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St. Rita School for the Deaf priest gives thanks for his ministry

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

In order to mark the Year for Priests declared by Pope Benedict XVI, The Catholic Telegraph will feature a series of regular articles profiling area clergy members. It is our hope these stories will enable Catholics in the archdiocese to come to know our priests better as they share their vocations, ministries and interests.

ST. ANDREW DEANERY — Every morning on the way to his classroom at St. Rita School for the Deaf, Father William Wysong stops in the chapel to thank the Lord for his ministry. He has been helping the deaf hear God for 36 years and counting.

A Springfield native who grew up in St. Raphael Parish, Father Wysong credits his late parents, Bill and Ruth, with his early faith formation and inspiring his vocation to the priesthood.

Father William Wysong signs during a recent Sunday Mass at St. Rita School for the Deaf. (CT/Tony Tribble)

“I was fortunate to grow up in a family where we said the rosary and prayed Scripture together,” he said. “Our faith was the most important thing in our lives. I thank God every day for the family he gave me.”

The priesthood “was on my mind as far back as I can remember, probably as early as the second grade,” he added. “My dad, who was a convert, went on retreat at Gethsemani [abbey of the Trappist monks] and the stories and books he came back with just fascinated me.”

One book Father Wysong found particularly meaningful was The Man who Got Even with God, by Trappist Father Raymond Flanagan, which tells the story of a rebellious young man who becomes a monk. “I figured if he could have a religious vocation, so could I,” Father Wysong said.

Most people would have identified his identical twin brother, John, the more serious of the two boys, as a future priest, but, said Father Wysong, “in the eighth grade, people thought I’d be lucky if I could pump gas someday, because I spent so much time in the principal’s office.”

Others may not have recognized his call, but the young man did. That same year, a Divine Word priest came to speak to his class and, said Father Wysong, “I was hooked.”

His parents were concerned that the order’s seminary in Girard, Pa., was too far away, but were agreeable to their son pursuing his vocation closer to home. So, Father Wysong began his studies at St. Gregory Seminary, a member of the last class to enter as freshmen.

It was there that he was introduced to his future ministry, when a fellow seminarian, who was studying sign language, asked him to help practice his skills. Father Wysong soon took the course himself and became a volunteer at St. Rita School for the Deaf.

“The kids were so patient with me,” he recalled. “They were just so happy to find someone willing to communicate with them. They taught me so much.”

Ordained in 1972, Father Wysong was initially assigned as assistant pastor at St. Rita Parish in Dayton, where he signed his first Mass with students from the school for the deaf as servers. He also had the opportunity to preside at his brother’s wedding at their home parish. His family was devastated when John Wysong, a beloved high school teacher and coach, died unexpectedly in 2004.

After a year in Dayton Father Wysong began his long tenure working with the deaf. He has held numerous positions at St. Rita through the years, supervising four boys’ dormitories and coaching athletics. He also spent 17 years in administration as dean of students and elementary principal of students in kindergarten through the eighth grade. He has taught as many as six classes per day and currently lives on the St. Rita’s campus with his two rescued greyhounds, Irish Eyes and Twiggy, teaching religion and serving as chaplain.

Because the deaf “see the church as a hearing institution,” Father Wysong has devoted much of his ministry to helping his students realize they are not ostracized from the Catholic Church but rather welcomed and valued members of their faith community. “My faith has been so alive for me that I want the same for my students,” he said.

Citing a lack of religion textbooks for the deaf, Father Wysong has written his own, which he hopes to have published. Covering church history, the sacraments, Scripture and the Ten Commandments, he said the text provides commentaries on the different books of the Bible in a “very Christ-centered way.”

It is yet another way to help the deaf hear God, part of Father Wysong’s goal each day at St. Rita, where the students hail from across the United States and beyond. Approximately 90 percent are not Catholic.

The rewards of his ministry have been great, said Father Wysong. Among them was seeing a former student become one of only a handful of deaf men in the country to be ordained a priest. Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Mike Depcik, a 1988 graduate of St. Rita, was ordained in 2000. “Being at his first Mass was the most amazing spiritual experience for me,” Father Wyson said.

Also meaningful, he added, have been opportunities to preside and sign at weddings across the country and hearing from former students who contact him to let him he has made a difference in their lives.

“There is nothing I have accomplished without God,” Father Wysong said. “I thank Him for letting me watch deaf children grow in education and see those who continue in their faith. What a privilege it has been.”

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