DeaFest to be held March 21 in Westville Grove


By Kate Slosar

Father Paul Zirimenya will be the keynote presenter at DeaFest.
Father Paul Zirimenya will be the keynote presenter at DeaFest.

“Love Jesus First” is the theme of the Fifth Annual Catholic DeaFest sponsored by the N.J. Pastoral Ministers With the Deaf.

The day will celebrate Deaf Catholic Life, the Deaf Way. Father Paul Zirimenya a Deaf priest from the Archdiocese of San Francisco, will be the keynote presenter as he encourages Deaf members of the Church of South Jersey to “keep their eyes fixed on Jesus first.” (See sidebar to learn more about Father Zirimenya’s spiritual journey.)

In the afternoon, Jesuit Father Joe Bruce, a Deaf Jesuit from Worchester, Mass., will encourage Deaf folks to “Find God In all Things.”

In between the presentations, the day will be filled with chatting, sharing meals and checking out vendors that provide services for Deaf persons.

DeaFest is a day of renewal for members of the Deaf Community from various parts of New Jersey, Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania. As we mingle together and share our faith in a Deaf environment, we empower each other to live out our baptismal promises in a very natural way.

“Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God,” Pope Francis has said. At the end of the day, we will gather around the Lord’s Table to share the Eucharistic Meal. Deaf members of the church will have the opportunity to fully participate in the liturgy because Mass will be celebrated in American Sign Language (ASL), the primary mode of communication for members of the Deaf Culture.

In addition, the readings will be signed in ASL, and the altar servers, responders and those participating in the offertory procession will all be Deaf persons.

We want to provide an inclusive experience of the Eucharist for all God’s people. Therefore, the Mass will be voice interpreted for hearing members of the church and there will be Captioning At Real Time (CART) for those with a hearing loss.

Many Deaf Catholics have never experienced a Deaf priest, never attended a Mass which is signed by a Deaf priest or a Mass in which all the participants are Deaf. DeaFest inspires Deaf Catholics to realize that Jesus is integral in their life and empowers them to realize that they are an important part of the life of the church.

From personal experience, I understand the importance of being included in the church and am sensitive to the needs of Deaf Catholics. I grew up in the “Deaf Church.” The priest was fluent in ASL and although my dad is hearing and my mom is Hard of Hearing, both of my parents signed to me. In all kinds of weather, they would drive a long distance so that I could attend the Deaf Mass.

There was always a social hour after the Mass and often Deaf Teen “Drop-In” gatherings. I realize now that I was one of the lucky Deaf people. I was blessed with a priest who knew ASL and could communicate with me.

Many Deaf persons are isolated in their homes and neighborhoods. They are unaware of our services for Deaf Catholics. Often an ASL interpreter is not available in the parish and the majority of priests are not familiar with ASL. If a Deaf person attends Mass at a hearing parish, it is very difficult to just follow the missal and feel as though one is really participating in Mass.

The DeaFest is a day to educate and empower Catholic Deaf people so that they will be aware of their baptismal rights and experience the richness of belonging to the Deaf Catholic Community.

I invite you to join us for Catholic DeaFest, on March 21, at St. John of God Community Services, 1145 Delsea Drive, Westville Grove, by registering at   Experience the warm hospitality of the Catholic Deaf Community in New Jersey. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members.” The Deaf members of the church are often on the margins of society, the church and even their families. Don’t be afraid of us, join us, experience our culture, experience church as together we build up the Body of Christ.

(See bottom story for more information about deaf ministry in the Diocese of Camden.)

Kate Slosar, Co-Director of Ministry With the Deaf, Diocese of Camden.


Father Zirimenya’s spiritual journey

Father Paul Zirimenya, the keynote presenter at the Fifth Annual Catholic DeaFest March 21 at St. John of God Community Services started losing his hearing when he was 6 years old.

“In Uganda, primary education takes seven years and I graduated in 1987. My parents made sure that I received education through regular tutoring to cover for what I missed in class,” he explained in an email.

Not many secondary schools accepted Deaf students when he graduated, but he was able to enroll at a Muslim school for a period of five years. (He had to spend an extra year at the school because of his young age and what he calls “a paternalistic view of Deafness.”)

He then transferred to an Evangelical High School and it was there, during history classes on European history, that he first seriously considered a vocation to priesthood.

His parents were members of the Church of England, but he had an uncle who was a Catholic priest.

The vocation to priesthood resurfaced again when he completed his bachelor’s degree in social work and social administration from Makerere University, Uganda, in 1998.

“I enrolled for a postgraduate diploma in Community Based Rehabilitation from Kyambogo University, Uganda, thinking that maybe God was calling me to something else and graduated in 1999,” he said. “While working with the outreach team of the Uganda National Association for the Deaf, I met with a Catholic priest and the call to priesthood became solid.”

He came to the United States in the summer of 2000 for Pre-Theology classes and then enrolled of priestly formation at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, Calif. as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

“It was also the first time I had interpreters for my formation,” he said. Following ordination on June 9, 2007, he was assigned as chaplain to the Deaf Community at St. Benedict Parish for the Deaf/St. Francis Xavier Church in San Francisco.

He currently serves on the board of directors for the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, NCOD representing Region 1 – West/Western Region.