Diocesan News

New Transitional Deacon Wishes to Continue Work With Deaf Community

BERGEN BEACH — Samuel Mwiwawi spent his childhood in nearly every corner of his Kenyan homeland. 

Samuel, his mother, and six siblings followed the father, Hendrick Mwiwawi, wherever his work took him as a longtime employee of Nairobi-based National Cereals and Produce Board, from remote towns along the interior Great Rift Valley to the coastal suburbs of sprawling Mombasa. 

But what never changed was the spiritual nurturing provided by his mother, Florence Lucy Mwiwawi, a Catholic. While his father is Anglican, the children grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition; Hendrick frequently led them in praying the rosary and reading the Gospel. 

Those teachings stuck with Samuel and influenced his decision to become a priest, which started him on yet another journey, leading to his ordination on Jan. 7 as a transitional deacon for the Diocese of Brooklyn. 

“I attribute my vocation mostly to my family,” Deacon Mwiwawi said. “That’s how our family used to be — praying together when I was growing up. And, I think, in a way, it bonds our family together until now.” 

An estimated 400 people filled St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish in Bergen Beach for the ordination, presided by Bishop Robert Brennan. Msgr. Joseph Grimaldi, vicar general for the diocese and pastor of St. Bernard, was the vesting clergy. Deacon Mwiwawi’s family in Kenya watched via live streaming. 

The future priest has been helping with pastoral duties at St. Bernard Parish for a year and a half. He completed his studies at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, an institution for priesthood candidates ages 30 and older to pursue “second-career” or “delayed” vocations. Deacon Mwiwawi, 40, worked several jobs before finally choosing his path to the priesthood. 

He also had to overcome setbacks in his efforts to secure permanent residence status here in the U.S. Ultimately, Msgr. Grimaldi said, the delay gave the parish more time to get to know the deacon and witness his faithfulness. 

“God works in mysterious ways,” Msgr. Grimaldi said toward the end of the ordination Mass. “If those difficulties didn’t come into his life, we would never have had this opportunity as a faith community to be blessed by him. And it has been a great blessing.” 

Well-wishers included parishioners and friends from the Deaf Apostolate at St. Catherine of Genoa Church in Brooklyn and Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, plus members of the deaf community at Cathedral Basilica of St. James. Deacon Mwiwawi befriended all of them through the unique skill he brought to the diocese — American Sign Language. His motivation to learn it reaches back to Africa. 

His parents and siblings had expressed deep pride in his desire to serve the Church and possibly become a priest. They encouraged him to become an altar server and join Catholic youth groups. While helping at a parish, he met two deaf students. 

“They wanted to learn catechism and become baptized,” Deacon Mwiwawi recalled. “But I could not teach them.” 

They tried to communicate via written notes, but that method was not conducive to sharing the complexities of faith. Deacon Mwiwawi resolved to learn sign language. 

That quest brought him to the U.S., where he joined the Dominican Missionaries for the Apostolates of the Deaf and Disabled, based in Newark, N.J. The community sent him to Springfield, Ill., and Hartford, Conn., to hone his skills. 

His skills improved during a summer-long “immersion” program at Gallaudet University, the renowned private institution in Washington, D.C., for the deaf and hearing-impaired. 

Next, the Dominicans referred him to the Diocese of Brooklyn in 2018-2019 to help interpret sign language for Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens. 

“I would go to St. James Cathedral because that’s where the deaf community usually meets for Mass,” he said. “I would go on to help on Sundays to interpret, and at that time, I was still learning. That exposure also helped me a lot.” 

And it led to an opportunity to work toward being ordained a priest for the Diocese of Brooklyn. Deacon Mwiwawi is now on track to be ordained a priest in June, along with three other transitional deacons. 

He said that once he becomes a priest, he would relish the chance to continue to serve the deaf community, but only if that’s what the diocese needs from him. 

“I’m open to what Bishop will give me,” he said. “He knows the needs of the Church and is the voice of the Church. I’ve come to learn that obedience is the most important thing.”