8: Blind Catholics Keeping the Faith in a Pandemic

For some Catholics who are blind, the experience of the Mass can be very different than for sighted people. In normal times, it can be a tactile experience.

But not during the pandemic.

In Scripture, Jesus is recorded as saying where two or three are gathered together in His name, there He is in the midst of them. And that goes for times when the two or three need to be two or three meters apart for social distancing. As with many Catholics, those who are blind have found technology as a way to continue to express their faith even when so much of life is disrupted. Many are also helped by an organization in New York, the Xavier Society for the Blind, which for 120 years has kept coming Catholic and inspirational materials in Braille and audio formats.

We’ll learn more on this episode of Faith Full.

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(In this episode we hear from four people: Skip to Donna Slivoski, Roger Erpelding, Fr. Jamie Dennis, or Malachy Fallon)

Faith-filled in Brooklyn

Donna Slivoski loves to read Braille, as she’s done her entire life.  Technically she wasn’t born blind, but she tells that to people to simplify it.

“I was born premature,” she says. “As with many people born in the fifties from my generation, at that time, the doctors didn’t realize that too much oxygen in the incubators destroyed the [retina],” known as retinopathy of prematurity.

Donna says she’s been blessed with an ability to read Braille well, which probably contributes to her love of it. She’s Catholic, and retired at age 63 after more than three decades with the Treasury Department.

Since she was about 18-years-old, she’s taken advantage of Catholic materials in Braille from the Xavier Society, provided totally free of charge.

I learned about it in college,” Donna recalls, saying a Jesuit priest at her alma mater Fordham University told her about the Xavier Society.  “I actually did a reading at one of their masses. That was that was the first time that I that I was a lector using the Xavier Society’s material. And I really liked it.”

Photo of Donna Slivoski in church
Donna Slivoski stands at a podium to serve as lector at the Mass. (Courtesy photo)

Many years later Donna says she was approached by an older gentleman at her parish who asked if she’d again take up a role as lector, someone to present the readings during Mass. She says, at the time, she wasn’t sure.

“My concern was that people would be so distracted by my reading Braille that they would not be listening to the Word,” Donna says. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer. And I thought about it, and I knew in my heart how much I had enjoyed the one time I had done it at school. And I knew I really wanted to do it.”

Donna considers the decision to try being a lector again to be one of the smartest decisions she’s made in regards to her parish. Before reading for the congregation, she wasn’t too involved in the parish, but all of the sudden a door opened.

People started saying hello even from the congregation, much more so than than prior to my being being a lector,” she says.

Even though Donna is a lector, the pandemic interrupted the routine. U.S. Catholic Bishops provided a special dispensation for the faithful to not need to physically go to Mass at a time when vulnerable populations need to be protected. Churches all over the country were closed, at least for a time, and many have serious restrictions for parishioners who have returned.

Technology connecting the faithful

“Since June 29, the parishes in Brooklyn Diocese have been open for daily Mass and I I’m going back to Mass,” Donna says, adding that because she’s retired she can go to daily Mass. It was hard not to go during the pandemic, but technology brought options.

“I have to give some of these Catholic churches a lot of credit for all of the different prayer services and Masses that have been streamed online. The worst part was not being able to receive the Eucharist, but thanks to YouTube and Facebook, I was able to listen to the Mass every day. In a way I never had so many choices of Masses to go to,” she says. “But there’s nothing that takes the place of receiving the Eucharist on a daily basis.”

Donna also benefits from connections made on a chat site primarily but not exclusively for people who are blind. She says one of the Christian women on the site began a prayer group, bringing together worshipers as far away as New Zealand and South Africa every Friday afternoon at 2.

“I told them that, again thanks to the Xavier Society, I said that I had a Braille Bible, and I would be willing to do the Scripture readings each week,” Donna says. “Many of the people in that group were blinded later in life. I think I may be the only person who actually reads Braille, so I’m really the only one who can read the Scriptures live, so to speak. And having that every week has really helped a lot, in that I’m still lectoring, it’s just to a different crowd.”

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Technology has also been a big part of the pandemic experience for 70-year-old retiree Roger Erpelding in Des Moines, Iowa.

Roger’s been blind since birth, and is also a lector. He utilizes the Xavier Society sending him what’s called the Proper of the Mass, in Braille—that’s all of the texts for a given service.

“I never missed a Mass during the pandemic for two reasons,” Roger says. “Here locally on Channel 23, they have a Mass from Milwaukee called Heart of the Nation Catholic Church. And we’ve watched that. And also St. Theresa’s Parish in Des Moines, where we attend, they did the online masses for 4:30 on Saturday and 8:00 on Sunday. And my wife got on the computer and was able to call them up. And whatever we listened to or watched my Sunday Propers stayed the same. And I got Propers all through the pandemic from Xavier Society. ”

Stained glass shown before the Heart of the Nation Mass (Screenshot from YouTube)

Roger says he returned to Mass at St. Theresa’s in July, but the situation is definitely still not normal. He can’t take his Proper of the Mass with him, for example, because you’re not supposed to bring anything to Mass.

He’s also not been able to serve as lector as he sometimes does.

But not everything is different than before the pandemic.

“I miss out on all the visual Mass things anyway. So it doesn’t matter whether I hear it on the radio or watch it on TV or watch it through the Internet, none of the visuals change. Now, the auditory–what I really miss is a sense of community and being with people,” he says.

“We began to go to Mass again…at first I walked into church or that. What in the world am I doing here? Is this safe? Does this make any kind of sense? Because my wife and I are both retired and we’re both elderly. And I think what in the world am I doing is taking this risk? And the longer I was at Mass, the more I felt right about it. ”

Roger says he spoke with his wife after that first Mass, and they agreed they wanted to keep going. Despite keeping socially distant, and facing other restrictions, at least other parishioners are there with them.

“It’s just nice to be in person at Mass again. There is a flavor to it that isn’t quite the same here at home or on TV,” Roger says. “And at our age with the weather or if we’re sick with the flu or have bad colds and so forth, and don’t want to go to church and expose ourselves to everybody else, we have several Mass options at home here as well.”

Physically adjusting to Mass in a pandemic

Fr. Jamie Dennis, an avid train fan, stands in front of an Amtrak train. (Fr. Jamie’s Facebook page)

Blessed Mother Catholic Church in Owensboro, KY is about 8.5 hours from the Erpeldings in Des Moines. In a video of a recent Mass, you can see Blessed Mother’s priest processing to the alter, wearing a mask of course, as a sign of the times.

There’s nothing unusual about this priest, though you may notice he’s a little younger than many priests you might come across.

But Father Jamie Dennis is one of what he estimates are maybe just 10 priests who are blind in the United States.

“Before the Vatican II council, blindness was an impediment to orders,” Fr. Jamie says, meaning blindness was an obstacle to someone becoming a priest.

But it is no longer and actually the current Code of Canon Law,” he continues. “It says that in the case of a blind priest, it said, you know, as long as the texts they are using for the Mass and all of that is the same and it says, you know, that is OK. It also says that, you know, a priest, a deacon or a qualified lay person can assist the blind priest if needed.”

Fr. Jamie’s story is an amazing one, and we’ll feature more of him in our next episode. You’ll hear how he lives in a train caboose, and laid railroad track on his family land—truly incredible conversation.

Fr. Jamie lost his sight gradually while he was young, experiencing a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, RP for short.

He says the rods and cones in the back of your eyes start dying, which shrinks the field of view. He describes his vision now as if you’re looking through a tiny straw, and the tiny image isn’t at all clear.

Once the pandemic hit, Fr. Jamie says he and the parish staff met with Pastor Mike Clark to find out what changes needed to be made.

“We decided that I would no longer distribute Communion during Masses because, you know, since I can’t see when a person is approaching, my people know that they have to touch my hands, so I know where to place the Host. And then if I want to receive on the tongue, they know to move my hand to their mouth,” Fr. Jamie says. “And, you know, I’ve made the sacrifice. I said, you know, this is to protect me and them.”

Fr. Jamie says that was difficult for him, because his vocation is all about bringing Jesus to His people, and Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Fr. Jamie behind the alter during Mass
Fr. Jamie Dennis celebrating Mass at Blessed Mother parish. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Fr. Jamie also had to stop visiting the hospital to see the sick or dying, or to see newborns. He couldn’t as freely visit the homebound, and spent a lot of time in his office, which is unusual for him. He has seen an uptick in people, especially younger people, looking for spiritual direction. He already had a leg-up on the pivot to technology, because he has his own YouTube channel and is comfortable in the space.

His link to the Xavier Society and the need for specific materials in Braille is tied to the beginning of his preparation for the priesthood.

“When I was in college and I knew I was getting ready to go to seminary, one of the books that is important is what we call the breviary or the Liturgy of the Hours,” he says. “And so as a priest, you are required to pray that when you’re ordained. And basically what it is, is the Psalms prayed in a four week cycle. So in four weeks, we have prayed all 150 Psalms. And then we start over. And that’s what our day revolves around. It’s supposed to.”

Fr. Jamie says he knew he would need to get liturgical books in Braille, and began with the Liturgy of the Hours. The Xavier Society had Sundays of Advent and Lent, which began Fr. Jamie’s relationship with them.

He says he found another organization to get the full Liturgy of the Hours made at cost. His diocese and the Kentucky Department for the Blind split the cost, as the book was necessary for his job.

“So as I got closer to priesthood, you know, I realized I needed other liturgical books,” Fr. Jamie says. “Most of the blind priest that there are, they’re religious–whether it be Jesuit or whatever, so they don’t have to do as many of the liturgical books as, say, I would have to do on a regular basis. And so they they started making different books for me that I would specifically need, and I still do.”

Fr. Jamie says before he was ordained, the Xavier Society had him promise to celebrate the St. Lucy Mass for them in New York–St. Lucy is the patron saint of the blind and eyesight.

“When I went to that Mass for the first time, that was the first time I had been with other Catholics who were blind,” Fr. Jamie says. “And it’s the one day a year that I get to be with people like me as my congregation. And they get to have a priest like them.”

120 years serving blind Catholics

The Xavier Society in 1953. (Courtesy photo used with permission)

The Xavier Society for the Blind began in 1900 in New York City, at what used to be Xavier College.

Malachy Fallon, Executive Director of the Xavier Society, says the organization’s co-founders were Jesuit priest Fr. Joseph Stadelman, and Margaret Coffey, a young woman who was blind and taught blind children herself.

“She realized that there were no books in raised print, the equivalent of Braille at the time or the generic term for Braille at the time, to help young blind children learn about their Catholic faith. So I think, you know, she probably recruited Father Stodelman and said, Father, we need to do something about this. And they founded the Xavier Society,” Malachy says.

Margaret Coffey donated $350 of her savings to buy a machine to help the Xavier Society produce books in raised print in greater volumes. Malachy says that he calculated that donation would translate to about $11,000 today, for a woman who was probably of limited financial means.

“She serves, as well as Father Stadelman, as a great inspiration for our organization,” he says.

Over the years, Malachy says the Xavier Society has changed with the technology of the day. They went from raised print to Braille. For audio books, they went from vinyl recordings and reel to reel to cassettes and CDs.

About a year and a half ago they decided to embrace the digital talking book format.

“This is a cartridge format and it’s essentially up a thumb drive or a flash drive wrapped in a plastic cartridge that can be played on a player that’s provided free of charge by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped,” Malachy says. “It’s estimated that those players have been made available to about a half a million people in the United States. So we figured if we had our content available in that format, we’d be able to reach many, many more people.”

Fallon says they offer a lot of different kinds of material, including Catholic standards, like the Catechism of the Catholic Church—essentially everything the Church teaches in book form; along with the Bible of course, in Braille and audio. They do the Proper of the Mass, like Roger Erpelding and about 800 others take advantage of…all adding up to 750-thousand pages of Braille a year.

Totally free of charge.

“The last year or so, we’ve also, as we’ve changed the audio book format to the digital talking book format, we thought really about not only the format, but sort of the content, and how can we appeal to more people,” Malachy says.

The Xavier Society uses volunteer readers who could stay home and still help during the pandemic, and they also use recent college grads who are audio engineers to help with sound quality.

The review of sound quality was matched also with a review of which content to offer.

“We started to refer to a number of organizations for their recommended books and their award-winning books. So organizations like the Association of Catholic Publishers, the Catholic Book Club, which is part of America magazine, the Jesuit magazine…the Jesuit Book Club is another,” Malachy says.

These efforts have led the Xavier Society to offer titles in Braille including The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, which was New York Times bestseller. Another title was When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People by Jeannie Gaffigan. (She suffered a brain tumor she described as pear-like in shape and size.)

Fr. Stadelman (left) with staff working to transcribe materials. (Courtesy photo used with permission)

Through the pandemic, Malachy says the Xavier Society offered links to Masses and other services, along with its regular content to try to help people stay connected in strange times.

“One of the things that we hear over and over again is that there’s this great sense of isolation for people who are blind or visually impaired. So we wanted to make as many resources as available as possible,” he says. “I think technology and the availability of technology, specifically for blind and visually impaired people and generally certainly helps to get more content out there,  but then it becomes a question of, you know, when is when is it too much?”

“So I think we find that maybe we’re doing a little bit more in terms of curating and trying to focus the type of content that we offer. And I think probably we’ll be doing more of that,” he says.

Malachy also says part of their focus now is just getting the word out, and letting people know they are a resource for Braille, and also a resource for people looking to learn about, develop, and practice the Catholic faith.

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