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placeholder June 27, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA
Senior Living & Resources

Victoria Cotter and Willie Cotter Hall

Ministry for deaf, hard of hearing has long history
in East Bay

Although it has been years since she served as an interpreter for deaf and hard of hearing Catholics in the Diocese of Oakland, Victoria Cotter still prays in sign language.

"I still sign when I speak to God," said Cotter, who turned 97 in April. As the hearing child of deaf parents, sign language was her first language.

Serving as the ears for her parents was second nature to Cotter and her sister Willie Cotter Hall. As children they made phone calls for their parents and talked to bill collectors and insurance salesmen and others on their behalf. So when Rev. William Reilly, who ministered to the local Catholic deaf community at that time, became ill and could not sign at a Mass, her father encouraged Vicky Cotter to step forward and sign at the liturgy.

She was 13. "I was scared," said Cotter, who recalled feeling self-conscious stepping in front of her school-mates. But her desire to help overpowered her case of stage fright. After that she spent the next seven decades interpreting at Masses and at other gatherings of the deaf community.

While serving as a sign language interpreter for deaf Catholics, Cotter, who never married, held down a job as a budget analyst for the Navy and helped support her mother. Willie Cotter Hall said that her sister Vicky was "a pioneer" who helped develop a system of sign language that could be used in the liturgy. Both sisters live at Oakland's Mercy Retirement and Care Center. Vicky lives in the assisted living facility and Willie, who moved in several years ago, lives in the residential section.

Ministry to the deaf and hard of hearing community in the Catholic Church has had a long history in the East Bay, which formerly was part of the San Francisco Archdiocese. The Sisters of Carondelet established St. Joseph School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in 1895 on property donated by Margaret McCourtney at what is now 40th Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.

For many years it was based at Sacred Heart Parish in north Oakland, under the direction of first, Msgr. William Reilly and then, Msgr. Michael O'Brien, who both also served as pastors at the parish. After the death of Msgr. O'Brien in 1983 the school for the deaf moved to various sites in the diocese, including Santa Maria Parish in Orinda and the Holy Family Ethnic Mission in Union City.

The Young Ladies Institute (YLI) and the Young Men's Institute (YMI) were among the biggest supporters of the St. Joseph Center, said Vicky Cotter. A number of other fundraisers helped the center get by. However in the early 2000s, the center, which had received financial support from the diocese, was defunded as a result of budget cuts. Since then the center has had no paid staff members.

A number of priests, including Very Rev. Robert Herbst, OFM Conv., judicial vicar and chancellor for the diocese, serve the deaf community as volunteers, celebrating the liturgy and other sacraments. St. Joseph Center for the Deaf is currently located next to the California State University East Bay, in Hayward, and is where Masses and other activities for the Catholic deaf community are held. A calendar of events can be found on the diocese's web site at www.oakdiocese.org.

In frail health and nearly blind, Vicky Cotter has lived at Mercy Retirement and Care Center for the past 13 years, the last year and a half in the care center. Cotter, a member of the class of 1936 at Oakland's Holy Names High School, still possesses a wonderful memory and did most of the talking during this interview. She enjoys the daily visits of her sister, Willie, who also celebrated a birthday in April, her 90th.

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