Judith Desmarais, SP, Recognized for Ministry with the Deaf

Judith Desmarais was born in the Yakima Valley in Washington state. She grew up on a hop farm in Moxee, Wash. After high school, in 1962, she entered the Sisters of Providence at Providence Heights in Issaquah, Wash. She made first profession in 1965 and final profession in 1971.

Sr. Judith’s first assignment was teaching primary grades, first at Our Lady of Lourdes School and then at St. Joseph School, both in Vancouver, Wash. It was at St. Joseph that she discovered her call to minister with the Catholic Deaf Community, which prompted her to get involved in the religious education program for the students at Washington State School for the Deaf (WSSD, now WSD).

This became a passion for Sr. Judith. After nine years of teaching primary grades in Vancouver, then in Seattle, she decided to turn her rewarding but challenging volunteer work at WSD into a full-time ministry.

“I had to convince the Archdiocese of Seattle to hire me,” Sr. Judith said. She was encouraged to go to school and get a degree in public school teaching for the Deaf, but she said she preferred a religious setting. She took classes at Seattle Central Community College to learn sign language interpreting skills for what would become her favorite ministry.

At the Archdiocese of Seattle, volunteers had been involved with the Catholic Deaf Community over the years teaching children and interpreting some liturgies, especially after Fr. David Walsh visited Seattle. But the ministry was not maintained consistently. Sr. Judith was hired in 1977 through the Office of Religious Education to work with Deaf adults and children, and she went on to direct the ministry for eight years.

It was not easy to build a consistent program for the Catholic Deaf in Western Washington. The Deaf Community was spread far and wide throughout the Archdiocese, which extends about 300 miles from north to south.  The challenge was to find a place where the most people could be served.  Originally there was Sunday Mass for the Deaf Community once a month in Seattle and Tacoma, held in the afternoon and followed by a social. Later a few additional sites offered an interpreted Mass.

Sr. Judith worked to establish a regular location for the monthly afternoon Mass. That came about at St. Patrick’s Church in Seattle, a parish that graciously welcomed the Deaf Community to use the church and hall, which continues to this day. Having a designated location helped build up the Catholic Deaf Community and the International Catholic Deaf Association chapter in Seattle, which was active in the late 1970s and 80s.

Sr. Judith also provided marriage preparations, interpreted for weddings and funerals, visited homebound Deaf people, and guided the religious education programs for Deaf children. These programs were in Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver. She recruited and trained volunteers who ministered in pairs as teachers. She also provided sign language interpreting at CYO camp and at the annual CYO youth convention.

After eight years, when Sr. Judith felt the need to work with others who ministered with Deaf people, she looked south to the Archdiocese of Portland, which had a long-standing ministry with the Catholic Deaf Community. This program also went on to have a strong focus on developing lay leadership. In 1985, Sr. Judith moved to Portland and worked with Paul Lipscomb for three years, then with Fr. Dan Adams for three years.

In 1991, after 14 years as director of ministry with the Catholic Deaf Communities in Seattle and Portland, Sr. Judith was elected as provincial councilor and returned to Seattle, the home base of the province. Coming full circle, she was able to return to St. Patrick’s as a volunteer interpreter for Sunday Mass.

In July 1997, during the General Chapter for the Sisters of Providence in Montreal, Sr. Judith was elected general councilor. Her experience with the Deaf Community helped her as she learned her next language, French. Her experience also helped her as she lived and worked in Montreal in an international and multi-cultural environment, and traveled throughout the world.

In her role as general councilor, she set up the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Center at the offices of the General Administration in Montreal. As the Sisters of Providence board representative at UNANIMA International, she became involved in the issue of human trafficking and has continued this work in Seattle.

While on the General Council in Montreal she was closely connected with the Deaf Religious Community, the Sisters of Our Lady of Seven Dolors. During her second term she gave a monthly conference to the Deaf sisters. In addition she interpreted a Mass once a month for Deaf people who used English. That came about with a call from Fr. Paul Lebeouf who asked, during her first week there, if she would like to do this. She was quick to accept the opportunity.

After her time as general councilor, Sr. Judith returned to Seattle and was soon elected to the Sisters of Providence provincial team for Mother Joseph Province.  During this time, she returned to interpreting and helping with the Deaf program she originally established at St. Patrick’s Church. Sr. Judith also modified an RCIA program for a Deaf-Blind man who was received into the church, and she continued to interpret on Sundays.

When asked how she became involved in Deaf Ministry Sr. Judith explained, “I believe it was a call from God.” In addition, working with deaf girls was an early ministry of the Sisters of Providence. It was, in fact, the last work that Blessed Emilie Gamelin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence, gave assent to in February 1851, before she died in September of that year. The ministry began with a novice who had been teaching a young deaf girl and a priest who had been teaching some sign language at the Asile of Providence (Mother House) in Montreal. The Institution for Deaf Girls was built in 1864 and continued into the mid-1970s.

For a person who said at her 50th Jubilee, “I’m a farm girl who never could have imagined this,” it is time to acknowledge her contribution, support and dedication to Catholic Deaf Ministry.

Nomination submitted by Fr. Rich Luberti, C.Ss.R., Pastor, Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, 205 2nd Ave. N, Seattle, WA 98109, 734-693-2033 or rich_luberti@compuserve.com.