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A silent worship revival at an Episcopal church for the deaf

The Rev. Luis Barrios, left, places his hand on the head of Mercedes Katrocino, center, a deaf congregant, as he and the rest of the congregation pray for Katrocino’s health and failing eyesight at Holyrood Episcopal Church in New York.

NEW YORK – The Lord’s Prayer ended with the bang of dozens of fists that landed on open palms after a circular motion and a thumbs up in a joint “Amen!”

Not a voice could be heard inside the cavernous sanctuary of Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz in Manhattan. There was no need for words: From the altar, the deaf congregants led the hearing ones, who from the wooden pews repeated the silent movement of their hands.

Music, sermons, prayers, even confessions make up much of the experience of a typical religious service. So, for the deaf, how does faith flourish in an environment that so revolves around sound?

The Rev. Maria Santiviago, left, signs the sermon for deaf worshippers at Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz in New York. Santiviago is a 77-year-old Paraguayan who came out of retirement to help lead the ministry for the deaf.

The deaf worshippers at Holyrood in the northern edge of Manhattan, say that what might be considered a limitation has strengthened their sense of community, and expanded their understanding of God, and the sacred gift of silence in a noisy world.

During a recent Sunday service, deaf and hearing worshippers sung and signed hymns, offered the sign of peace bringing palms together with a twisting motion – and joyfully waved their hands high in the air in a sign-language equivalent of applause.

“When I sign the music and the hymns to God, I actually feel the Holy spirit with me. I give my all to him,” said Lidia Martinez, 54, who spoke to The Associated Press through her daughter, who is a sign language interpreter.

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Martinez felt alienated from her faith because she was deaf. When she moved to the U.S. in 1993, she continued to feel like an outsider in a hearing church.

“I remember going to other churches and sitting in the benches and not knowing what they were saying because there were no interpreters available,” she said. “It was really hard to follow the Mass with just the readings.”

A guide to the alphabet in American Sign Language is taped to a door inside the Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz in New York. Walking in the background is the Rev. Luis Barrios as he prepares for Spanish-language Mass.

After visiting multiple churches, she walked into Holyrood last year. That’s when she saw the Rev. Maria Santiviago signing from the pulpit.

“It was heartwarming to have her interpret the Mass,” she said about Santiviago, a 77-year-old Paraguayan who came out of retirement to help lead the ministry for the deaf. “Before I wasn’t understanding anything. This was like a Eureka moment.”

Now, her whole family is part of the Holyrood community. They recently walked into the church past the Nativity scene and a brightly lit Christmas tree and sat in the front pews, illuminated by sunlight from colorful stained-glass windows. Her husband, Carlos Tirado, 54, who is also deaf, signed. Her daughter Leisha Martinez, 11, and her granddaughters, Arly Gordon, 8, and Lyann Gordon, 4, who can hear, sang along.

Facing them – and all the deaf worshippers – stood her eldest daughter, Diely Martinez, an American Sign Language/Spanish medical interpreter, who now volunteers at the Sunday Mass.

“I want (God) to touch their lives, she said. “So, it’s more than interpreting. It’s a calling.”

Worshippers Carlos Tirado, left, and Lidia Martinez, second from left, sign in response to a sermon at Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz in New York. Tirado and Martinez, who are deaf, began attending the church last year after seeing the Rev. Maria Santiviago give sermons in sign language.

During the service, the Rev. Luis Barrios asked the deaf and hearing worshippers to form a prayer chain around a congregant who fears that she’s also losing her sight.

The Sunday service for the deaf and a weekday American Sign Language classes have helped once-dwindling attendance to rise at the Gothic Revival-style church.

“God can also be found in the silence,” Santiviago said. “We’re empowering their language.”

Holyrood, which is located in the mostly Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, also takes pride in being a sanctuary church for immigrants and fully trilingual in English, Spanish and ASL.

Diely Martinez, 30, prays inside the Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz in New York. Martinez started volunteering as a sermon interpreter after her mother, who is deaf, began attending the church last year.

“We have revived this church. We wanted the church to support the people,” Barrios, who is from Puerto Rico, said. “We need to find ways to make changes so the church remains relevant.” He said that they still hope to reach out to more children and teenagers.

Technological advances, including apps for texting and talking, continue to help the deaf and hard of hearing worldwide. But, Diely Martinez said, a church for the deaf and hearing – like Holyrood – is vital.

“Every Sunday, we come here and we’re a family. It can be deaf friends; it can be my immediate family. But not only that,” she said. “I can see how the hearing people are more accepting of the deaf, and that’s very touching. They come together.”

Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.