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Althea M March

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St. Ann's Church for the Deaf
By Althea M March   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Posted: Wednesday, December 05, 2007

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A revelation on how a unique church establishes its presence in a community becoming more aware of the presence of the Deaf.

This was a special series of visits made to St. Annís Church for the Deaf under the Episcopal Diocese of New York, located in Union Square at East 16th Street in Manhattan, were for me, as a student of American Sign Language, for the very first time in my learning experiences, a most life-changing set of events, not soon to be forgotten causing my sign language techniques improved markedly after each visit.

The major reason for my initial interest in St. Annís Church for the Deaf is that I wanted to visit a church setting exclusively designed for the Deaf because I was curious about the way in which Deaf people worship and how they value their religious experience.

These visits turned out to be beyond expectations and real eye-openers as the beauty and simplicity of the worship sessions that I witnessed transformed me and other interested persons into keen admirers of their respect and love for each other and their relationship to God. The valuable friends that I have made at St. Annís Church are now my permanent ones for me.

For one to be personally walking in the shoes of a Deaf person is a remarkable yet difficult terrain to be in, even in todayís world of advanced technology and many hearing devices that are now available to any Deaf person who desires to be electronically equipped -- but theirs is a life journey viewed from a unique perspective. Theirs is a life devoid of any sound, to speak of in any concrete terms. More understanding and empathy is required by us, as hearing people, and our special gift of hearing that we take much for granted is our method of comprehend the universe in which we are all a part. We all desperately need to deeply and intimately learn just exactly what is felt and lived on a day-to-day basis in the life of a Deaf person. Deaf people live real everyday lives with happiness, joy, pain and sorrow, much the same as ours. They have deep feelings from their minds and hearts, which they convey skillfully with their hands along with frequent outbursts of warm, unexpected bursts of emotion in expression.

Leah Hager Cohen alludes to this observation in her book entitled, Train Go Sorry, with especial reference to the main protagonists based on a true story, James and Sofia, the Deaf are not necessarily viewed as less intelligent than we are just because they cannot fluently verbalize their thoughts to communicate their needs and reflections, but they can definitely articulate their ideas through using the beautiful signs with their hands, faces and bodies with colorful expression. They love celebrating life in all its facets and I even learned to appreciate whatever gifts I been blessed with from the Creator as gifts with more value, empathy, and care for the Deaf.

In this relaxed and welcoming atmosphere at St. Annís Church, I was warmly and enthusiastically greeted by the Rev. Maria Isabel Santiviago, who originally hails from the South American nation of Columbia. She happens to be one of the very few ministers in existence qualified in the United States, who signs regularly on a daily basis, with a purely Deaf congregation of devout worshippers. This church body may be regarded as a unique congregation, as they are classified in the categories of being described as being viewed from purely Deaf, to being born Deaf, to acquired Deafness during their lifetimes, or as to belonging in the category of the hard-of-hearing.

Rev. Maria, as I over time referred to this outstanding woman of service to the Deaf, was curious as to find out about how it was that I happened to visit this particular church. I mentioned to her that I was in the process of researching Deaf Churches in the New York City area on the Internet through the various search engines and I happened to stumble across the history and development of the Deaf Church was interested in the nature of St. Annís Church for the Deaf. I then went on to describe to her in some detail the nature of my site visit for my college class in that I am taking, as an educational major requirement, American Sign Language and my need to become familiar with a certain segment of the Deaf Community of my choosing, which was the intrigue to me of the Deaf Church. I found myself becoming rather attached this special congregation because the Deaf members there in this church exuded so much warmth and friendliness towards me that allowed to decide to return there for future visits, in a sense, becoming a family member of sorts within the body of St. Annís congregation.

Of special fascination to me was a certain member in the church by the name of a man, who is called Sam, who had been coming to the church for the last thirty years. I was privileged to celebrate with him, the church members and visitors his 91st birthday. Of course, his age does not show on him, because of his exuberant joy for living is contagious and he is well adored by everyone around him. A few of the members, who have been his life-long buddies are also well into their eighties and nineties and they have long histories of their lives of how they won in the battle of the hearing world for recognition for simply being human beings despite the odds of being classified as Deaf people. In addition,

I am hoping to participate in the celebration Rev. Mariaís birthday at the end of the year (I surely have to be there as sheís a phenomenal person, now a great friend of mine, and, might I mention that her credentials are astounding having been associated with Gallaudet University and then entering into answering the call to enter the ministry of the Episcopal Church).
Rev. Maria has compiled a creative electronic photo gallery of recent events at the church, including my visits to St. Annís. Worthy of note, too, is the fact that they also celebrated my birthday in October and I was made to feel like a really special person. Also, I had the opportunity to make friends with Erica Westly, who is a freelance journalist for the New York Times, who subsequently visited the Church being also interested on writing about how the church impacts the community around the New York City area and how to revive much-needed recognition for the church. Thus these are the main reasons for my set of visits to St. Annís Church for the Deaf.

The other really wonderful members, in addition to Rev. Maria Santiviago, as the minister, were unique in their Deafness giftedness and/or hearing capacities and they embraced Deafness as a special gift that embued them with unique qualities in their other senses utilized and amplified. Annette, though hearing, is tirelessly devoted to serving the church through her fantastic interpreting skills and assisting in event planning and implementation for the Deaf of the church. Evelyn, though born Deaf, speaks regularly and is thus skilled in speaking without hearing and imparting a beauty of being Deaf that few have. She assists with events and church correspondence. I met many other people who show love unconditionally. The last time I was there for Samís birthday celebration, I met a deaf minister, who told me at length about the history of the anti-slavery movement of the African Americans with a sense of beauty and wonder I have never heard before.

To reflect briefly on the history of St. Annís Church for the Deaf it is a remarkable one. It is the first ever church in New York City devoted exclusively to the Deaf in the United States, which arose out of a necessity to attend to the spiritual needs of the Deaf. The church was established back in 1852 under the vision of Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, who foresaw that the Deaf had unique needs, especially those of a spiritual nature and he cared for the Deaf under his guiding protection. It was then in America a society that had no compassion for the Deaf people and thought them to be mentally deranged, mentally retarded, or possessed by evil spirits and thus to be left alone and untreatable. How utterly sad this state of affairs for the Deaf was. He then consequently went on to found Gallaudet University in Washington, D. C., as the first and only Deaf university in the world.

The original location of the church was then only a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue and was relocated to its present address in the vicinity of New York University campus sharing the premises with St. Georgeís Episcopal Church. The churchís architecture is truly humongous and intriguing, taking one back to the times of Camelot of King Arthurís era. It occupies up to an entire block at near University Square and rivals that of any European cathedral with its medieval-inspired design of its furniture and thick walls in the basement area, where worship takes place. There sits in a special room a throne chair like a medieval king with embellishments in gold and other precious materials. The feeling is like that of being in some kind of cavern that is of royal derivative.

The evolution of American Sign Language, which Rev. Gallaudet designed along with LeClerc, a young priest from France, has undergone numerous changes in its mode of communication since its inception from its French roots, incorporating the new present-day living circumstances and lifestyles of the Deaf population of the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico. British sign language, on the other hand, has entirely different origins and uses primarily two hands for signing, as opposed to American Sign Languageís primary use of one dominant hand, but can sometimes include two hands for emphasis of expression of ideas and concepts in space as a spatial language. In the late nineteenth century there was much heated opposition toward the survival and continuance of American Sign Language due the decisions made at the Conference of Milan. Only aural lip-reading was acceptable in Deaf institutions and sign language was deemed as taboo and too primitive for people living in a ďcivilizedĒ society. However, thankfully, the Deaf church has continued to utilize sign language for conducting its services and the Deaf community is deeply appreciative of this standard on its behalf.

The Deaf Church, with particular reference to St. Annís Church, has weathered many storms in its turbulent history because of misunderstandings and vehement opposition from the general public as to the integral role and relevance of integrating the Deaf community in the mainstream of everyday life. This is just the desire to be and to be heard as a vital force shaping the lives of us all. To explain in some detail of the essential role that Rev. Maria plays in the church is awe-inspiring. Letís start at this point, who would desire the tremendous responsibility of leading a church exclusively devoted to the Deaf? The search for pastors who sign fluently to the Deaf is something that is almost non-existent. According to Rev. Maria, one has to be truly led by the Spirit of God in order to assume this huge responsibility of ministering to people, and in her particular case, to the Deaf. She is may be viewed as a necessary and completing link to the Deaf, to whom she ministers unreservedly.

Of recent and significant note, are people who have taken on a sharpened toward the role of the Deaf church in the community. Erica Westly in particular, is a freelance journalist, has elaborated at length in her writings her interest and involvement in the Deaf and the role of their future. In an article dated October 28, 2007, in the New York Times she elucidated on St. Annís rise to significance and prominence through Rev. Maria Santiviagoís tireless efforts in the success and well-being of the Deaf community. Rev. Maria has remained with the church now for almost two years and then suddenly witnessed the congregation grow by leaps and bounds. Also, there have been students from New York University, who have begun visiting St. Annís Church on an ongoing basis by doing various research on the Deaf community in respect to the church. Maybe I started a trend here by my initial interest in St. Annís Church for the Deaf, but who knows the way mystery of the spirit?

Additionally, comparing St. Annís with other churches in New York City, I have discovered conducting research on the Deaf is also something that I am quite passionate about and I continue to do this regularly concerning the nature of the Deaf church and its continued right to existence in mainstream society. I am equally confident that with our continued interest and assistance for Rev. Mariaís efforts, loyalty and devotion to her church community, her work with the Deaf will not be accomplished in vain in that the Deaf truly are able to see her as a unique guardian for them in defending their interests and her undying devotion that she that has brought to St. Annís Church is deserving of great honor in New York City and the Tri-State area. My sincere appreciation is extended to Rev. Maria for her generosity and hospitality and to all who come to St. Annís church, and I am truly grateful for her warm personality and welcoming spirit, has made my interest in St. Annís Church a wonderful reality.

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