By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor
The last time Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, served full time in the archdiocese was in 1987. He’s spent the last quarter of a century serving in Asia with people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
He has submitted occasional stories and columns about his experiences to The Record over the years. And his family still lives here.
But his life and his ministry are firmly planted in Cambodia, he said during an interview in Louisville last week. He was in town visiting family and celebrated weekend Masses at four parishes.
After Father Dittmeier was the subject of a story published by the Courier-Journal in August, his connections to Louisville and beyond resurfaced.
“It’s been great,” he said. “It put me back in direct contact with people. I got so many emails I haven’t been able to answer every one yet.”
The story was picked up by national media and drew the attention of an international television news crew. The attention generated a few donations, too, said Father Dittmeier.
Locally, the story prompted Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz to make a donation. The archbishop contributed $5,000 to Father Dittmeier’s ministry on behalf of the Archdiocese of Louisville.
“We’re so proud of Father Charlie,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “I’ve been here for six years and heard in glowing terms about his witness to Christ, service as a priest and his humble way of serving and living with the people he’s serving. For us to be able to celebrate and join in his ministry, I thought that was an appropriate thing to do.
“It’s wonderful to have someone like Father Charlie to not only serve in distant lands but also to serve people who are sometimes forgotten,” he noted, referring to people who are deaf.
The archbishop said he’s had the opportunity to communicate with Father Dittmeier recently and learn more about his ministry. He hopes renewed contact with the archdiocese will help “him to feel more a part of the community. Often when you are away for a long time you can feel the distance,” the archbishop added.
Father Dittmeier, thin and spry with a full greying beard, said he often hears other missionary priests say they wish they felt more connected to their home dioceses.
“I feel very supported and encouraged by the priests and the people here,” Father Dittmeier said of the Louisville archdiocese. “I’ve really got the best of both worlds” as a diocesan priest serving with the Mary-knoll Lay Missioners.
Father Dittmeier was ordained in 1970. He served in a handful of parishes here and opened the Catholic Deaf Office in 1975. He learned sign language in seminary.
“It was just something I fell into,” he said in the interview last week. Really, though, he responded to a call — seminarians and priests who knew American Sign Language were needed, so he learned.
He also said during the interview that he’d dreamed, as a child, of living outside the United States one day. And, “I wanted to learn the language so well they wouldn’t know I was a foreigner,” he said.
It seems that dream was fulfilled in an unexpected way. Father Dittmeier speaks French, Cantonese and Khmer (the language of Cambodia). And he signs in American Sign Language, Hong Kong/South Chinese Sign Language, Australian Sign Language, Sri Lankan Sign Language and Indian Sign Language.
For the last decade or so, he’s been part of the effort to develop Cambodian Sign Language. The nation’s deaf did not have a formal language at the end of the 20th century, said Father Dittmeier.
The priest leads the Maryknoll Deaf Development Program in Cambodia. It’s based in the capital, Phnom Penh, and employs about 77 people who operate at three sites — a primary center in the city and two satellite sites in rural areas of Cambodia.
When the Deaf Development Program (DDP) began in 2002, its first work was to start identifying deaf Cambodians and help them develop their own sign language — what is now known as Cambodian Sign Language.
Cambodia is rife with what Father Dittmeier calls “grinding poverty” and the families of deaf people — especially those isolated in rural areas — may not even know what it means to be deaf. Father Dittmeier said that a person who’s deaf often is seen as having a mental disability. Finding and identifying those who can benefit from the DDP is one of its challenges.
Today, the program has six arms — further developing Cambodian sign language, a two-year practical education program, job-skills training, interpreter training, a deaf community development program (which helps connect deaf people around the country) and social services. Any deaf person in need of help is sent to the DDP, Father Dittmeier said.
The staff of 77 includes five foreigners and 17 deaf people. Father Dittmeier would like to see the number of deaf employees grow. But for now, the education among the deaf in Cambodia is so low, that few have the necessary skills. Only 12 deaf people in all of Cambodia have completed high school, he said.
They are graduates of a school for deaf children that opened about the same time as the DDP. That school is now adopting the Cambodian Sign Language.
As Father Dittmeier nears the priest retirement age of 70, he is letting others take on more of his work. But he said he has no intention of fully retiring from his ministry any time soon. He said he’s interested in perhaps leaving the city and doing more work in the provinces.
“Cambodia is my last stop. I’m getting too old to learn a new language, new script and new sign language,” he said. “I’m in Cambodia til death or retirement, whichever comes first. As long as I’m healthy, I’ll stay.”
Those interested in the day-to-day life, challenges and accomplishments of Father Dittmeier and the Maryknoll program in Cambodia, can visit his website at parish-without-borders.net/cditt.