Get to Know: St. Thomas Deaf Episcopal Church
St. Thomas Deaf Episcopal Church is one of only a handful of deaf Episcopal churches in the country. It has been serving the St. Louis area since 1876, when a deaf Episcopal deacon began bringing deaf people together at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis. That group officially became a congregation in 1891, joining the Diocese of Missouri as St. Thomas Mission for the Deaf, named in honor of the Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, an Episcopal priest and son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who introduced Sign Language to the United States.
The congregation eventually moved to Grace Episcopal Church in Kirkwood, where they maintained their own worship space for several years. They moved again to Advent Episcopal Church in Crestwood in 2021 when their Vicar, the Rev. Dr. Emily Hillquist Davis, became the new rector at Advent.
Rev. Emily says Advent was immediately open and welcoming to the addition, encouraging her to be as inclusive as possible with the deaf congregation. The two congregations remain two separate churches (this was not a merger), so they pay special attention to details, like printing name tags in Sign Language and English and making sure the names of both congregations are always printed in the same size font to show they have equal status. As a result, both congregations benefit.
St. Thomas has one worship service each month in sign language, and they worship with Advent every Sunday morning. "We’ve been able to bring sign language to the altar," said Rev. Emily. "The challenge is that the worship is led in a different language. We’re working on that by having the hearing lectors and signing lectors synced." Having hearing lectors and signing lectors present the lessons side-by-side at the altar allows everyone to follow along.
That intentional inclusivity continues outside of Sunday mornings. St. Thomas' administrator and program director Angela Wentz Bjornstad is offering a 10-week class in American Sign Language (ASL) for Advent members and anyone else in the community who would like to learn sign language. St. Thomas and Advent are also partnering with Holy Spirit Lutheran Church to offer VBS for deaf children and families this summer.
Rev. Emily says St. Louis has a history of prioritizing oral communication over sign language. But she believes sign language offers deaf people the chance to understand so much more. "I’m hoping that we might be a resource for families who have deaf and hearing members. I hope the hearing people start to understand better what it means to be deaf -- both the challenges and the delights."
Church name: St. Thomas Deaf Episcopal Church
Address: 9373 Garber Road
Interpreted Worship Services: Sundays at 10:15 a.m.
Clergy: The Rev. Dr. Emily Hillquist Davis, Vicar
Administrator, Program Director and Interpreter: Angela Wentz Bjornstad
(numbers from 2020 parochial report)
St. Thomas Deaf Episcopal Church