For the last four decades, the John Pierce Centre in Prahran has been a place of welcome and hospitality for members of the local Catholic Deaf community and their families. The Centre offers a range of services and support, including the celebration of Mass every third Sunday of the month which, sadly, has been put on hold due to COVID-19.

Janette Murphy rsj has long been an advocate and friend of the Deaf community, having been involved with the John Pierce Centre for over 20 years, first as a chaplain and now as a volunteer.

These days, together with Katrina Mynard and Teresa Paulet, Janette assists with the provision of Auslan during the Sunday Mass livestreamed from St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. And while she acknowledges that this time of the pandemic has been challenging, Janette says that in some ways it’s also been a good opportunity for the needs of the Deaf community to be recognised by the mainstream. ‘A bonus of COVID-19 has provided Auslan interpreters for all news bulletins and the weekly Sunday Mass!’

Janette recently returned to Melbourne after studying in Ottawa where, as it happened, her local parish was home to the Deaf community. Naturally, she introduced herself.

‘They welcomed me with my Aussie sign language, and began to use the Auslan Sign of Peace during Mass which was beaut’! I was so touched by their acceptance.’

What motivated you to become an interpreter? How long have you been working in this space?

I had always wanted to learn sign language as my mum always talked about a deaf man who would visit her home when she was a child, and dad worked with a Deaf man. But I never had the opportunity until I was at the Novitiate (Sisters of St Joseph), and I was trying to avoid studying Theology! I was partly successful and began learning Auslan in Sydney and was able to do a ministry placement at the Ephpheta Centre. When I returned to Melbourne I began working at St Francis Xavier Parish, Prahran, which involved working with the Liturgy Group which happened to be made up of the Deaf people who attended JPC and Mass in the parish. My little bit of Auslan helped, and I was hooked. My connection with JPC began in an official capacity but I am now a proud volunteer!

What is your role at JPC and what do you enjoy most about the community?

I first began my association with JPC in 1996 whilst working part-time in the [St Francis Xavier] Prahran Parish. My office was in the JPC building and my organising of Sunday Mass involved being with the Deaf Community who were the Liturgy Group. The Deaf Chaplain was also the Parish Priest. In 1997, I was offered part-time work at JPC while still working in the Parish. Then in 1998, I began full-time with the Deaf Community at JPC.

These first few years of my involvement were difficult, with the closure of the Prahran Parish, the loss of our Deaf Chaplain/Parish Priest, and the uncertainty around all this. However, I continued working at JPC in both pastoral care and chaplaincy roles until the end of 2010. My work involved a variety of roles – interpreting, the Emmaus Liturgy Group, the support and advocacy of Deaf people, faith development, sacraments, marriage preparation, funerals – basically whatever situation that Deaf people needed support in dealing with.

I have enjoyed all the various aspects of my involvement with Deaf people, interpreting and enabling them to come to a greater understanding of their Catholic faith and to explore many other avenues of life not readily available to them.

What are some of the other common myths and misconceptions you've encountered about disability in the wider community? How can we address these?

This is certainly an interesting point for discussion in the Deaf Community. Whilst seen as ‘disabled’ by most of the population, it is not how Deaf people view themselves. Due to difficulties in finding appropriate and rewarding job opportunities, Deaf people may find themselves resorting to the disability pension as a regular income, often because social services personnel encourage them in that direction. In no way does this mean that Deaf people are disabled, just that we ‘hearing’ people often see them as such.

If more people could communicate in sign language, were willing to think laterally, or were able to see beyond the immediate communication hurdle, there may well be more options available to Deaf people.

Auslan is just one of many types of sign language within the Deaf community. How long did it take you to become fluent in Auslan?

Sign language is not a universal language. Each country has its own distinct sign language, even though English may be the primary spoken language. I studied Auslan for two years, then completed the Diploma of Interpreting about 20 years ago. I was fortunate to pick up sign language fairly easily, feeling comfortable using Auslan with JPC Community, who always encouragingly corrected my signs when necessary!

You never stop learning Auslan, as languages are always changing, developing and growing, and each new generation of Deaf people has their own way of signing and new signs for concepts. Just as we don’t use certain words now because we realise they are not ‘politically correct’, the same applies to sign language.

I have not worked solely as an interpreter, as my focus has been connected with the Catholic Church. My connection with JPC has continued since I finished officially working there, and I am now a proud volunteer!

Each year in August, the John Pearce Centre celebrates what called an ‘Ephpheta Mass’ for the Deaf community. What happens at this celebration and why is it significant?

The Ephpheta Sunday Mass is a special celebration for the Catholic Deaf Community where the Gospel of Jesus healing the deaf man in Mark’s gospel is used (Mark 7:31-37). It is used because it is the only time Jesus interacts with a deaf person in the gospels. We use this gospel not to celebrate Jesus' healing of the deaf man, but Jesus exclamation to the deaf man to be open and receive the Good News. The action in the gospel story acknowledges that Deaf people can proclaim the Good News of Christ and promote the Kingdom of God, the same as any other person can. The Deaf Community celebrates Jesus’ recognition of Deaf people as people of faith.

During the Mass we celebrate three aspects: deaf history, the Deaf community and deaf language (Auslan). These ‘pillars’ of the community are strong aspects of the culture of Deaf people that make them who they are as a linguistic community. The Ephpheta celebration is a highlight of the year for the Deaf Community at JPC and provides an opportunity for members to gather, share and celebrate who they are as Deaf people.

Where have you found energy during this time of the COVID-19 lockdown?

This has been a challenge for me this year. I try to get out for a good walk each day to appreciate God’s creation and witness the celebration of life with others who walk their dogs in the gardens or play with their children. I really enjoy meeting other people’s dogs and getting my own ‘pet therapy’! This energises me and gives my spirits a lift. Besides doing crosswords and Sudoku, I am a real coffee-lover and movie-buff, but these are made more difficult now that we can’t go to the cinemas or relax at a cafe. But there is always the takeaway coffee, so life can still be lived and enjoyed! I do try and keep in touch with people via FaceTime, email, Zoom, etc. Thank God for all the technology at our fingertips now, which enables us to keep in touch.

What’s something new you’ve learned about yourself during this time of COVID-19?

This year I completed a five-year course of study (Canon Law) and was looking forward to launching into a job where I could put those newly learned skills to good use. However, COVID-19 has prevented that from happening, so I am ‘job-less’ at the moment like so many others in society. This has given me a new appreciation of work, and the need for having a purpose in life – a reason to get up in the morning. I’ve learned that I have difficulty motivating myself to do nothing all day! (laugh)

What’s the first thing you’re going to do (or the first place you’ll visit) when Victoria emerges from its current lockdown restrictions?

Well, once this is all over, I will be hugging every person in sight – so watch out! My first visit will be to the aged care facility where a Deaf woman with whom I have been doing FaceTime for many weeks is a resident. I was visiting her in person before this current lockdown period. Then I will fly home to Tasmania to see family, friends and other Josephites. I am also looking forward to visits from friends in Canada who promised to visit me Down Under one day. Oh, and also to find a job!