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  July 2, 2007VOL. 45, NO. 13Oakland, CA

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Newly ordained deaf priest offers thanks at St. Joseph’s Center

Father Paul Minnihan named provost
of new Cathedral of Christ the Light

Oakland parish gives vitamins to HIV-AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe

Diocesan Medal of Merit bestowed on
six lay persons for outstanding service

Priests and Brothers celebrate their jubilee years

Pope reverses papal election rule

Cardinal urges Filipinos in U.S.to use culture as leaven in society

Conference to explore resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Review of Rwandan survivor’s ‘Left to Tell’
will benefit Brown Bag program for seniors

Young authors
show their talents

COMMENTARY

St. Paul demonstrates the value of letter writing

John Michael Talbot’s new album may be his last

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Newly ordained deaf priest offers thanks
at St. Joseph’s Center

Ardith Lynch, executive director of St. Joseph’s Center for the Deaf, leads the congregation in song during Father Paul Zirimenya’s first Mass.
Father Paul Zirimenya celebrates his first Mass after ordination for members of St. Joseph’s Center for the Deaf at Holy Family Ethnic Mission in Union City.

Father Paul Zirimenya delivers his homily in American Sign Language during his Mass of Thanksgiving for members of St. Joseph’s Center for the Deaf.

DIANA JOHNSON PHOTOS

When Paul Zirimenya was ordained a priest on June 9 by San Francisco Archbishop George H. Niederauer, he became the first black and deaf priest to be ordained for the United States. According to the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, he is now one of eight culturally deaf priests in the U.S.

“I am proud of my deafness and never in my life have I ever wished to be hearing,” wrote Zirimenya in a recent e-mail. “Mainstream culture says, ‘You need to be fixed via medical means to be like us.’ We, the deaf, say, ‘We are okay and proud of our deafness.’”

Father Zirimenya celebrated his first Mass June 10 at St. Joseph’s Center for the Deaf in Union City where he had done his field work as a seminarian. He also volunteered there as a deacon, performing baptisms, leading communion services and visiting the sick. His first assignment as a priest is as chaplain for the deaf community of the San Francisco Archdiocese. He will reside at St. Gabriel Parish in San Francisco.

Born in Kampala, Uganda, the third of nine children, Zirimenya became deaf in an accident when he was six.

His parents and siblings are Anglicans while others of his extended family are Catholic. He said his parents’ blessing regarding his decision to become a Catholic priest was unconditional from the very beginning, and their encouragement has helped him complete his studies. His mother and sister, whom he had not seen in seven years, attended his ordination.

His journey to priesthood started after he graduated from Makrere College in 1999 with a degree in social work and social administration. He took a job as a teacher for deaf adults at the Uganda National Association of the Deaf in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

While doing work to increase awareness of the needs of the deaf community, Zirimenya met Father Reiles Aloyse of the Missionaries of Africa. Zirimenya believes Father Aloyse felt a kinship with him because in his old age the priest had become hard of hearing. He encouraged Zirimenya to pursue a vocation.

“I had a lot of satisfaction and witnessed a lot of changes among deaf adults,” wrote Zirimenya of his time there. “There was this spiritual yearning on my part and their part and that is when I thought about priesthood.”

Before moving to the United States, he took philosophy classes at St. Mbaaga s Seminary in Ggaba, a suburb of Kampala, to prepare for theological studies. It was at this time that Zirimenya was formally accepted into the Catholic Church.

“Originally I felt my call was to become missionary priest, but eventually I was accepted to study for diocesan priesthood for the Archdiocese of San Francisco,” recalled Father Zirimenya.

He enrolled at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park with two other deaf seminarians, Shawn Carey of the Archdiocese of Boston and Ghislain Bazikila of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The three men came at the invitation of then Archbishop of San Francisco, now Cardinal, William Levada, who realized the American Church needed priests to minister to deaf Catholics.

Because they were at different academic levels, the three deaf seminarians rarely took classes together. This year, though, Zirimenya shared classes with both Carey and Bazikila. The three also met during meals, when hearing seminarians often bring white boards to better communicate with them.

“Sometimes the white boards or pads of paper are the only way to communicate, but some hearing seminarians have picked up sign language,” said Father Zirimenya who can also read lips, although it can be difficult depending on the person with whom he is trying to communicate.

“If you have a mustache, it’s worse, even if I am proud to have one,” he jokes.
In his pursuit of ordination, Father Zirimenya said he never encountered discrimination based on his disability. In fact, he found the opposite. His deafness draws people to him.

“There is some kind of awe if you are introduced as a deaf seminarian,” wrote Zirimenya. “People are curious to know more about you.”

His seminary years were not without struggles.

“I think it is one thing to accept a deaf seminarian and another to obtain the necessary logistics for of formation,” Zirimenya wrote. “It requires a lot of flexibility, determination and patience on part of the archdiocese, the seminary faculty and the deaf seminarian himself.

Preparations included provision of an interpreter, who can at times work long hours. Prayer times and Masses, along with many classes, are interpreted. Some classes are captioned.

“Adjustment to an American education system was also hard work. Honestly, I have kind of struggled academically, but God has helped me to maintain a reasonable GPA,” he wrote. “Over time I have learned what the professors wanted with my papers and I used the help of my classmates and the coordinator of deaf services whenever the going got tough.”

Zirimenya recalled the trouble he had carving out time to pray with a hectic academic and formation schedule. Prayer, however, was key to his remaining on the path to ordination.

One problem Zirimenya never encountered was racism. He said the level of cooperation between members of various ethnic backgrounds was enough to reduce him to tears.

“This is the most diverse seminary I have ever attended and the best field education I have ever received,” wrote Zirimenya, who has earned a Master of Divinity degree at St. Patrick’s.

He spent his pastoral year at Holy Family Parish in Concord, Mass., where he often assisted at Masses.

“That experience helped me become a better verbal reader and gave me practical experiences of working with hearing people and being a bridge between the hearing and deaf community,” he said. He also worked in the Office for the Apostolate for the Deaf in Boston and at Sacred Heart Parish for the deaf in Newton Center, Mass.

He is fluent in English and his native Lugandan as well as American and Ugandan Sign Language.

He has words of encouragement for any deaf man pondering the priesthood. “To any deaf person or person with any disability who would like to pursue a call to serve God as a priest, I say, God loves you and welcomes you to participate fully in his salvation plan. Listen to him and follow your heart, and leave the rest to God.”

(Additional photos from his ordination and first Mass can be seen at www.sjcd.org).

 

 


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