Appeal helps priest improve ministry to others
Outreach to deaf and changes in religious education come about
Third in a series on Bishop's Appeal
By Joanne Flemming
What: Bishop's Appeal, the Green Bay Diocese's annual fund-raiser to support diocesan programs and services offered to parishes and individuals.
Where: All parishes in the diocese.
When: Right now.
How: Making a cash, check or pledge donation. Materials have been sent to homes and also are available through parishes.
Theme: Take a Step in Faith.
Target: $4.6 million.
More information: Click here.
A priest can continue to grow in his ministry after he is ordained, thanks to support from the diocese and the Bishop's Appeal, under way in parishes across the diocese.
Fr. Mat Simonar, pastor of the Northern Door Catholic Community, can attest to that. In the five years since his ordination, the diocese has helped him grow first in ministry to the deaf and then in his Door County post.
The diocese has outreach to the deaf and hard of hearing at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Green Bay, at St. John Nepomucene in Little Chute and Holy Innocents in Manitowoc, said Susan Perrault, diocesan consultant for ministry to persons with disabilities.
Fr. Simonar said his interest in deaf ministry developed while he was associate pastor at Holy Innocents, where, in 1998, a priest celebrated a Mass signed in American Sign Language once a month. His assistant interpreted the music, readings and other prayers.
Deaf and hard of hearing persons from the Manitowoc area, Green Bay, Appleton and other communities attended. A social followed the Mass. Fr. Simonar said he enjoyed watching the people sign to one another.
"It was like a neat little family gathering," he said.
He enrolled in a sign language class the woman who interpreted at Manitowoc taught at St. Norbert Abbey. When she saw how well he was learning it, she offered to teach him how to interpret the Mass.
She suggested that he start with a couple prayers, but Fr. Simonar learned the entire Mass within a month.
His teacher told him she had never seen anyone learn sign language as fast as he did. Her statement "sent shivers down my back," he said. He views that ability as "a gift to the deaf community."
In 1999, he took a class in advanced sign language and continued his private lessons in signing the Mass.
In the summer of 2000, the diocese, with funding from the Bishop's Appeal, sent him to a two-week intensive sign language course at Gallaudet University, the school for the deaf in Washington, D.C.
Some 3-5% of the general population is deaf or hard of hearing, Perrault said. But at Gallaudet itself, Fr. Simonar found out, the hearing were in the minority.
The people in his class could speak, he said, "but were not allowed to. We had to sign to one another."
Many of the students he met on campus and the bus were deaf, he said, "You had to sign to them; they couldn't talk to you."
His experience in Washington also gave him insight into deaf people's perspective on themselves. He explained that they "don't consider themselves disabled. What they consider disabled is someone in a wheelchair, someone with crutches. They can do anything they want; they just can't hear. They achieve degrees and go about working in the world like normal people."
After Fr. Simonar returned to the Green Bay Diocese, he was assigned to the Door County parishes. "When things get settled down in the Door County area, I would love to continue ministering to our deaf community in the diocese," Fr. Simonar said.
The diocese's deaf ministry offers specialized religious education and spiritual enrichment opportunities for children and adults, said Perrault. Last fall Michele Stein, its part-time consultant, offered workshops for interpreters who want to work in Catholic settings.
Future plans include involving more deaf persons as lay leaders in the ministry.
Fr. Simonar's task in Door County was to organize one community from six parishes -- St. John the Baptist in Egg Harbor, St. Mary of the Lake in Baileys Harbor, St. Paul in Fish Creek, St. Michael in Jacksonport, St. Rosalia in Sister Bay and the station on Washington Island.
One area where he particularly needed help was the religious education programs for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Each parish had its own program with its own textbooks, he said. Each started at different times of the school year, one in September, another in November, and a third ran from September to December.
High school students were confirmed at different times -- some when they were sophomores, others when they were juniors, still others as seniors.
Andrea Sabor, religious education consultant with the diocese's Total Catholic Education Department, helped him bring the programs together.
She met with religious education coordinators from the Door County parishes "to discuss what they had in common and how they could be resources to one another," she said. She talked to them about the curriculum the diocese has developed for religious education programs, recommended textbooks and other materials.
When Fr. Simonar was looking for pastoral associates, Sabor responded by referring the Sisters who are now his pastoral associates to him. Once they were hired, she showed them what resources the diocese had to help them.
"They've taken that program and made it their own," Sabor said of the Sisters. "The whole program is coordinated through them."
Sabor offers similar services to other parishes in the diocese and it's all possible through the annual Bishop's Appeal.
Fr. Simonar pointed with pride to the unity the program has achieved. It has offered a retreat for First Communicants and for high school students. There are also "fun" activities like skating parties and Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day parties.
In noting the importance of the support he receives from the diocese and the Bishop's Appeal, he said: "It basically provides support so that I or any other priest is not just left in their parish to fend for themselves." Without that, it would be "like walking through a muddy swamp. The diocese is there to say, 'Grab my hand. We'll help you out.... We'll let you know that what you are doing is right and that you are not alone.' "
"That's the whole thing," he said, "that you are not alone in your ministry."