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Korean priest returns to D.C. to become chaplain to deaf community

Rev. Min Seo Park

Photo Courtesy of Rev. Min Seo Park

John Burger - published on 05/05/21

Fr. Min Seo Park learned American Sign Language at Gallaudet University on his road to the priesthood.

As a young man of high school age in Seoul, South Korea, Min Seo Park studied art in a technical school for the deaf. He had lost his hearing completely at age 2, as a result of medication for a serious illness.

His artistic abilities were not the greatest, so he went for private tutoring in design. After a while, the tutor, who was also deaf, introduced him to the Catholic faith. Park came from a Buddhist family, but had enjoyed going to a Christian church with other deaf students. Reading books that his tutor gave him, he discovered something new and energizing in Catholicism.

And he was able to attend Mass at a Catholic church that had a sign language interpreter for the deaf. But the pastor, who was not deaf, preached in language that, he recalled, went over the heads of most of his congregation. Some of the deaf attendees fell asleep during the homilies, Park remembered.

“Others were frustrated and just began to leave, and I asked them ‘Where are you going?’ They said ‘We’re going to the Protestant church,’ because that pastor [who was deaf] was clear and easy to understand, and they did not want to have a hearing priest with an interpreter. It was all confusing and they felt so bored.”

Though Park had been baptized, his faith “wasn’t really rooted yet,” he said, and he was tempted to go back to the Protestant church, where the pastor’s homilies were delivered in “clear and beautiful” sign language. 

“So I prayed and asked God to send me a priest who knows how to sign for deaf persons,” he said. “I didn’t get a response. I continued to pray, but I felt a sense that Jesus was saying to me, ‘Well, why not you?’ I thought, ‘Me? How can a deaf person become a priest? That’s impossible.’ But that feeling really began to grow within me that I was being called to fulfill that need. That’s how my vocation really began.”

Potholes, speed bumps and detours

Now 52, Fr. Min Seo Park has been a priest of the Archdiocese of Seoul for 14 years, serving mostly at the Ephatha parish for deaf Catholics in Seoul. He recently began a three-year assignment, “on loan,” as chaplain to the St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and Catholic chaplain at Gallaudet University, a federally chartered university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the nation’s capital. 

He spoke with Aleteia in a Zoom interview, interpreted by Mary O’Meara, the Executive Director of the Department of Special Ministries for the Archdiocese of Washington.  

Fr. Park’s road to the priesthood was full of potholes, speed bumps and detours. It began when he learned about an American priest who is deaf, Fr. Tom Coughlin.

“From that moment I realized, ‘Maybe there is a possibility of becoming a deaf priest.’ It gave me hope.” 

Ordained in 1977 in Baltimore, Fr. Coughlin was the first deaf priest in North America. He founded the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate and continues to be active.

Coughlin encouraged Park to come to the United States and study at Gallaudet, which he did, learning both English and American sign language and earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. From there, Park entered a program for deaf seminarians that Coughlin had set up in the Archdiocese of New York. At St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., the young exchange student studied alongside about 20 hearing seminarians. 

“Wow, it was a huge challenge for me,” he recalled. “Their background and academic credentials were much stronger than mine. I had to be very patient. The teachers spoke so very quickly. I did not have an interpreter, just a laptop with a person typing for me. As the professors were speaking so quickly, it was absolutely impossible to type everything, and I was missing a lot. … I wasn’t truly understanding everything, and I fell far behind.”

After about a year, his grades were mediocre. He received a letter from seminary officials stating that they could not foresee the possibility of his becoming a priest. 

“They thought it best that I leave the seminary,” he said. “At the same time the program for deaf seminarians was closed. That was a shock. I was just heartbroken. I wasn’t sure just what would happen next.”

Fr. Coughlin encouraged him to not give up. He waited and prayed, and one day picked up a book at random and began reading. It was about St. John Vianney, who also was asked to leave seminary — because of his poor Latin skills. But Vianney’s pastor petitioned the bishop and got extra help for the young seminarian. Not only did Vianney go on to ordination, he turned out to be such an exemplary priest that he now is considered the patron saint of parish priests. 

“I felt we were in the same situation and that he persevered and did become a priest,” Fr. Park said. “I felt positive again and I believed that God would respond.”

Rev. Min Seo Park

Opening another door

Coughlin helped Park get into a program at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where the young seminarian had the assistance of two interpreters and a note taker. Park earned a Master’s degree in divinity in 2004 and went home to Seoul to be ordained. 

As pastor of Ephatha in Seoul, Fr. Park celebrated Mass in Korean Sign Language for some 200-250 people each Sunday. Part of his work was building a church, which was completed in August 2019. 

But the Washington community was lacking a priest, and Mary O’Meara “searched everywhere for a hearing priest who could sign and had priests filling in with interpreters,” Park said. “Mary asked me to please come and serve the community.”

Like everyone else, the community at St. Francis has been subject to COVID restrictions, and lately, only about 30 persons have been attending Mass in person on Sundays. Mass has been live-streamed online.

O’Meara said that although about 9% of Americans are “profoundly deaf,” using sign language, there is a greater concentration in Washington, as graduates of Gallaudet tend to stay local, “for the sense of community” and for job and other opportunities. 

Gallaudet is currently closed due to the pandemic, but Fr. Park said the campus is supposed to be at 50% capacity over the summer and fully open in the fall. He is looking forward to working with students there, where he once was one of them. He will be able to offer them the kind of encouragement he received from others when things looked so bleak.

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