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Speaking the word to those without hearing Deaf priest in Milwaukee celebrates Mass in American Sign Language.

  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Published Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011, at 7:43 a.m.

MILWAUKEE — Father Christopher Klusman stands at the back of St. Roman Catholic Church on Milwaukee's south side and greets worshippers after the Saturday night Mass.

This is no ordinary receiving line. The well-wishers are smiling, beaming even. Some embrace him. Others cry. Few words are spoken. But much is said.

Klusman is deaf, as are many of those who'd gathered to take part in this Mass celebrated by the newly ordained priest in American Sign Language. It is a first for many, to experience the sacrament in their own language, signed by a priest they consider one of their own.

"It's so important to have a priest who understands our language, our culture," said Karen Lausten of West Allis, Wis., one of about two dozen well-wishers who attended a reception for Klusman after Mass.

"I feel like I've learned more about my faith from him than I have my whole life."

A Milwaukee native, Klusman is among fewer than 10 profoundly deaf priests in America, and he is the first to come through the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's St. Francis de Sales Seminary.

He splits his time between St. Roman's, where he is associate pastor, and a new ministry he's developing to better serve the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

The 6 p.m. Saturday Mass, in which an interpreter voices Klusman's signing for the hearing in the pews, is a first step in that direction.

"I want to be a bridge, to bring deaf people and hearing people together," said Klusman, who moves easily between both worlds, in part because of his strong oral language and lip-reading skills.

Most important, Klusman said, he hopes to be a pastoral presence for a people often marginalized in society and their faith communities. That brings inherent challenges in Milwaukee, where many deaf Catholics still resent the church for its failure to act against the late Father Lawrence Murphy, a hearing priest adept at sign language who is believed to have molested as many as 200 deaf boys during his career.

"I want to be there for them — anything they need," said Klusman, who attended an international conference at Marquette University this spring to better understand the sex abuse crisis and minister to its victims.

Those who know him said he will be a healing presence in the archdiocese.

"He's got a big burden on him. But I think he can show people that he is not like Father Murphy," said Father Tom Coughlin, founder of the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate, a Texas-based religious order devoted to deaf ministry.

"He's good. He's different. And he will help to restore the church in Milwaukee," Coughlin said.

At 34, Klusman exudes a kind of joyful boyishness. He looks younger than he is, and he greets everyone with a broad smile and a thumbs-up — and no hint of pretense or exaggerated piety.

During his first signed Mass at St. Roman, after noticing the chalice was missing, Klusman drew a laugh when he looked out at a parishioner who was videotaping and signed, "I guess this will be the blooper moment."

At a recent religion class with three young sisters in preparation for their baptisms and first communion, Klusman surprised the oldest with a birthday cake. And he laughed as the youngest quizzed him endlessly about his monotonously black garb and whether he owned any footed pajamas.

"I will say this for him," said their mother, Christine Greco, "he's very patient."

Born deaf, Klusman grew up in Bay View and St. Francis, the youngest of Elaine and Elmer Klusman's four children in a devoutly Catholic family.

He was treated no differently at home. But like many deaf children, Klusman was often isolated and teased by neighborhood kids and classmates — an experience he says made him stronger and m ore empathetic as an adult.

He'd never considered the priesthood until college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when he began attending Bible study with a priest involved in deaf ministry.

"He asked if I'd ever thought about it, and I said I didn't know it was something I could do," Klusman recalled.

"He said if God was calling me to the priesthood, then He'd make it happen."

Klusman worked for a year for the state, assessing deaf and hard-of-hearing students for services, before entering the seminary at St. Francis de Sales.

"He was an outstanding seminarian for us," said newly ordained Bishop Donald Hying, who served as dean of formation, then rector at St. Francis during Klusman's time there.

"The first thing that strikes you about him is his overwhelming joy, his openness to everyone and everything," he said.

The seminary made minor accommodations: moving furniture in the chapel so speakers could face Klusman and bringing in sign language interpreters — an adjustment for his hearing peers who we re not used to having outsiders in what can be deeply personal formation sessions.

But it was a positive experience all around, Hying said.

"Certainly he brings a deeper awareness in all of us of the deaf Catholics in the archdiocese and the need to respond to them," he said.

Nationally, there are estimated to be 3 million to 5 million deaf Catholics, according to the Maryland-based National Catholic Office for the Deaf.

Klusman puts the number locally around 200.

Though some churches offer sign language interpreters, that rarely extends beyond weekly Mass, limiting deaf Catholics' access to outside religious study and participation in parish life.

Klusman hopes to change that by eventually offering Bible study, retreats and other programs for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and by serving as a resource for other parishes.

Already, their participation in the Saturday signed Mass signals a new era of inclusion.

At the first Mass in August, deaf worshippers signed the readings and prayer intentions, and others brought forward the bread and wine to be consecrated. They raised their hands in unison to sign the "Alleluia" and "Our Father" — powerful moments for the deaf and hearing worshippers alike.

"I want them to feel that they are equal in the church," said Klusman, who has come to see his deafness as a gift from God.

"They are equal members of the body of Christ. They have so many gifts, and we need to acknowledge them."

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