By Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Katherine Rathgeber wanted to do something really special in ministry — especially deaf ministry — but the question was what would it be.
“A couple of summers ago, I was praying at home and felt a desire in my heart to do something after college to give myself in total service to God,” said Rathgeber, who attended Franciscan-sponsored Quincy College in Illinois.
“I’m engaged to be married next summer, but I wanted to have that experience of just a year where I’m able to say ‘yes’ to anything,” she said.
An opportunity came along, but she didn’t feel at peace with it, so she kept praying.
“It took me a long time of trying to resist God’s will, but God is persistent — praise God,” she said.
Her spiritual director at school gave her a tip: Contact Father Scott Wallisch in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
“I sent him an email and told him what was on my heart,” she said.
His welcoming invitation to visit in March this year came at a good time. She was free during spring break.
Rathgeber visited the archdiocese on March 12 and met with archdiocesan consultant for deaf ministry Katie Locus and others. She also attended a Mass celebrated in American Sign Language in Olathe.
Before she could be accepted for ministry, she was asked to submit a proposal.
She did, and it was accepted. On Aug. 18, Rathgeber became a “visiting missionary” in the archdiocesan office of deaf ministry. She will work in the archdiocese until May 2018.
“Katherine is such a blessing,” said Locus. “With her wealth of experience in ministry and her youthful enthusiasm, she has already been such a huge help in revitalizing deaf ministry.”
“When Katherine came to the deaf Mass [during her visit], I didn’t have any idea of how she could be a good fit for the office,” Locus continued. “Well, I was blown away by how much experience she had in ministry and knowledge of theology. I had been praying for help. When I realized how much she had to offer, I knew right then that God had answered my prayers.”
Rathgeber was born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Her family belonged to Sacred Heart Parish and she was an altar server. Her family was faithful and active in the parish.
“Praise God for my parents, who raised my brother and me in the faith, going to church every Sunday and sending us to catechism classes,” she said. “I grew up around the parish.”
It was during a high school retreat that her faith caught fire.
“I went on a confirmation retreat at a mountain center,” she said. “Praying the Divine [Mercy] chaplet, I had an experience of the Holy Spirit, and that was what started a deepening for me. I decided to join the Quest retreat team.
“From that point, I kept going. The retreat team was hugely formative in my life. It was such a beautiful experience.”
She practically grew up with American Sign Language.
“I had a deaf friend while I was growing up,” said Rathgeber. “I met her at vacation Bible school while we were in the second grade, and I wanted to be able to talk with her. So I started learning some signs that week from her, like ‘cookie’ and ‘juice.’ And my parents bought me a sign language book, and I just soaked it up and I wanted more.
“I had some classes in high school with my friend and I would watch the interpreter the whole time, and I tried to learn a new sign every day.”
Interestingly, the only formal sign language classes she took were at Quincy College.
She graduated from Quincy on May 14 with a double major — bachelor of arts degrees in sign language interpreting and in theology. Her senior thesis was about deaf ministry and the new evangelization.
Rathgeber is involved in a number of deaf ministry efforts as a visiting missionary.
“She is focusing on preparing two deaf teenagers for confirmation and is doing several interpreting jobs — Masses and Communion services at nursing homes for deaf residents, sacramental preparation classes, retreats, workshops, meetings and religious events,” said Locus. “Katherine is certainly staying busy.”
Her most ambitious project since arriving in Kansas is leading the effort to make a sign language translation of the YOUCAT, the Youth catechism of the Catholic Church.
“It’s a huge, national, three-year project,” said Rathgeber. “We’re working with a team of 20 people from all over the country — hearing and deaf, priests and lay — all involved in deaf ministry.
“People have translated the Bible and other spiritual things into [American] Sign Language, but there has never been a catechism,” she continued. “It has so many truths of the faith, but [the longer] catechism is large and kind of daunting. The YOUCAT has a simple question and answer format that is aimed at young people but really is applicable for everyone and lends itself very easily to sign language.”
Rathgeber’s ability to make an immediate contribution to the archdiocesan deaf ministry and her ability to connect with people has impressed Locus.
“Katherine is such a joy to have,” said Locus. “Her enthusiasm for serving God and the deaf community has captured everyone’s hearts. She is truly a blessing.”