Magazine article Momentum

Deaf Priest Forms Religious Community with a Charism to Serve the Deaf

Magazine article Momentum

Deaf Priest Forms Religious Community with a Charism to Serve the Deaf

Article excerpt

Long road leads Father Tom Coughlin to create a new growing Dominican community in San Antonio

The story of Helen Keller has become the classic example of a life that disabilities could not stop, much less slow down. Her philosophy was simple, "Life is an exciting business, and most exciting when it is lived for others." The same quote could describe Dominican Father Tom Coughlin, the first deaf priest in the United States.

Tom Coughlin began thinking seriously about a priestly vocation in high school when his eighth-grade teacher, a sister, gave him the book "Burnt Out Incense" by Trappist Father Raymond. When he decided to pursue the idea of becoming a priest, little did he realize how long and winding the road would be.

He applied to various seminaries after he graduated from high school and each turned him down because he is deaf. The Carmelites refused him because he could not participate in their choral office. He went on to graduate from Gallaudet University (the world's only university for the deaf and hard of hearing) in Washington, D.C., in 1972 widi a B.A. in English and in 1976 obtained his M.A. in religious stuthes from The Cadiolic University of America. He entered the Trinitarians in 1972 and was ordained by Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan of Baltimore in 1977, thus becoming the first deaf priest to be ordained in the United States.

At this time he began Camp Mark Seven, a Catholic camp for deaf youth and adults, in Old Forge, New York. During this time Coughlin also earned a nursing degree because he was not able to find a nurse who could sign at his camp for deaf children and one was required in order for it to stay open. He also worked as a home missionary priest for the International Catholic Deaf Association for four years.

First Steps to a New Community

In 1985, he left the Trinitarians and was transferred to the Diocese of Honolulu, where he was assigned as chaplain for the deaf in 1987. In 1993, he joined the Dominicans and later left after temporary vows. Cardinal O'Connor of New York invited Coughlin to set up a house of stuthes for deaf seminarians in Yonkers, New York. The program was transferred to the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2002 after the death of Cardinal O'Conner. Bishop Allen Vigneron of the Diocese of Oakland erected Coughlin's deaf community to the status of Private Association of the Faithful - one of the first steps in the creation of a religious institute. As a result, the community moved from San Francisco to Oakland. In 2007, the community moved from California to San Antonio, Texas, because of the high cost of living in California.

Coughlin met with so much opposition before and after ordination that he almost quit. "Most people were not prepared to welcome a deaf person. I was all alone, but vocation director Father Joseph Lupo told me, 'You have to open the door. You have to suffer so others won't.' And I saw his point. Following Christ you have to make sacrifices. One has to enter die mystery of suffering in order to pray better. Mary, Joseph, the apostles all suffered but they understood the meaning of God's love," he said.

Another person who was supportive was Fatiier Timodiy Radcliffe, now the former master general of the Dominican Order. He was the one who suggested that Coughlin start his own Dominican community for die deaf. Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Apostolic ProNuncio to the United States, also gave his support to Coughlin's effort to start a community diat would minister to the deaf.

Vocations are Coming

What has become of the group's move to San Antonio? As Coughlin puts it, "The vocations are coming to us." That translates to nine members. One is in tiieology and hopefully will be ordained in about two years. There are diree novices, one postulant, two are in philosophy and one is earning a master's degree in Spanish. Because all of the prayers and formation are conducted in sign language, applicants must be proficient in signing in order to join. …

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