hands danced like beautiful butterflies. This meeting helped me research a story for National Deaf Awareness Week. And as stories and meeting are wont to do, that story led to this one on Fr. Tom and after this story, there is no telling where this adventure will conclude. During Fr. Tom's interview, he commented, "The deaf are still marginalized. They don't know how to tell their stories And that is important." In the end, isn't that's what we all want-to tell our story and have someone really listen. But for someone to be there to truly listen, the question remains, "Who will respond to God's invitation like Isaiah who said, 'Here I am, send me.'?"

* To learn more about Fr. Tom's community go to Dominicanmissionaries.org.