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Sister Conchetta uses whole body to talk with deaf community

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While celebrating her 50-year jubilee as a sister of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, Sister Conchetta LoPriesti said, “People may be used to communicating through speaking. I do it with pictures in the air.” From her childhood days of translating Italian for her father to her current work in deaf ministry, Sister Conchetta continues to use her whole body to communicate.

Sister Conchetta LoPriesti, OSF, signs the inclusive Mass held at St. Bernadette Church. Father Gerry Skrzynski, pastor at St. John the Baptist in Boston, signs the eucharistic prayer, as Father Robert Owczarczak leads the Mass. (Photo by Dan Daly/The Sun)

The National Catholic Office of the Deaf estimates there are 5.7 million deaf or hard-of-hearing Catholics in the United States. Parishes have been encouraged to include sign language interpreters during Mass and to invite deaf people to serve as eucharistic ministers. In 1995, the USCCB released a document outlining the rights of Catholics who are deaf. This included offering them opportunities to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.

Locally, Sister Conchetta serves as director of Deaf Ministry. In this role, she welcomes 20 to 30 deaf people every Sunday for the 10:30 a.m. Mass at Fourteen Holy Helpers Parish in West Seneca, where she interprets the Mass through American Sign Language. Sister Conchetta also teaches an adult sign language class that runs 10-week sessions in the spring and fall. She tutors a deacon, a priest and various lay people who are interested in interpreting Mass. Sister also interprets confirmations, weddings, funerals when requested by the family or parish.

“Somebody gives my name or card to somebody and then they call me,” she said.

Part of the Franciscan charism is outreach to the marginalized. Sister Conchetta’s aim is to make the sacraments accessible to everyone.

Her mission began 40 years ago as a special education teacher in her hometown of Pittsburgh. While working with multi-disabled students, she learned sign language at Gallaudet University, the university for the deaf in Washington, D.C. There, she met Father Conrad Stachowiak, who would go on to be moderator of the Deaf Apostolate in Buffalo.

Within six months of taking a job in a Pittsburgh school, Sister Conchetta was signing on televised Masses and running the religion classes at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Pittsburgh. She also interpreted around the diocese as needed, much like she does here. After serving in the Appalachian Mountains and West Texas, she returned to Pennsylvania as an interpreter. She then got a degree in counseling to further meet the needs of deaf people. The merger of five Franciscan communities into the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in the mid-2000s brought her to Buffalo.

Sister Conchetta compares being deaf to living in this world of Covid pandemic. It is a world of isolation.

“A lot of times a deaf person is the only deaf person in the family,” she said. “The things that you talk out with your family; your uncle talks about how to repair cars and stuff. You learn a lot of things at the dinner table. Most of the time the deaf people are left out because it takes too much effort. They give them a one-sentence summary maybe.”

Sister Conchetta LoPriesti, OSF, watches as Maggie Boyle, a volunteer in St. Bernadette Parish’s God’s Family program, signs at the Inclusive Mass for people with disabilities at St. Bernadette Parish. (Photo by Dan Daly/The Sun)

She recalls one student who went home for Thanksgiving to find out her grandmother died two months earlier. No one took the extra effort to write to her, while phoning the rest of the family. “It’s not that they do it on purpose, exactly. It’s just they don’t know how, and the deaf person is really left out,” she said. “So, it’s really important to me that the sacraments are open and accessible for our deaf people.”

Sister Conchetta grew up with a grandmother who only spoke Italian. They had to communicate through body language. Then she had to translate Italian into English for her father after her mother died.

 “So, I’ve just used my whole body to communicate since I was younger. I love the deaf world. There is a lot of excitement. There is a lot of emotion in American Sign Language. You don’t just sign. You’re whole body signs. There is no doubt in your mind how a deaf person feels on any topic you’re talking about because it is all part of their language. I love that. Deaf people are pretty blunt. I like that. It is exciting to see them catching the words of the Gospel in the Mass.”

“The deaf community really teaches us a lot about community,” she continued. “Hearing people, they’re racing each other out of the parking lot after Mass. You’re lucky if you don’t get run over before you get to the back of the church. Where the deaf, they’re talking away and sharing with each other. You find out if someone is in the hospital. You find out if someone needs an extra visit. And you find out the happy news, if someone is having a grandchild. It’s very much a community.”

For more information about Deaf Ministry in the Diocese of Buffalo, visit https://14hh.org/parish-community/buffalo-catholic-deaf-ministry/.

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