Creating Community at Ancilla College a Great Sign

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Co-workers and students gather in a classroom on a damp, early spring afternoon. Their hands move and flutter, yet the room is silent. It’s a community Sister Michelle Dermody felt compelled to create when she learned about deaf Ancilla College student Matthew Markovitz, 20, of Knox, Indiana. While the silence is novel for most, it’s life for Matthew, who was born deaf. “English is my second language,” Matthew explains through an interpreter. American Sign Language (ASL) is his first and primary language. According to the National Institutes of Health, “ASL is a language separate and distinct from English. It contains all the fundamental features of language—it has its own rules for pronunciation, word order, and complex grammar. While every language has ways of signaling different functions, such as asking a question rather than making a statement, languages differ in how this is done.” Matthew describes ASL as non-linear language. 

Sister Michelle created the informational, voluntary class in sign language to help members of the Ancilla College community learn to communicate with Matthew. “We’re entering into his world,” she said. “Each week, I’ve learned something new.” Recently, she learned that deaf millennials rely on text messaging rather than older TTY voice to text devices formerly in use. “She’s really funny, loves life, and has so many stories,” Matthew says of her. 

It’s not new for Sister Michelle to create community where none existed before. One of her impetuses for learning to sign was when she heard an otherwise educated person state that deaf Catholics were guilty of mortal sin for never “hearing” Mass. The emphasis on the verb “hear” confounded her and spurred her into action. “I delved into it,” (learning to sign) she said. “I was determined to help them (the deaf) find Jesus in a healthy, happy way without ever feeling condemned.” With the blessing of the late Sister Stephen Brueggeman, then provincial, she enrolled in a Masters in Sign Language Interpretation program at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., one of the premier colleges for the deaf in the U.S. She earned her degree in 1975, writing her master’s thesis on relationships of the Church and the deaf community. After graduation, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio and ministered to the deaf community at St. Augustine Parish. 

Ancilla College co-workers Tiffany Fisher, Dia Cooper, and Kristen Robsen attend the classes every week and are learning to communicate with Matthew. “It’s important that we make sure our students are comfortable in their learning environment,” said Tiffany. She practices what she’s learned in class throughout the week, and it’s evident. She’s one of the better signers in the class. No one’s faster at it than Matthew, who can sign the entire alphabet and count from one to twenty in seconds. In the class, Sister Michelle has Matthew teaching, too. “I’m happy she asked me to help,” Matthew said. “We’ve made some adjustments, and the signing has improved.” 

Matthew is the only one in his family that’s deaf. He’s teaching his parents and sister to sign. “Mom tries, but Dad’s better,” he said. He attended Culver Middle School and graduated from Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis. He’s a first-year student majoring in Culinary Arts. His goal is to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America in New York City when he finishes his degree at Ancilla. Ultimately, he’d like to move to Brindisi, Italy, where he can cook his favorites, Italian and fish dishes. Like his uncle before him, he wants to be a chef. 

There are some things Matthew wants this community to know about the deaf community. The preferred term is “deaf,” not hearing-impaired, which is considered derogatory since it emphasizes impairment. “We understand, but we struggle with education and in the job market,” he said. “I’m healthy, not handicapped or disabled. I just can’t hear.” He noted college has been a challenge for him, and he’s benefited from the tutoring at Ancilla College. He’s also open to communication via text messages or old-fashioned notes. 

Six Maria Center residents have recently signed up for another session of the informal class, taught by Sister Michelle. “I’m proud that we’ve reached out to help others learn, all without using our voices,” she said.