Catholics Invented Modern Sign Language? Hands of Grace is a New Way to Serve Deaf

Joseph Serwach

A cellphone video project morphed into Hands of Grace: The Catholic Sacraments in American Sign Language
Father Seán Loomis, a chaplain for The Deaf Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, developed the Hands of Grace project.Image courtesy of Ascension Press.

HAVERTOWN, Pa. - Father Seán Loomis is offering the deaf a new way to learn faith while building upon 250 years of Catholic tradition.

“The Church is the primary reason American Sign Language exists, period,” the Havertown, Pennsylvania priest said. “As a linguistic system, it was created in the context of the Church at a time when society thought you couldn’t educate the deaf.”

The father of sign language: 250 years ago, Father Charles-Michel de l’Épée, with an “evangelical zeal,” started the first free school for the deaf in Paris, developing formal sign language, and drawing students from around the world. Others credit an even earlier priest, Juan Pablo Bonet (1573–1633).

“Father Charles-Michel de l’Épée took up the task of educating the deaf in France by working to understand the signs,” Father Loomis explains. “Because the deaf are hyper-visual, they do better in social spaces.”

A hearing spectrum: What’s your communications language?

The 2020 Pandemic took away “social spaces” around the world as events and even Catholic Masses shifted from all in-person to part-online. Returning to Mass wearing masks made life harder for anyone who values lip-reading.

Enter Hands of Grace: The Catholic Sacraments in American Sign Language, the first adult faith formation catechetical project in American Sign Language (ASL) aimed at deaf or hard-of-hearing Catholics. It includes a free glossary showing how to “sign” uniquely Catholic terms.

“It’s a really ground-breaking program: there’s just a real poverty of resources for the deaf to learn and deepen their faith,” Loomis said. “Part of the reason that need exists is they’re a marginalized group.”

“In a world where we tend to think about numbers, they’re not going to be at the top of the list. What ends up happening is they don’t really make it on the list at all.”

The goal? Help them better experience “and taste” the beauty of the Catholic faith. Hands of Grace features videos of Father Loomis teaching in ASL. It includes a workbook he authored specifically designed with a more visual emphasis.

Spread over 21 videos and “hyper-visual” lessons, including beautiful Catholic art, the system focuses on renewing and deepening understanding of the Seven Sacraments and Catholicism, teaching the story behind the teachings.

“Deafness comes as a spectrum from the hard of hearing to total deafness,” all impacting the communications modality people rely on, ranging from voice and lip reading to 100 percent sign language and everyone in between.

Called during the first week of seminary

A convert to the Catholic faith, Father Loomis is not deaf but learned ASL at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and currently serves as chaplain to The Deaf Apostolate in Philadelphia and as parochial vicar at Annunciation BVM in Havertown.

After studying philosophy, theology, and Latin as an undergraduate, Loomis was called on during his very first week as a seminarian to learn a new language, American Sign Language and “the rich history of Catholic deaf ministry.”

“The first thing that got me on this road was a notice on the bulletin board from the academic dean saying I needed to meet with him immediately,” Loomis recalls. “This was during my first week of seminary.”

A volunteer worked with him every week (even during vacations) to teach him sign language. He was following in the footsteps of Father l’Épée, Jean Massieu (a deaf student at that first school for the deaf), and Father Roch-Ambroise Sicard.

Over a long, sometimes complicated, and often controversial history, American Sign Language became formalized, systematized, and legitimized, leading to the creation of Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., an all deaf university.

Other Catholic educational institutions including Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan, have developed rich ASL programs.

The Association of Catholic Publishers recently named Hands of Grace as a finalist for the Excellence in Catholic Publishing Awards. But Loomis said it really began with him making “simple cellphone videos” several years ago and realizing a better program was needed.

From a long history of persecution to a unique language, culture

According to the U.S. Census, at least 6.9 million people are deaf/hard of hearing in the United States.

Loomis said that the lack of catechetical resources and an overall decline of faith in society means fewer than 1 percent of deaf people attend church or affiliate themselves with Christianity. He estimates the number of “active Deaf Catholics” could be between 60,000 and 100,000 nationwide.

The Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, in 522 AD, argued that a person deaf from birth — who could not speak — deserved no rights, Loomis explains.

During the Middle Ages, some doctors treated deafness by placing hot coals in mouths to “incentivize” people to speak, even inserting catheters through the nostrils and injecting burning liquids or drilling holes in the crown of their skull to create openings thinking it might improve hearing.

A belief pervaded in science that drilling, cutting, fracturing, scorching, or poisoning would “open up” the ear, the brain, and the body to sound. Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor whose father taught deaf children, similarly wanted signing removed from classrooms to encourage lip reading.

Nevertheless, Loomis said that the deaf have long used “some version of sign language” to communicate throughout history, noting even St. Augustine spoke of it. Early forms of sign language weren’t advanced nor universal but were “highly localized and more basic” before Father de l’Épée set up his school.

“From the deaf perspective, this is huge, they do not view being deaf primarily from a medical perspective, meaning ability vs. disability, and that is how the rest of the world tends to view deafness,” Loomis said.

Instead, he said many in the deaf community approach sign language as cultural, as “our language, our arts, our heritage all things associated with a culture.”
Above: A sample of The Hands of Grace featuring Catholic art and multiple colors.Image courtesy of Ascension Press.

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