Father Joseph Bruce finds joy in ministering to the hearing or the deaf
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
OTTAWA (CCN)--Father Joseph Bruce has been deaf from birth, but much of his ministry has been among the hearing.
In fact, among his favorite years as a Jesuit priest were the six he spent at St. Mary of the Angels Church, an inner city parish in Boston’s Roxbury section, where he served a mixed congregation of black and Hispanic Catholics, many of whom were immigrants from the Dominican Republic.
Most of all he loves worship and the Eucharist.
Bruce reads lips and he knows many variations of sign language. He speaks clearly even though he has never heard a spoken word his whole life.
But reading lips is hard work. Just as everyone’s handwriting is different, everyone forms words differently, some more clearly than others. He likens the effort that goes into lip reading to running a marathon every day. And even at home, living with fellow Jesuits, he relied on this skill to communicate.
That’s why, when he thought about taking a sabbatical, he chose to come to Ottawa to live in the Jesuit residence with Fr. Peter Monty, a chaplain to the deaf in Ontario who signs and celebrate Sunday Masses for the Catholic deaf community at Canadian Martyrs Church. The two have known each other for decades.
Bruce arrived in Ottawa in October where he took turns cooking for the Jesuit residence on Sunnyside Avenue, did some reading and quickly found himself enjoying St. René Goupil Ottawa Catholic Deaf Community, named after one of the Canadian martyrs who also suffered from hearing loss.
Like Goupil, who was initially dismissed from the novitiate by his superiors in France because of health difficulties and never did become a priest, Bruce did not find the road to ordination easy.
But vocations were part of his milieu as he grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts in a Catholic family that included a number of religious and priests among the relatives.
He attended the Clarke School for the Deaf, which prepared him for a life among the hearing.
“The rule was no signing,” Bruce said. “They had a goal to prepare every deaf child for regular high school, long before they started mainstreaming.”
Bruce did not learn sign language until he went to graduate school at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, where he got a Master’s degree in special education for the deaf.
He had a younger brother who became an altar server. On summer, his brother taught him the responses in Latin and after a month of practice, he was able to serve mass, too.
Bruce did not actively consider the priesthood until he was attending Holy Cross College, a Jesuit school in Massachusetts. One of the chaplains, Fr. Joe LaBran, S.J. suggested Bruce become a priest during a conversation where Bruce had told him how hard it was being the only deaf person on campus.
The Church does not allow deaf men to become priests, Bruce responded.
“God is full of surprises,” LaBran told him. “He can change things whenever he wants to.”
But Bruce did not go to the Jesuits at first. He wanted to be a diocesan priest, so he approached the Bishop of Springfield. He was told ‘no.’ He applied to the Franciscans. They said ‘no’. He applied to the Dominicans and they never wrote him back. “The Jesuits mailed me an application,” he said. “I went to a Jesuit college, so they knew me.”
At the time Bruce was ordained to the priesthood in 1981, there was only one deaf priests in the United States, Fr. Tom Coughlin who founded the new religious order Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf.
He did not realize how long a history the Catholic Church had in serving the deaf. He discovered a mother lode of information when he made his first home visit to a deaf woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who told him about the International Catholic Deaf Association. She had boxes of newspaper clippings and newsletters that she no longer wanted, so Bruce took them home with him.
“Word got around that I was interested in Catholic Church work with the deaf,” he said. He began to make collecting information a hobby. Many years later he had 20 filing cabinets of letters, newsletters, photographs and religious materials dating back to 1900.
“The collection got so big I gave it to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts,” he said, noting the archive is available for anyone who wants to conduct research. “I just want people to know that the work with the deaf began with the Church.”
In fact, monks under a rule of silence invented the manual alphabet, he said.
After his six years in Roxbury, Bruce went to Providence, Rhode Island to do deaf ministry for five years. His next assignment, when his short sabbatical in Ottawa draws to a close in mid-January, will take him to Washington, D.C. where he will work for the Washington Archdiocese at the Catholic Centre for Deaf Ministries in Landover Hills, Maryland.
Bruce has been warmly received by Ottawa’s vibrant Catholic deaf community. He even started playing cards again---something he had not done since childhood---at the Ottawa Deaf Golden Age Club.
He hopes the joy he finds in the priesthood will encourage others to respond to God’s call. There are now eleven deaf priests in the United States and a 12th will be ordained in the Milwaukee archdiocese this year.