By Ramon Gonzalez
Western Catholic Reporter
Caption: Deacon Matthew Hysell (left), who will be ordained a priest Dec. 7, discusses a point with Fr. Jim Corrigan, pastor of Edmonton’s St. Theresa Parish. Photo by Ramon Gonzalez / CCN.
Matthew Hysell became deaf after contracting spinal meningitis when he was 18 months old.
He lives in a mostly silent world, but those who know Hysell describe him as a good listener, someone who pays attention to their concerns.
Since he arrived in Edmonton from San Jose, Calif., almost five years ago, Hysell has been busy studying theology, preaching the Word of God from the pulpit, visiting Catholic schools and giving retreats. Very soon he will be able to hear Confessions as well.
A transitional deacon currently assisting at St. Theresa Parish and at St. Mark’s Catholic Community for the Deaf, Hysell will be ordained to the priesthood in Edmonton Dec. 7. He will be the first deaf priest in Canada.
“It’s hard to believe that is actually happening because I’ve wanted to be a priest since I was 13 years old, even before I became a Catholic,” Hysell, 34, said in a recent interview.
“At this point, however, it will be nice when it’s all done because there is a lot of preparation and a lot of work that’s involved. I just want to get to work.”
His goals as a priest are diverse. “I want everybody that I meet to know how wonderful it is to be God’s friend,” he says. “I want people to know that life is worth living precisely because of God’s love for us.”
At a more practical level, “my goal is to do what the archbishop wants me to do.”
Born in Muskegon, Mich., Hysell came to Edmonton in 2008 to study advanced theology with a view of becoming a priest for the Diocese of San Jose. But he stayed in Edmonton after a conversation with Smith.
At age 18 months, Hysell fell victim to a meningitis epidemic that struck Michigan in the 1970s.
He was given an experimental vaccine to fight the condition. One of the vaccine’s side effects, though, was hearing loss.
“Honestly it is a blessing in disguise that I’m deaf because if I wasn’t deaf, I wouldn’t be doing this work with the deaf community,” he said.
Hysell has no hearing in one ear and very little in the other. “Without a hearing-aid, I can’t hear anything,” he says.
But he can speak clearly and knows sign language, which he learned as a child in schools for the deaf. He uses a hearing-aid with a microphone to amplify sounds around him. Hysell is also an expert lip reader, a skill he is grateful his mother made him learn.
John Shores, chair of the St. Mark’s Community, says the community is “blessed” to have Hysell as part of the team. “His ordination is a real miracle,” he said through an interpreter.
“Matthew is brilliant, has profound knowledge of the Church and is a great teacher. We have a lot of questions and he answers all of our questions.”
There are nearly 130,000 deaf Catholics in Canada, including 50 active in the St. Mark’s Community.
The community has always had a priest for Sunday Mass but never one who is deaf.
“Knowing the unique needs of the deaf is something special,” Shores said, noting community members have a real bond with Hysell because of his own impairment. “He is very caring and really pays attention to you when you speak to him. He gives of his time generously.”
Sister Elizabeth Kass, another member of the St. Mark’s Community team, is ecstatic about Hysell’s upcoming ordination.
“I have been praying for years for a deaf priest in Canada and now it happens right here in Edmonton,” she giggled. “It’s a miracle.”
Nevertheless, Kass is somewhat disappointed Hysell has been assigned to St. Theresa’s. “But we are still hoping that he will be able to work with our St. Mark’s Catholic Community of the Deaf as our chaplain as much as possible.”
Before coming to St. Theresa’s a few weeks ago, Hysell was assisting at St. Thomas More Parish, mostly preaching and working with youth. “I think he is a great man — a man of faith,” said Father Andrew Bogdanowicz, the pastor.
“He touched many people in this parish in a very positive way. People reacted well to his homilies; after Mass people spoke to him and were grateful to him.”
Hysell’s hearing impairment actually worked to his advantage “because it drew people to him and they paid more attention.”
“I’m very impressed with him,” Bogdanowicz added. “He is a very humble man and a very faithful man. He’ll be a great priest. ”
Hysell served at St. Thomas More for just two months but returns regularly because he is leader of the youth group that will attend World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro next year.
At St. Theresa, Father Jim Corrigan is elated to have Hysell as part of his three-priest team. Hysell did his parish internship at this busy parish of 5,000 families, and he knows the ins and outs at St. Theresa.
“He knows the people, he knows all the schools, he knows all the care centres so he can start working right away,” Corrigan says. “The training in a sense has already been done.”
Corrigan describes Hysell as a “very intelligent lad” with a good sense of humour. “He fits in well (in the parish) and people like him.”
One challenge to having a deaf priest in the team is instant communication. “For instance, it’s not like someone can phone him and leave him a voicemail but on his business card he’s going to have his text information so people can text him,” Corrigan pointed out.
“I’m not sure if I’d call it a challenge; I think it is almost a grace in the sense that it forces me to slow down because when I engage in conversation with him I need to apply myself a little bit.”
To converse with Hysell, one has to speak face to face so he can read one’s lips.
“What he lacks in his ability to hear, he picks up for in attentiveness,” says Corrigan. “When he comes to a meeting, he is focused and that’s a good thing.”
Apart from assisting at St. Theresa, Hysell will also serve at St. Mark’s Community as a priest as much as possible.
At St. Theresa’s, Hysell will be visiting the parish’s 12 Catholic schools and celebrating Mass at the care centres. He will also take a regular shift celebrating weekday Masses. “I know there is going to have to be a little bit of collaboration on our part because of his responsibility with the deaf community but he’s got good energy,” Corrigan said.
As the only deaf priest in Canada, Hysell also expects to spend a lot of time on the road, giving missions and retreats to the deaf community across Canada.
Knowing how busy he will be, Hysell plans to teach the deaf community in Edmonton how to be self-sufficient. “I think the community needs to be able to help itself,” he says.
Hysell says serving the hearing community at both St. Thomas More and St. Theresa parishes has been enriching. “I have found that everybody is very accommodating; they are very sensitive to what I can and cannot do and we even make jokes about it.”
But Hysell says, “There has never been deliberate insensitivity. Never.”
Sometimes, though, he worries that his interlocutors may get impatient because they have to repeat themselves when speaking to him.
Hysell doesn’t know how to control his voice so when he speaks to a group Corrigan has to make a motion so he can correct himself.
A former Baptist, Hysell converted to Roman Catholicism at age 16 in 1993, after attending World Youth Day in Denver.
There he met a deaf priest, Father Thomas Coughlin, who helped him realize what he could do for the Church if he were ordained. Coughlin became his mentor. Seeing how the priest enjoyed his vocation made Hysell want to follow in his footsteps. Coughlin is expected to attend Hysell’s ordination.
Hysell studied philosophy at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley. He came to Newman Theological College in January 2008 to complete his master of theology degree.
He planned to return to San Jose to become a priest there when Smith invited him to stay. It was Sept. 26, 2009. Hysell accepted the invitation. “I found there was a need here.”
The fact that the archbishop speaks sign language also played a role in his decision.
So did Edmonton, which Hysell has come to love.
“Never in a million years did I think that I would end up in this city that I had never heard of before,” he smiles. “But now that I’m here, I feel like I have been here all my life, like I belong here. I love it here.”