The choir members filed up to the altar in robes the color of the red roses of Saint Elizabeth, the patron saint of their beloved church. They arrayed themselves on two risers and looked to the choir director for a cue. Then they raised their hands in unison and began to sign.
“Jesus,” they signed together, touching their middle fingers to their opposite palm to represent the crucifixion. “Lord,” they signed, sweeping their fingers in an “L” formation across and off their chests. When it came time for the congregation to give the sign of peace, the worshipers, about 75 of them, raised their palms with their ring and middle fingers pointed down. They waved exuberantly. “I love you,” their hands silently said.
The deaf were celebrating Mass on a recent Sunday in the intimate Upper East Side sanctuary where they have prayed since 1980, when Cardinal Terence Cooke named the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary on East 83rd Street New York’s Roman Catholic parish for the deaf.
The church has become a haven to nearly 500 deaf New Yorkers, who not only pray there, but also come through the week to study religion, meet with clergy members and socialize. That era is about to end. On Nov. 2, the Archdiocese of New York announced that St. Elizabeth’s would be among 31 churches closing for regular use by next August, part of a sweeping series of parish mergers and closings.
The archdiocese says the closings are propelled by financial concerns, dwindling church attendance and a shortage of clergymen. But at St. Elizabeth’s, the news came as a particular shock, because many parishioners, and the pastor, had believed that the church’s special status as a sanctuary for the deaf would protect it.
Msgr. Patrick McCahill, 71, has guided the church since Cardinal Cooke’s designation and is the only priest fluent in American Sign Language who is left in the archdiocese, which stretches from the Catskills to Staten Island. He has officiated over countless baptisms, confirmations and weddings in A.S.L. and in the process has become the quiet spiritual leader of much of the practicing Catholic deaf community in New York.
Though the church knew as early as last April that an advisory panel had recommended it for closing, Father McCahill, who is hearing, decided to not make a fuss, quietly trusting that the archdiocese would realize that the deaf community and St. Elizabeth’s parish had fused together in a rare and special way, he said. There are about 240 hearing parishioners at the church. Despite their small numbers, they provide most of the financial support for the church, saying its work with the deaf community is part of what makes it vital.
UPDATE: A video of the church, from the New York Times, is below.