Originally published in The New York Times, October 28, 2007
In a Hearing World, a Church’s Mettle Is Tested
“We’re waiting for the young people to come and take over.”
AT 10:30 on a recent Sunday morning, the Rev. Maria Santiviago led about 10 parishioners down a steep, carpeted ramp, past a sign that offers directions to something called the Choir Crypt, and into the basement of St. George’s Episcopal Church on East 16th Street, the current home of St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf.
“Peace be with you,” Ms. Santiviago said in sign language to her parishioners, who sat on folding chairs arranged in a circle so everyone could see everyone else. As Evelyn Schafer, a longtime member of the church, explained: “It makes it much easier. For deaf people, the eyes are everything.”
Despite the modest current circumstances, St. Ann’s is not just any church for the deaf. It is the mother deaf church, the first of its kind in the country, established in 1852 by a son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who helped found the first American school for the deaf.
But the importance of St. Ann’s has not shielded it from a long, steady decline that has reached perilous levels. At its peak in the early 1900s, St. Ann’s boasted a membership of more than 200. Back then, the church occupied its own building, on East 18th Street near Fifth Avenue.
Now, attendance at the Sunday services runs to 20 people at the most. At times over the years, St. Ann’s has had to hold services monthly rather than weekly and has struggled to find and keep church leaders. Ms. Santiviago, who is 65, is its third leader in four years.
She has restored weekly services, but to survive in the long run, the church needs to recruit younger members.
“We’re waiting for the young people to come and take over,” signed the Rev. Henry Buzzard, 84, who was St. Ann’s vicar from 1996 to 2003 and has attended the church for nearly 40 years.
St. Ann’s decline stems in part from the secularization that has afflicted some American churches, but other forces are involved. Deaf children are increasingly integrated into the hearing world, thanks to cochlear implant devices as well as an increase in the number of sign language interpreters at schools. The deaf can also keep in touch with one another more easily through the Internet and video telephones.
But in Ms. Santiviago’s opinion, a church like St. Ann’s is still needed, in part because many deaf people, especially immigrants and the elderly, lack the technology to help them communicate more easily.
Ms. Santiviago plans to promote St. Ann’s rich history in an effort to recruit new members, and to reconnect with local Episcopal churches that worked with St. Ann’s in the past.
“There are relationships there that people don’t know about,” Ms. Santiviago said. “Maybe, with God’s help, our church will grow again.”