Fr. James Dennis reads from the pulpit in braille. Photo courtesy Xavier Society for the Blind

Xavier Society brings Gospel light to blind

  • March 24, 2022

Ann Musgrave, who is completely blind, attends a Catholic book club and has just started reading The Gift of Years by popular American nun Joan Chittister.

A Toronto resident and retired city employee, Musgrave has been receiving braille translated books like this and other materials from the Xavier Society for the Blind (XSB) for over four decades to practice and learn about her Catholic faith.

Since 1900, XSB has been providing Catholic books and religious materials transcribed into braille to blind and visually impaired faithful across North America and 20 countries around the world. It remains the only organization providing the service specifically for blind and visually impaired Catholics, regularly serving 2,500 people through the support of donors.

“I belong to a lay group that gathers to read and reflect on spiritual books and articles,” said Musgrave, who prefers the experience of reading braille over audiobooks. “It was so wonderful to be able to call the Xavier Society and say do you have (The Gift of Years) and be able to order it and have a braille copy. We’re going through the book right now and I can go through it with everyone else at the same time.”

A member of St. Brigid’s Parish in the city’s east end, Musgrave was first put on to XSB through another Catholic blind person in the 1980s who recommended the organization. She got excited because she didn’t know of any other services that were providing Catholic materials.

Among other materials, she began regularly receiving Mass prospers (which she continues to receive to this day), and a braille magazine called The Catholic Review. Through the magazine, she learned there were blind lectors, something she didn’t know existed. The discovery sparked something inside of her. In 1985, a pastoral associate in the parish encouraged her to read and she’s been reading off and on ever since.

“I thought if other blind people are lectors, I can be a lector,” said Musgrave. “The Xavier Society has expanded and deepened my faith and understanding of the Church in ways that I don’t think would have happened otherwise.

“Especially in the early days, I wouldn’t have been able to do this without them. The braille prospers are the equivalent of a missalette — like a little portable lectionary. I can get up and read at Mass because the readings are in braille. I’ve also used their audio recorded services as well. They’ve just been an amazing support to me, particularly that increasing sense of confidence to be able to share and give back and participate more fully than I would have without them.”

XSB carries books in both braille and audio through a catalogue accessible through its website. Customers can also access information about  new books added to the catalogue through call-in audio recorded messaging.

Typically, they receive requests directly from blind or visually impaired individuals and sometimes from parish administrators on behalf of someone in their church community. XSB is exempt from copyright laws as long as it is confirmed that the person requesting is in fact blind or visually impaired.

For most of the books and spcial requests they have a certified braille transcriber on staff, Terrence McCafferty, who secures a print version of the book. Oftentimes they are transcribing workbooks for young children who are learning about their Catholic faith. The Mass prospers, which includes the readings, responses and prayers for Sunday Masses and most of the major feast days in braille, are mailed out to about 800 people a month. The prospers alone account for 750, 000 pages of braille a year.

XSB has a long history of being managed by Jesuit priests, and today is run by executive director Malachy Fallon who, as a graduate of Fordham University, also has Jesuit roots.

XSB was founded by Margaret Coffey, a teacher of blind children in 1900 who saw the needed to provide Catholic books to her students. She connected with Jesuit priest Fr. Joseph Stadelman, who was working with deaf children. She convinced him to work with her to provide books in raised print for her students who were learning about their Catholic faith. She contributed at the time a whopping $350 to purchase a stereograph machine, which was relatively new technology at the time.

“(Coffey) recognized the need and there was no one fulfilling that need,” said Fallon. “She did something about it which is quite inspiring. Our mission remains very similar. The technology and the processes have changed obviously over the years, but we are still providing children, young adults and adults of all ages with material to help learn, develop and practice their faith.”

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