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A Quiet Faith : The hearing-impaired who attend services at the Holy Angels Church of the Deaf say the Vernon chapel's priests and congregants offer an experience other parishes cannot.

January 10, 1993|DUKE HELFAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rachel Postovoit cannot hear her church organ, but she can feel the music.

That's because an eight-foot-long acoustic "cannon" at the rear of the sanctuary amplifies vibrations through the wooden floor.

Both the floor and the cannon were designed to accommodate members of Holy Angels Church of the Deaf in Vernon, one of only two Catholic parishes for the hearing-impaired in California.

Every Sunday, more than 300 worshipers pack the small sanctuary for two services, leaving standing room only for latecomers. Many say they flock to the church because it offers a meaningful religious experience that "hearing" parishes are unable to provide.

They note that the parish's two priests, both of whom are deaf, sign services in front of burgundy walls that make hand movements easily visible. And confessions, traditionally heard in anonymity as a priest sits behind a curtain, are conducted in face-to-face sign language in a small room with lights that illuminate the area around the hands.

"At our other church (in West Covina), we missed out and couldn't relate to what the priest was saying," said Postovoit, 19, who attends Sunday services regularly with her deaf twin, Rosemarie. "Here we watch (our pastors') hands. Their hands go to our eyes and our eyes go to our hearts."

The church opened in December, 1988, in a vacant 75-year-old stone chapel amid a largely industrial area of Vernon. The Los Angeles Archdiocese established the parish at 4433 S. Santa Fe Ave. in response to requests by the deaf community, which for 12 years had worshiped alongside hearing parishioners at St. Bernard's Church in Glassell Park. The religious deaf community in Los Angeles has prayed together for at least 65 years, but had long sought a place of its own, said Father Brian Doran, the pastor of Holy Angeles.

While the church has a membership of about 300, as many as 500 people from Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Bernardino counties attend religious and social activities including weddings, baptisms, Mardi Gras nights, luaus and Western barbecues, Doran said. The other California Catholic parish for the deaf is in San Francisco.

The congregation includes hearing members, those who are deaf and those who are hard of hearing, meaning they can communicate to some extent with words.

Parishioners say the church provides not only religious fulfillment but a rare opportunity to socialize with others from the deaf community. Before and after services each Sunday, congregants can be found hugging and signing greetings. Many remain for several hours after services, eating lunch served in the church social hall and talking with fellow parishioners.

"People come here and it's an explosion of conversation that they are starved for," said Joanne Schmidt, a church volunteer who interprets sign language for hearing guests. "They may live in communities or have jobs where no one speaks their language. Here their cultural sameness is their deafness."

Indeed, congregants say the fact that they are deaf or have a hearing impairment has helped them overcome racial and ethnic differences that divide the world around them. Seated among the mostly Latino congregation on a given Sunday morning are African-Americans, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Anglos.

"Deaf people tend to identify themselves as deaf before black, Asian, white (or Latino)," said Father Tom Schweitzer, the church's associate pastor. "In many ways, deafness is like our ethnic group, if you see it as a cultural identity."

"Your deaf brothers and sisters are your family," said longtime parishioner Gino Giudice, a 60-year-old Hollywood resident. "Race doesn't matter. This is our deaf church here. We feel like we own it."

Church leaders say they welcome hearing members, including parents of deaf children and those who come to enjoy the close-knit atmosphere. Although services are "signed" for the congregation, English and Spanish interpreters translate the prayers aloud.

Margarita Torres, a hearing mother of 14, said she made Holy Angels her church because her five deaf children feel comfortable there.

"When it comes to praying to God, my family is more united," said Torres, 50, a Highland Park resident. "It has helped my children to communicate with other people."

Torres said she also enjoys Doran and Schweitzer, whom she said are easy to talk to.

Others seem to share the sentiment. As a recent Sunday service ended, Doran placed his thumb, index finger and pinky outward toward the congregation, forming the sign meaning "I love you." Immediately, dozens of parishioners returned the sign.

"Here we're not afraid to participate," Rosemarie Postovoit said of her experience at the church. "The closeness is very natural."

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