Inner City and Deaf Community: An Associate’s Journey

by Celeste Bonfanti, SSJ Associate in Mission, Francis House of Prayer

Celeste B. Associate - SSJ

When Sr. Marcy Springer invited me to be an SSJ Associate in Mission, I had no idea what it entailed. “It’s nothing to worry about,” she assured me. “You’re doing it already. ”Three of the constants in my unsettled yet stimulating life have been my faith as a cradle Catholic, my passion for social justice and my work in the Deaf Community, the latter of which has taken me from New Jersey to upstate New York, to northern England and back again. My faith and social justice concern have, of course been closely intertwined. They have brought me, as a resident of Burlington City, NJ, to worship at Sacred Heart Church in Camden and to take on a management role at their thrift store, Clothes from the Heart, in the Waterfront South neighborhood. My Deaf work has at times also overlapped; I was for a time a sign interpreter at Mass at my parents’ parish, St. Gregory the Great in Hamilton Square, NJ. I am sure many of us find that our varied roles are hard to tease apart. The Spirit and the charism are the glue which binds them together.

Our dear departed pastor at Sacred Heart, Msgr. Michael Doyle (who entered eternal rest this past November) was a legend in South Jersey, a modern-day prophet from County Longford, Ireland, who taught we comfortable suburbanites that the opposite of love was not hate but fear: fear of the other, the immigrant, the poor and disadvantaged. He made it easy for us to roll up our sleeves and shatter “…the illusion of our separateness,” in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh. He cautioned us that if we didn’t know the names of our economically deprived brothers and sisters, we weren’t close enough.

There are numerous ways of learning the names of the neighborhood residents in Waterfront South through the many ministries of Sacred Heart: sponsorship of children in our school… monthly food sharing… weekly neighborhood dinners… the greenhouse and community garden… and volunteering at the thrift store, among others. This little shop, at 1811 South Broadway, provides so much more than clothes. It is a social hub each Saturday, providing a hospitable base for the neighborhood women and a place where essentials from household goods to toys to toiletries, diapers, wipes, nursery equipment, etc. are available at much-reduced prices. Run by parishioners and neighbors working side by side, we are open on Saturdays from 10:00 – 2:00, and our proceeds are divided between an emergency fund for the neighborhood (for unmanageable bills and unforeseen misfortunes) and the weekly dinners provided free of charge each Saturday at “Joe’s Place,” a parish-run facility in the next block.

At Clothes from the Heart, I have learned the names of, and indeed become closely involved with, the dear neighbors of Waterfront South. When we buried one of our co-workers from the neighborhood earlier this month, no less than 15 members of our shop turned out to hear “Mr. Tim,” the neighborhood preacher, tell us, “If there are two things this neighborhood understands, they are PAIN and GRACE.” I couldn’t agree more.

During the week, I fulfill the other part of my ministry: providing educational access and social opportunities for Deaf and hard of hearing (D/HH) children and youth in South Jersey. I work for the Burlington County Special Services School District’s Educational Services Unit as a teacher of D/HH students and run an independent social group for D/HH youth called Hearing Optional, now in its 13th year. My current educational placement is at Roebling Elementary School supporting a wonderful little boy named Declan Holland. We are soon to welcome to a school assembly a four-legged friend of Declan’s, Cole the Deaf Dog, for which Declan and his class will sign a song.

As a graduate of the Education of the Deaf program at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), my work with the Deaf Community has taken place both in and out of the classroom. I have worked as a Field Representative for the NJ Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing as well as overseas in England’s Lake District with the Cumbria Deaf Association in the 800-year-old market town of Kendal. I have been a Senior Adjunct at Rowan College at Burlington County, teaching American Deaf Culture for 14 years. I have learned both American and British Sign Language and have made close friends within the community on both sides of the Atlantic. Deaf people are generally very patient and welcoming to hearing people with an interest in their language and culture, and I have learned a great deal from them over the years. The culture’s constant striving for clarity, equality and understanding are a testament to the progress made in the many years since their beautiful language, and very identity as Deaf people, were harshly suppressed by the hearing majority. I have treasured my role as a teacher and advocate within the community as well as my many Deaf teachers along the way.

My life has been enriched greatly by my involvement in the Associates in Mission group at Francis House of Prayer. It has been equally enriched by my work at Clothes from the Heart and with the Deaf Community. It is divinely copacetic that the work of our order included Deaf ministry in its earliest years! Each of these ministries comprises a color and a texture in what has been for me a beautiful tapestry of outreach and service, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunities each has provided me over the years.

For more information on Sacred Heart Church, please see our new parish website,
For more information on donating to or volunteering for Clothes from the Heart (and we need both!) or on Hearing Optional’s monthly activities, please contact me at

For a wonderful snapshot of the Deaf Community past and present, watch “Through Deaf Eyes” [Through Deaf Eyes with closed captions – YouTube]