Pat Pomroy had just gained custody of two of her young grandchildren and wanted to say prayers with them. But she had no idea how.
Robert and Rachael were deaf. In Pomroy’s struggle to learn enough American Sign Language (ASL) to get through the basics of everyday life with them, expressions of faith would have to wait.
Then Pomroy came upon a teacher, one who could show her and her grandchildren that the sign for Jesus Christ is a finger alternately tapping the palm of the opposite hand, in reference to the crucifixion; that a clap followed by hands and fingers spinning in the air is “alleluia”; that palms together with a twisting motion means “peace.”
Until she met Sister Kathleen Schipani four years ago, “I didn’t have a way to communicate religion and faith” to the children, said Pomroy, of Croydon. “My faith has seen me through a lot of things in my life, and I want them to have the same.”
Schipani, director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Deaf Apostolate, has since enlisted Robert and Rachael, now 11 and 8 years old, as stars of an app she has created to teach families with deaf children how to pray, worship and talk about faith in ASL.
“Religious Signs for Families” is one of the first apps to focus solely on religious terminology, giving visual interpretations to concepts such as prayer, blessing, and praise.
“When parents go to community programs to learn sign, they are not learning religious signing,” said Schipani, 62. “Religious topics don’t come up in these settings.”
In her new app, seven adults and 13 children sign words including angel and blessing, and simple prayers such as “God bless mommy,” “Holy Spirit, guide me,” and “Angel of God, watch over me as I sleep.” The signs are captioned and voiced in English and Spanish.
Schipani introduced the app — available on iPhone and Android platforms for $2.99 — at an October meeting at the Vatican of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, which included seminars on how to involve people with disabilities in church life.
The $20,000-project is being funded by the Deaf Apostolate, several small grants, and proceeds from app sales. Schipani said she hopes it will be the first of several developed by her office, which serves about 900 households in the archdiocese.
The app is a “marvelous and glorious” tool for families, said Roz McKelvey, an ASL interpreter, foster parent to deaf children, and founder and president of Germantown Deaf Ministries Fellowship, a faith-based social services agency. At her own congregation, Grace United Methodist Church in West Oak Lane, she leads a monthly religious sign class that teaches the “ABC’s and colors,” the basics, of religious sign language.
Likewise, Schipani’s app introduces elementary words and concepts, most of which can be applied across Christian denominations, and even to some other faith traditions, Schipani said. Prayers such as “God, thank you for my family” and “God, keep me safe” are ecumenical requests of the almighty.
Nonetheless, there are distinctions. Like other languages, ASL has expressions that are specific to region, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic class, gender and religion, said Dr. Kirk VanGilder, an associate professor at Gallaudet University, a college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington. For instance, the sign for baptism might be based on the sprinkling of water on an infant in one religious tradition, and the full immersion of an adult in another.
Religious signing in Judaism has an added complexity, requiring the interpretation of the Hebrew used in services, prayers and rituals, said Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, director of the office of Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture, a Jenkintown nonprofit that advocates Jewish engagement.
Thirty years ago, as an eighth-grade teacher, Schipani began learning what she calls a basic form of sign language to better reach students with intellectual disabilities. When a child with deaf parents invited her to a Mass at which the priest and participants used ASL, Schipani joined them to worship and practice her signing.
“I fell in love with the language,” she said.
“Signing is conceptual. You sign the concept, not the spoken word,” Schipani said. “For instance, the signs for running as in jogging, or for your nose is running, or for a run in your stocking are all different. That is the case in religious signs.”
Through the years, she has come to understand the challenges in communicating religious language to children who are deaf. In families for whom faith is important, spirituality is so ingrained in their everyday life that is passed on by incidental learning, Schipani said. Youngsters learn by hearing adults talk to each other about faith.
“A deaf child [in a hearing family] misses that incidental learning,” she said.
Sometimes, hearing parents and their deaf children are learning ASL at the same time. Parents face the difficulty of conveying abstract concepts about faith in a language that isn’t their first.
With the app, Schipani aims to help families adapt. To develop it, she turned to CANCAN Productions, based in Oxford, Chester County. Co-owners Catherine Miller and Ann Calamia had met Schipani about 10 years ago while making “Universal Signs,” an award-winning film about a troubled young man who is deaf. The three women then collaborated on a video series about deaf children preparing for confirmation, produced for the National Catholic Office for the Deaf. They began working on the app more than two years ago.
Schipani put together a focus group made up of deaf parents, some of them literacy specialists, to brainstorm. They carved out categories such as “Religious Words” and “Religious Actions,” divided prayers into groups that include blessing, thank you, and peace prayers.
The filmmakers used a crew that included deaf people and interpreters, and found programmers to turn their videos into an app.
Pomroy’s grandchildren sign some of the prayers.
Before she got custody of Robert and Rachael, Pomroy attended ASL classes at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The children had been going to public school, but she instead chose a Catholic education for them.
When the family met Schipani, they knew few signs associated with religion and faith.
“It’s difficult for parents when they have to learn a new language to meet the needs of their children,” said Meghan Dearnley, Racheal and Robert’s social worker. “Having an app that is so visually accessible makes the process easier. Having it on cool technology makes it even better.”