Founding members, 1979
By Consuelo Wild, OFS
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” St. Francis. It is good to begin with a quote of our Holy Father St. Francis. In this simple quote, I find what our Deaf Catholic Fraternity, is all about. It is a seed planted and still growing. More than 40 years later, we may still be the only Deaf OFS fraternity in the United States and elsewhere.
Our humble beginnings started with Deacon Paul Pernecky, OFS, who was also among the first deaf persons to be ordained a deacon. He is our group’s founder. Forty-one years ago, on January 14, 1979, the St. Francis of Assisi Fraternity of the Deaf was established in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at the Catholic Deaf Center (now dedicated as Pope Francis Center) in Landover Hills, Md.
The fraternity was started in 1978 with Francis Cannon as its first Minister, who served until 1985. In January 1979, the first members were professed. This included Deacon Pernecky and Francis Cannon, as well as Elise Pernecky, Patricia Porreca, Alan Porreca, Lucia Equiguen, George Bisaha, Paul Blicharz, and George Babinetz.
Another member of our Catholic Deaf Community joined OFS not long after the original members. Dorothy Steffanic began her formation in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1977. Later, she relocated in the Washington, D.C, area and became a professed Franciscan in St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Fraternity in 1979. Ms. Steffanic became the second minister of the fraternity in 1985. Another five members became newly professed between 1981 and 1999. Since then, many of these professed members have gone home to their Father, and others have moved away. Dorothy shared how much becoming a Franciscan meant to her at the 25th Anniversary celebration of St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Fraternity. She said, “I am very interested in and marvel at St. Francis of Assisi’s way of life and his depth of love for God and his people, no matter where he was. He was a lover of animals and nature. He built a strong Church by the power of God through his weakness and great love and trust in Him.”
It was our Dorothy who, now 91 years old, remained faithfully with her community and welcomed five new candidates who were eventually professed. Around 2004, in prayer and with hope, Dorothy reached out to Janice Benton, OFS, who is currently the Minister of St Francis Fraternity in Washington, D.C., and part of the St. Margaret of Cortona Region. Together, Fr. Hugh MacSherry, OFM, (a friar at that time and spiritual assistant) and Janice worked with Mary O’Meara as interpreter to guide the formation of the current candidates. On December 14, 2008, the following made their profession: David Koch, Eleanor Culas Ward, Godwin Ofodu, Peter Noyes, Janet Noyes, and Sally Mooney. It was our sister-in-Christ Dorothy who, persevering in her Franciscan vows, once again brought the fraternity to life.
While several of the members have moved, the fraternity continues, with God’s grace, to learn and flourish. Two additional members, Paul Sweeney and Consuelo Wild, were in Formation in 2011 and professed on April 19, 2015. Peter Noyes was elected to the Regional Council around six years ago as treasurer. Peter shares that he became a Franciscan because “God knows how difficult it was for me to be deaf in a hearing world. I met every challenge thrown in my life…. I looked for a way to deepen the intimacy between myself and God. A friar suggested that I might be looking for ways to improve my prayer life”… and so “the most important thing about being a Franciscan is serving others through servant leadership. We Franciscans are formed to serve one another in a big or little way.”