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Deaf church in Birmingham Streams Sign Language Service to Churches in Mobile and on East Coast

March 14, 2013

Saint Johnís Episcopal Church for the Deaf in Cahaba Heights [Alabama] has begun live-streaming its worship services as a ministry nationwide to help deaf congregations without ministers fluent in sign language.

There are few clergy in the Episcopal Church proficient in American Sign Language, most are older, and many deaf parishes are losing their priests, according to the Reverend Marianne Stuart, rector of St. Johnís and president of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf. There are also just a few seminarians with that skill who are planning to enter deaf ministry.

"Itís a live-stream of the Sunday morning service," Stuart said. "You punch in the magic address. You are instantly connected. Itís a live-stream feed into other churches. Itís like skyping."

The idea to serve deaf congregations without signing clergy came from the Rt. Rev. Philip M. Duncan II, bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, who contacted Stuart after the priest at St. Markís Episcopal Deaf Church in Mobile died in 2011, restricting them to morning prayer services.

With help from a grant from the Episcopal Conference for the Deaf, equipment was purchased to air video services. The ministry serves St. Markís Church for the Deaf in Mobile; St. Ann's Episcopal Deaf Church in New York City; St. Paul's Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Conn.; and St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

"Four deaf churches in the Episcopal church have lost their pastors recently," Stuart said.

"They are trying to stay together, waiting for clergy who can sign."

Those churches use a computer, a large screen television or projector and an internet connection to deliver the feed. The St. John's service starts at 10 a.m. Central time, so the East Coast churches join in at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

Eucharistic Ministers administer the consecrated elements that are provided by nearby parishes. Each church is encouraged to have its own readers for the lessons, and prayers of the people, to help retain their own sense of community and involvement as much as possible.

The services follow Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer A from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Stuart said.

"Weíre just trying to think of a way to keep our congregations together," Stuart said.

"They use it (the livestreaming service) when they canít get a supply priest."

St. John's Church in Cahaba Heights has attendance of 12 to 16 on Sundays. "Itís small, but theyíre very excited about the livestream and the DVDs we do," Stuart said.

Both St. John's Church for the Deaf in Birmingham and St. Mark's Church for the Deaf in Mobile were founded by the Rev. Robert C. Fletcher, an Episcopal priest from Alabama renowned for his pioneering work in deaf ministry around the Southeast. Fletcher was also known as the father of Oscar-winning actress Louise Fletcher, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1976 for her portrayal of Nurse Ratchet in the 1975 film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

[Photo Removed; photo caption] Louise Fletcher thanked her parents in sign language when she accepted her Academy Award for Best Actress in 1976. Her father, the Rev. Robert Fletcher, was rector of St. John's Episcopal Church for the Deaf in Birmingham, Ala. (File)

Louise Fletcher, who grew up in Birmingham and attended St. John's Church while her father was rector, brought attention to the deaf by using sign language during her acceptance speech at the Oscars. She used sign language to thank her parents, who were both deaf, while they were watching on TV at home in Birmingham.

In 1952, Robert Fletcher had been the first minister to open the U.S. Senate in prayer using sign language.

Stuart said Louise Fletcher, who has a home in France, is still very supportive of St. John's. Stuart said she had a similar upbringing, as a hearing child of a deaf Episcopal priest, growing up in his church.

Another ministry offered by St. John's Episcopal consists of a weekly Gospel reading and sermon on DVD in American Sign Language and English. Those are sent to people without access to a church for the deaf or one that does not provide an interpreter. They are also available to shut-ins, and those that just want some extra spiritual nourishment. The DVD's are mailed nationwide to approximately three dozen churches and individuals. This is a free service, funded by the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf.

For additional information or to subscribe to the ministry services, contact the Rev. Marianne Stuart via email at

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