Marie Taccogna has been using sign language since she was 7 months old. Both of her parents are deaf, and so are her two adult children. And for the past 44 years, she’s worked as a sign-language interpreter herself.
She has signed everywhere from the family court system to Broadway musicals, and on Sundays, she does that work at St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn, where she has been interpreting Mass for deaf parishioners for the past 24 years.
“Interpreting Mass is very difficult because of the liturgy and everything that goes into it. Not all interpreters were willing to accept the challenge, nor were they willing to want to do it. I was willing, always,” Taccogna said.
During the Mass, Taccogna interprets everything from the processional hymn to the closing prayer, signaling a call and response to deaf parishioners who follow her cues from the pews, although most of them know the Mass by heart.
Sharing her knowledge beyond her home has always been a part of Taccogna’s life.
“My father is 88 years old and very strong, and is a proud Catholic himself,” she said. “He was one of the people who had set up interpreting services at St. Mary, Mother of Jesus Church in Bensonhurst.”
Besides St. James, St. Mary’s is the only other parish in the Brooklyn Diocese that offers a Mass with a sign language interpreter. It began doing that 20 years ago.
Accessibility of Mass for the deaf is in high demand, and the Church is trying to meet that demand on a national scale. Organizations such as the National Catholic Office for the Deaf serve as many as 5.7 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics through pastoral ministry and advocacy to bishops, pastors and families with deaf family members.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, three out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss, and about 15 percent of American adults report some trouble hearing.
“Here at St James, we are fortunate to have approximately 12 regular parishioners at our church on Sunday Mass. Sometimes it can go up to 20,” Taccogna said.
St. James is the home parish for the deaf parishioners of Brooklyn and Queens. The group is small but devoted. They travel from all parts of the diocese to attend the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass. ”They take trains, buses and whatever to get here so that they could see a Mass interpreted,” Taccogna said.
On the subject of the deaf, the late Helen Keller, a noted American author and activist, is of local interest because she spent part of her life in Forrest Hills.
“Helen Keller was deaf and blind,” Taccogna said. “So the deaf community itself has a smaller community of deaf, blind people. So in some respects, there are similarities of isolation, feeling alone.”
“I used to take my younger sister, Jean, to church. And we would go and we would sit, and I would pray. I would pray that one day that we could pray as a family in church,” Taccogna recalled. Now, Taccogna says that day has come.
“In today’s world, the deaf person is more in the mainstream. They can mingle with others through interpreters, or through many people who have taken up sign language and have learned to sign.”
She has even taught some of her fellow St. James hearing parishioners sign language.
“Their deaf community here is very, very friendly,” she’s noted. “They interact with the hearing parishioners by just being around them and saying ‘hello.’ It’s a very close-knit community. It’s like a family.
“If you come to church and learn the closeness and feel the closeness of God, I believe you’re an easy person to connect with … If you live with Christ in your heart, the deaf people feel that. I said they ‘feel’ that, so they don’t hear it. But they see it, and they feel it.”