When Father Tom Coughlin began seriously considering a priestly vocation in high school, little did he realize how long and winding the road would be to becoming the first deaf priest ordained in the United States.
Fr. Tom began applying to various seminaries after he graduated from high school, but was turned down from one after the other due to the fact that he is deaf. Instead, he went on to study and graduate from Gallaudet University in 1972 with a BA in English and then in 1976 obtained his MA in Religious Studies from Catholic University. He entered the Trinitarians in 1972 and was finally ordained by Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan of Baltimore in 1977.
He met with so much opposition before and after ordination that he almost quit, explained Fr. Tom to Sr. Lou Ella Hickman of the South Texas Catholic Newspaper. “Most people were not prepared to welcome a deaf person. I was all alone, but the 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 the mystery of suffering in order to pray better. Mary, Joseph, the apostles all suffered but they understood the meaning of God’s love.”
Fr. Tom also received support from Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the United States, also gave his support to Fr. Tom’s effort to start a community that would minister to the deaf.
Years later, Cardinal O’Connor of New York invited Fr. Tom to set up a House of Studies for deaf seminarians in Yonkers, New York which was later transferred to the Archdiocese of San Francisco upon the death of Cardinal O’Conner.
Bishop Allen Vigneron of the Oakland Diocese erected Fr. Tom’s deaf community to the status of Private Association of the Faithful – one of the first steps in the creation of a creation of a religious institute. As result, the community moved from San Francisco to Oakland. Then, in 2007, the community moved from California to San Antonio, Texas as the cost of living there was too high.
Now that the community has moved to San Antonio, Fr. Tom explains, “The vocations are coming to us.” That translates to nine members. One is in theology and hopefully will be ordained in about two years. There are three novices, one postulant, two are in philosophy and one is earning a master’s in Spanish. As all of the prayers and formation is done in sign language, if someone is interested he would have to proficient in signing in order to join.
Fr. Tom is currently in contact with ten men who are interested in joining the community.
At present, the down side to this community is that they depend one hundred percent on donations, however, Fr. Tom is also very interested in admitting more men so that the deaf in other cities such as Chicago and New York can benefit from their charism, the special God-given gift that the community lives out. And for Fr. Tom, that is best part of his ministry. He described it simply, “The Word became Flesh. In sign language God’s word is more clear’ not just verbal but made flesh. This is our charism.”
Litany in Honor of St. Francis de Sales, Patron of the Deaf:
For the Church, that we may become more aware of the great giftedness of those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us.
For the Church, that we may like Christ, reach out and empower those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us.
For each local Church, that we may respond with care and respect to the needs of those with disabilities, — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us.
For an increase of religious vocations to and by those with disabilities. — St. Francis de Sales, pray for us.
To learn more about Fr. Tom’s community, visit: www.Dominicanmissionaries.org.
Printed with permission from the South Texas Catholic Newspaper, from the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas.