Carmen Greico, the folk choir director at St. Bernard Church in Levittown, N.Y., prepares to listen to a CD of daily reflections at her home in Levittown June 29. The CD is produced and distributed by the Xavier Society for the Blind CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

At 100, New York society's commitment to spread good news to blind remains same

By  Beth Griffin, Catholic News Service
  • July 8, 2012

NEW YORK - Evangelists at a century-old missionary organization in New York spread the word of God without leaving their nondescript building in midtown Manhattan.

The people they evangelize never see the missioners, but they recognize the Light of the World in the materials they receive from the Xavier Society for the Blind.

The organization provides Catholic religious and spiritual material free of charge to more than 10,000 blind, visually impaired and physically restricted people throughout the United States.

Jesuit Father John R. Sheehan has been chairman of the Xavier Society since 2008. In an interview with Catholic News Service, he said Jesuit St. Francis Xavier, patron of the missions, encouraged his followers "to go forth to strange lands, learn to speak the language and tell the people about the word of God."

"That applies to the widest range of definitions. Language is not just vocabulary, it's usage and structure," he said.

For the Xavier Society, that means providing material in Braille, large print and audio formats. It's a huge task -- literally: The Braille edition of the New American Bible fills 45 volumes and includes all the notes found in the print edition.

Father Sheehan said the Xavier Society was started by a group of laywomen who asked Jesuit Father Joseph Stadelman to help supply free religious materials to the blind. "In those days, if you wanted to get God's word to the blind, you either had to be a publishing house or you had to read to individual blind people," he said.

The Xavier Society functioned as a publishing house "for prayer books, bits of Scripture and lives of the saints," Father Sheehan said. It founded and continues to manage the National Catholic Lending Library for the Blind.

The group began in 1900 in a single room at what is now Xavier High School and was incorporated in 1904. Early Bible texts used raised type called Moontype and New York Point, before Braille became the standard in 1918.

The Xavier Society has long relied on volunteers to help transcribe material into Braille and retype text using large-print typewriters. There are now more than 80 volunteers. Some are young actors and retirees who record books, Catholic periodicals and Mass propers for distribution via current technology.

Phonograph records gave way to reel-to-reel tape, which was replaced by cassette tape. Current subscribers also can use digital CDs and MP3 audio editions.

"What we do has not changed since 1900, but the technology and delivery systems have," he said. The Xavier Society is putting more emphasis on Braille texts as large-print and audio subscribers are able to easily access material from other sources, or use computers to enlarge type or read content.

"No one else is doing what we do. People who use Braille have fewer avenues," Father Sheehan said, adding that Braille has the practical advantage of allowing users to both read and write.

Technological advances also now allow Braille users to read and write on devices similar to Kindles and Nooks.

The Xavier Society remains committed to its founding mission but is undergoing restructuring, as financial constraints and rapidly changing technologies prompted the board of trustees to look at how it can still meet the needs of current and future subscribers.

Father Sheehan reduced the paid staff from 16 to seven and is preparing to sell the society's narrow seven-story building. "We're not in a crisis, but we are moving before we are," he said. A new headquarters location has not been chosen.

Proceeds from the sale of the building will be used to develop new ways to engage the blind and visually impaired, he said. Among the possibilities are retreats for the blind, outreach to younger users and translation of materials into Spanish.

"We're maintaining a tradition," Father Sheehan said. "We don't charge for our service, we give it away." Most of the society's annual budget of $1.8 million comes from private donations and fundraising events, he said.

"The key word is evangelization, reaching out with information about our faith. The blind community needs to have access to this material, and opportunities are few and far between in the Catholic Church. No one else is doing Catholic Braille and other groups charge for audio," he said.

"The blind community tends to be on a lower economic scale, even with advanced training programs and education. The blind can do practically anything a sighted person can do, but sometimes it's like they're invisible" in the Catholic Church, Father Sheehan said.

He described his frustration while attending a Mass at St. Patrick's cathedral for people with disabilities. There were accommodations for the deaf and people using wheelchairs, but none of the material was in Braille or large print. "The blind couldn't participate actively in the service," he said.

As a "first step to understand the culture" of the Xavier Society's subscribers, Father Sheehan spent time at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where he wore foam light-blocking sleep shades and learned to navigate with a white cane. He uses the glasses and cane on occasional walks through the streets of New York "to keep my skills up," he said.

Father Sheehan joined the Society of Jesus in 1980, was ordained in 1992 and was a missioner in Nigeria and the South Pacific for 14 years. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he worked in the theater and on Broadway before he entered the Jesuits.

The theater training comes in handy at the Xavier Society. Father Sheehan records books, including works by a fellow Jesuit, Father James Martin of America magazine. He also sings sacred music, Christmas carols and show tunes on a series of CDs sold to benefit the society.

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