New Track Enriches All Who ‘Listen In’
Published: June 16, 2005
Father Michael Depcik, OSFS, speaking in American Sign Language, shares the instructions of the Blessed Mother during the track for the deaf at the Eucharistic Congress, June 4. (Photo by Stanley Leary/Archdiocese of Atlanta)
ATLANTA—The people in the room watched, enraptured, as the tall, expressive speaker made the words of faith in Christ come alive using the mesmerizing gestures of American Sign Language. A soft-voiced female interpreter spoke the words aloud for those in the room not fortunate enough to understand the language.
This year’s Eucharistic Congress on June 4 brought the first-ever track for the deaf as part of the archdiocese’s Ministry With Persons With Disabilities under the direction of Ed McCoy. Father Michael Depcik, OSFS, was the sole speaker for the track, captivating the small crowd in the quiet room with his challenging words and historical perspective on Jesus and his mother Mary.
A number of hearing people stopped by out of curiosity and then stayed to learn more, caught by the stories shared by this charismatic storyteller.
Father Depcik was born deaf in a family of seven, all deaf, in Chicago. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education and history from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., he moved to Detroit, where he became a postulant of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales congregation. Following his ordination to the priesthood in June 2000, he became the chaplain of the deaf Catholics in the Diocese of Lansing, Mich. He accepted a call to be a missionary for the International Catholic Deaf Association and now travels widely, giving retreats for deaf Catholics.
In his talk at the Congress, Father Depcik shared his personal story of becoming a “born-again Catholic.” He knew about God, he said, but he didn’t have that “personal relationship” with Christ. After living with a fundamentalist Christian family in Australia before college, he was inspired by their faith but still searching for his place in Christianity. When he started at Gallaudet, he started “church shopping.” Somehow, Catholicism continued to call him, although he was lackadaisical in his faith.
At 21, he found a book about Medjugorje, and his life changed. The call of the Blessed Mother inspired him to love the Catholic faith more intensely, ultimately leading to his ordination to the priesthood.
One of the topics he discussed at the Congress was vocations. He asked the audience, “What is the definition of a vocation?” It’s not the old-fashioned definition of being called to be a priest or a nun, he said, but actually a vocation is “to respond to a call from God ... to become something that God wants you to be and to give Him the glory.”
“God called me to become a priest,” he said. Others might be called to be a doctor or to be a parent.
He continued with another question, “What was Mary’s vocation?” He said, “Her vocation was to help us to pray and have faith ... to help all of us to know Jesus Christ.”
Father Depcik described the appearances of Mary at Guadalupe, Fatima, and Medjugorje, including the fascinating details that only a historian can add. As he spoke, members of the small audience jumped up to clarify something, excitedly signing a question that the interpreter would translate, and Father Depcik responded each time, with the patience of a long-time teacher.
Among the attendees at the deaf track were a number of Catholics who serve the church as sign language interpreters, including several who are currently enrolled in training programs.
Liana Valentin-Scott, a parishioner at Transfiguration Church in Marietta, is taking classes in American Sign Language at Georgia Perimeter College. She, like a number of others, came to the track to practice her interpreting skills and found the speaker to be engaging.
Rebecca Schwartz, who has a degree in sign language from Madonna University in Lavonia, Mich., knows Father Depcik well as she is a former student of his at the school. She said, “He strikes fear in the hearts of the students because he is so strict, while at the same time he is the most popular teacher at the school.” Father Depcik has a way of drawing people in with his stories and humor and turning them around, she said.
After the lunch break Father Depcik led the group in the graceful unison of the rosary in sign language, and he took the time to explain the sorrowful mysteries employing the historical knowledge of the Shroud of Turin. At each decade, he challenged the group with a question such as, “Think of Jesus’ terror ... ask yourself, are you really open to God’s will even if it means personal suffering?”
Deaf since birth, Frania Franch-Sonner, an American Sign Language instructor and substitute teacher and a parishioner at Transfiguration, attended Father Depcik’s talks and said his “presentation blew me away.”
She shared her impressions of the session via e-mail. “I knew he is a motivated researcher in all kinds of ancient history ... he showed us the picture of Jesus’ bleeding shroud from Turin, Italy, and explained the scientists’ evidence of how Jesus was suffered, died and was buried ... Overall, he was able to clarify our questions at the end of the presentation. I feel that his presentation helped me to understand Mary and Jesus in some inspirational ways.”
Franch-Sonner met Father Depcik (long before he became a priest) and his entire family in 1989 in Chicago while she was completing an internship. Noting that he is a world traveler and a voracious reader, she said that he was even then the teller of many interesting historical tales. She wasn’t surprised when he majored in history later at Gallaudet.
The Eucharistic Congress was “too crowded” for her, she shared, but “it was fascinating to see all kinds of parishioners and religious people all day long.” She was a bit disappointed in the conflicting schedules between the tracks but was glad to be a part of the closing Mass with everyone else.
She was also satisfied with the success of the deaf track at the Congress. “I finally met more deaf parishioners from Augusta and Rome ... we shared our Catholic faith and tried to look for some solutions in our deaf ministry work in north Georgia. Overall, Father Mike Depcik was our inspiration there.”
Schwartz agreed, saying the fact that he has gotten to where he is, after all of the experiences he’s had, that he has “succeeded in reaching out to the deaf community,” is a true inspiration.
“He fills a sense of community,” she said, “in a community where people can feel isolated.”