Xavier Society for the Blind provides materials to help visually impaired Catholics live their faith
Editor’s Note: The Xavier Society for the Blind uses National Braille Literacy Month, celebrated each January, to showcase its work helping visually impaired Catholics practice their faith. For more information about the free services offered contact XavierSocietyforTheBlind.org.
When Neva Fairchild was an elementary student in the 1960s, the only place where youngsters with impaired vision could go to learn needed life skills was a residential school for the blind. Her parents refused to consider that option.
“I couldn’t read my textbooks, so I just listened in class,” said the Flower Mound resident who was born with an eye disease that worsened over time. In college, she studied from reel-to-reel tapes.
“That’s obsolete now, but at the time it worked,” said Fairchild. “I didn’t learn to read braille until I was in my 40s.”
Those early struggles made her empathetic toward other visually impaired persons who may not have the same resources as sighted individuals. That is one of the reasons why she is an ardent supporter, as well as a patron, of the Xavier Society for the Blind. For more than 120 years, the New York-based nonprofit has provided free Mass propers (liturgical texts that change daily), faith-based books, and religious publications in braille and other technologies to 700 visually disabled Catholics in the U.S. and 20 countries around the world. It is the only organization specifically serving this demographic.
“Over the years I have taken advantage of their monthly propers in braille so I can follow the prayers and responses at Mass,” said Fairchild, a member of the choir at Mary Immaculate Church in Farmer’s Branch.
She now uses a braille display device and downloadable files instead of toting large, heavy volumes of paper braille to church. Employed by the American Foundation for the Blind, the advocate also receives audio books on the lives of the saints and Bible study materials.
“I’m a convert so it’s really allowed me to enhance my faith,” Fairchild added appreciatively. “My relationship with the Xavier Society has grown over time as my use of their products has grown.”
Serving God and the blind since 1900, the organization was co-founded by Margaret Coffey, a young blind woman who taught blind children, and a Jesuit priest, Father Joseph Stadelman.
“Margaret learned very quickly the blind children she was teaching didn’t have the same access to reading materials their sighted classmates did and she decided to do something about it,” explained Malachy Fallon, the Xavier Society’s executive director.
Using her savings, the teacher donated $350 (the equivalent of $11,000 today) to purchase a stereograph machine that could produce a larger volume of books and magazines in raised print braille and “we began producing books in braille for children who were learning their Catholic faith,” Fallon continued.
People don’t realize that attending Mass is often a challenge for the blind and visually impaired who don’t have the readings, prayers, and responses everyone else in the pews takes for granted.
“One of our largest product lines is the Mass propers in braille which is essentially the Sunday missalette,” Fallon observed. “We also have a certified braille transcriber on staff and he’s very busy at the moment doing workbooks and religious textbooks for children.”
As people live longer and develop different illnesses — some affecting their vision — the executive director expects the demand for services to grow. Older age patrons are not going to learn braille so providing audio books becomes more important. The Society maintains over 1,900 titles related to the Catholic Church, religion, spirituality, or inspirational themes. Some items are available in Spanish. Patrons can also request materials they can’t find anywhere else.
Referrals for the nonprofit’s services often come from schools for the blind or the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. All resources are provided to blind and visually impaired Catholics at no cost thanks to fundraising and the generosity of donors.
“We have a few small family foundations that have an affinity for Catholicism,” Fallon said, adding patrons sometimes remember the society in their wills.
The organization tries to reach Catholics who could benefit from its services via social media and diocesan publications.
“People are deeply grateful for what we do because we help them develop and practice their faith,” he said.
Twenty-year-old Zachary Thibodeaux is one of those thankful patrons. The cradle Catholic from Lewisville currently attends Yale University where he is studying political science.
Diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease, Thibodeaux began receiving religious education books from the Xavier Society as an eight-year-old. When other youngsters his age were learning to read, Thibodeaux studied for his first Communion using braille.
“Any way you can bring people closer to the Word of God and the Church by allowing them to have the Mass propers is very helpful,” Thibodeaux pointed out. “Without that material it can be difficult to participate and feel you are part of the Mass.”
The college sophomore, who worships at St. Mary Church in New Haven where the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Blessed Michael McGivney, is entombed, hopes to become a lector at the parish. It’s a way he can show his devotion to the faith and set an example for others to follow.
“Some people in the blind community can feel helpless — not just in church but in every aspect of their life,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s crucial for your psychological well-being to build a relationship with God, the Church, and the community. The Xavier Society helps me do that.”