by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — In the Catholic deaf community, Sister Ann Albrecht, CSJ, has a nickname: the bag lady.
She was a deaf ministry Paladin: Can Sign — Will Travel.
And did she ever.
As director of the ministry to the deaf for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, Sister Ann packed her bags and barnstormed all over the archdiocese, the state of Kansas, the United States (including Alaska) and even Canada.
After 27 years of deaf ministry, Sister Ann handed the reins over to Pat Richey, the current archdiocesan consultant for deaf ministry, in 2001.
Now, after an active retirement, Sister Ann will pack her bags for the last time and move on July 5, for health reasons, to the Nazareth Living Center in St. Louis. She considers it to be not an end for her but another beginning. Appropriately, she’s riding off into the sunrise.
She’s leaving behind an incredible legacy of faith and love.
“We have a strong and active deaf Catholic community because of the work of Sister Ann,” said Richey. “The love of Christ was spoken through the hands of Sister Ann Albrecht.”
The girl from River City
Perhaps it was inevitable that Sister Ann would grow up and enter deaf ministry.
She grew up in St. Louis as a devout Catholic and as a CODA: Child of Deaf Adults. Learning sign language was as natural to her as mother’s milk. So, too, was life in the deaf community.
“I just feel one with them,” said Sister Ann. “I feel at home with the deaf. In fact, many deaf people think I’m deaf.”
Despite the struggles of her family during the Great Depression, her parents sacrificed to send her to Catholic schools. She attended the all-girls Rosati-Kain High School, which was jointly run by the Sisters of St. Joseph and the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
“The School Sisters were very good teachers, but they all marched to the same drum,” said Sister Ann. “The Sisters of St. Joseph were very human. They were joyful, compassionate and loving. You could communicate with them. After school, you could joke around and visit with them.”
Sister Ann graduated from high school at age 19 in 1945. She had her mother fill out the paperwork to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph because, initially, her father didn’t want her to become a Sister.
After she professed, Sister Ann taught grade school in Champaign, Illinois; St. Louis; Kansas City, Missouri; and Valdosta, Georgia. After earning her master’s degree in library science in 1969, she was sent to St. Teresa’s Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, to teach and work in the library.
Drawn to a ministry
“I really missed the deaf,” said Sister Ann of her early years in the order. “Wherever I was stationed, I always looked for deaf people.”
If she didn’t find them, they found her. Her entry into deaf ministry began informally, when a group of deaf people discovered her and asked her to help them plan a convention. She began interpreting Masses at St. Peter Cathedral in Kansas City, Kansas.
“I really felt called to work with the deaf, but I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “The Second Vatican Council called religious to go back to their roots. I [asked myself,] ‘What am I doing at St. Teresa’s Academy? Anyone can teach hearing high school kids, but not deaf kids.’”
With some help from the Jesuits, she discerned a call to minister to the deaf. Bishop Charles Helmsing of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph (who taught her in high school) told her to “go to Kansas with my blessing.”
In 1974, she helped a priest in Kansas run three weekend retreats for deaf children in Gardner. She didn’t know he was sizing her up to replace him as archdiocesan director for deaf ministry. He introduced her to Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker, who hired her.
“He said, ‘Welcome,’ and gave me free rein,” said Sister Ann.
To say that hearing people didn’t understand deaf ministry, then, is an understatement.
“I’d go to the chancery once a month to pick up my salary check,” said Sister Ann. “People would say, ‘Oh, you work with the deaf? Do they read Braille?’ That happened about four times. I thought, ‘I need to be visible. They didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. I feel like I’m working in a vacuum.’”
That’s when she pressed the archdiocesan chancellor for an office.
Building a community
There was a lot of work to do. In 1970, there were only five qualified American Sign Language interpreters in the Kansas City area — she being one of them.
Sister Ann interpreted at Masses and retreats and taught religious education at the Kansas School for the Deaf and Johnson County Community College. She also interpreted at courts and hospitals, and for more prosaic things — like scheduling a hair appointment at the beauty salon.
She helped make Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka and St. Paul Parish in Olathe centers of deaf ministry.
“It was Sister Ann who made the Mass accessible to the deaf in our archdiocese,” said Richey. “Many of the deaf in our community grew up without sign interpreters at Mass. They attended religion classes without interpreters. As a result, many did not know their faith.
“Sister Ann opened the door of the Catholic faith for them.”
Sister Ann beat the bushes to find the deaf . . . and CODAs as well. She learned they had a great spiritual hunger.
“I wanted to have a Cursillo [retreat] because I realized they needed to meet God and get to the heart of the message,” said Sister Ann.
Hearing members of the Cursillo movement helped her put on the first archdiocesan deaf Cursillo for 50 people in 1979.
“That was the beginning of the nucleus of the deaf community,” she said. “We didn’t start having a real community until after that Cursillo in 1979.”
Sister Ann became the first national spiritual director for deaf Cursillo in 1979 and held that post for eight years. She helped with 15 Cursillos across the United States and Canada.
She’s received many awards, but doesn’t mention them when asked about her greatest accomplishment.
“The greatest accomplishment I see is deaf people taking hold and being part of the church,” she said. “They’re not being talked at, they’re also giving. They’re taking leadership roles, and giving, and owning it, and living it — not being dependent, but asserting their rights.”
Sister Ann is leaving — and leaving a strong deaf Catholic community as a legacy — but she hopes she will be remembered for one thing.
“I hope that they will remember that I loved them,” she said, “that everything I did was because of love.
“And that I was most happy when I was with the deaf.”