June 8, 2018

Local woman helps lead Catholics who are blind on their journey of faith

(Listen to an audio verson of this story)

Bridget Bowers, a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, reads the braille book containing the readings for Sunday Mass at her Indianapolis home on May 15. Bowers receives braille Mass propers from the Xavier Society for the Blind, for which she is now a member of the advisory board. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

Bridget Bowers, a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, reads the braille book containing the readings for Sunday Mass at her Indianapolis home on May 15. Bowers receives braille Mass propers from the Xavier Society for the Blind, for which she is now a member of the advisory board. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

Bridget Bowers’ fingers flew across the first page of a book with remarkable agility and sensitivity.

“This book is about the different ways you can pray,” she explained, her fingers fluttering from the title page to what seemed to be the index of the book.

“It was kind of neat when I was reading it. I thought this could really be helpful for anybody, no matter what time of life they’re in,” she recalled.

This book, like the others spread across her kitchen table, was almost completely devoid of black ink lettering. Instead, the clean white surface of each page was covered with tiny raised dots. Bowers’ sensitive fingertips read the braille letters faster than she could repeat the words aloud.

“The first page is sadness, then joy, disappointment, sorrow, optimism, pessimism, delight,” she recited.

A member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, Bowers has been blind since childhood. Her faith journey took her through the Lutheran, Baptist and Methodist churches until, a little more than two years ago, she was received into the full communion of the Church. That transition was significantly assisted by books, like the one spread before her, that have been transcribed into braille by a national Catholic organization known as the Xavier Society for the Blind.

“They had braille available even for the Mass propers—I could read on Sundays with everybody else,” she said gratefully as she recalled struggles in previous churches to locate braille transcriptions of the Sunday service.

“They’ll let you keep the books, and I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘I can keep this braille prayerbook? I don’t have to send it back in two weeks?’ ” Bowers remembered.

The Xavier Society for the Blind creates braille transcriptions and audio materials for blind and visually impaired Catholics. All materials are provided free of charge despite the costly process of producing and shipping the large embossed braille books. The braille Bible alone consists of 45 massive volumes.

“It’s a nice Bible,” Bowers said with a smile, indicating the 6-foot-tall bookcase required to contain her braille version of Scripture. “I’m glad they gave me all the footnotes and cross references, too.”

Founded in 1900, the New York-based Xavier Society now serves more than 1,800 blind and visually impaired Catholics. Their mission is to help these people learn about and practice their faith.

“It’s kids, it’s people that are learning about converting to the Catholic faith, it’s people who want to deepen their faith,” Xavier Society executive director Malachy Fallon told The Criterion, speaking on the phone from New York City, “and it’s people like Bridget who want to actively participate in Sunday Mass either as a congregant or a lector.”

Bowers said she lectors at St. Luke nearly every Friday with the help of Xavier Society’s audio recordings. She brings her computer to the podium, listens to the Scripture line-by-line, then recites it to the congregation. Desiring to be even more involved in parish life, she also joined St. Luke’s pro-life committee.

“She’s an inspiration to everyone around here,” says Msgr. Joseph Schaedel, pastor of St. Luke. “She always has a smile on her face, too. She’s an example of how everyone has gifts and talents as far as their stewardship to the parish.”

Now her already-ample involvement will extend to a national level. Bowers recently volunteered to have an official role with the Xavier Society as a member of its new advisory board.

“She’s active in her parish, she’s active in her community,” said Fallon. “She just wants to do more for more people.”

Alongside12 other board members, Bowers will help the Xavier Society locate new resources for clients and suggest popular titles to be converted to braille and audio recordings. She also wants to find ways to make materials even more accessible.

“Some people don’t have phones or computers because we have a lot of older clients,” she said. “A lot of them have gone blind later and can’t learn braille. That’s who we’re trying to not leave out.”

Additionally, Bowers wants to enhance the quality of the audio recording equipment accessible to nationwide volunteers. With only six full-time staff members, the Xavier Society relies on unpaid, seeing supporters to record audio materials for clients.

“We’re a small organization, but we want to make a much greater impact, so anything we can do to generate support from volunteers, financial support and spiritual support is welcome and appreciated,” Fallon said.

Even with the resources provided by the Xavier Society, however, Bowers described several other obstacles that often hinder the blind and visually impaired from fully practicing their faith. Some of these struggles can only be overcome on a local level, including what Bowers described as the “biggest discouragement” to attending Mass: a lack of transportation.

“I’ve known people who have had to pay for taxis,” she said. “It took me probably three months after I moved here to get a ride.”

Bowers said that it was “God’s providence” when another parishioner noticed that she was waiting for a taxi after one Mass, and offered to give her a ride. She encouraged all Catholics to be more observant at Sunday services and not be afraid to offer assistance.

“If they see that there’s a visitor that has a visual impairment, they should go up and introduce themselves to them,” she said, adding that parishioners could then offer to transport the person home or ask if they need to be guided to receive Communion.

“Things like that would really make somebody feel welcome, especially if they have to visit a new parish,” she explained.

Fallon, too, encouraged parishes to assess and remove any barriers that may prevent visually impaired parishioners from participating. But Fallon also recounted the gift of determination and tenacity displayed by his clients. He described many who overcame significant struggles to actively participate in many aspects of parish life and provide inspiring examples to others.

“I think it’s the ability and the determination to overcome challenges, to be able to demonstrate their faith and fully participate in their faith that really is an example to other people,” he said.

Bowers said that many fellow parishioners have thanked her for her own involvement at St. Luke Parish, some of whom struggle with the loss of sight caused by aging.

“I can tell they need to see me up there, reading,” she said.

“People [say], ‘I’m so glad to see you reading for us, and you’re an encouragement to me.’ It makes them feel good to know there’s a place out there that helps visually impaired and totally blind people in the Church.”

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington. To contact the Xavier Society for the Blind, go to www.xaviersocietyfortheblind.org or call 212-473-7800.)

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