Xavier Society provides free Catholic materials for the visually impaired

By Michelle Martin

© Chicago Catholic, reprinted with permission 

Editor’s note: This month, the Diocesan Committee for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities introduces readers to the Xavier Society for the Blind, which provides free Catholic materials for the visually impaired. The Message joins the committee in thanking our friends at Chicago Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for granting reprint permission.

Pamela Provost isn’t sure exactly when she first learned about the Xavier Society for the Blind, but she thinks it was in the early 1980s, well into her adulthood.

Provost, 67, was born blind. She went to Chicago Public Schools, where she learned to read Braille as a child. She was always active in her parishes as well; her family attended St. Mary of the Angels, and then St. Gertrude.

When she found out she could get high-quality Catholic reading materials — everything from Catholic translations of the Bible and Mass propers to spiritual literature — for free, she was quick to sign up.

The Mass propers are the prayers that the priest prays and which are assigned to the Mass being celebrated. These are usually the Opening Collect, the Prayer Over the Gifts, the Prayer After Communion and may include the Preface to the Eucharist Prayer and the Final Blessing. The society also includes readings for Sunday Masses.

She still gets the Mass propers and readings every month, and is glad they come in a format that is small enough to carry down to the weekly Communion service at the North Side senior home where she lives.

“They usually come a month or so ahead of time, so I can read them in advance,” Provost said. “And if I wanted to be a reader in a parish, I could have time to practice with them.”

The Mass materials are the top product of the Xavier Society for the blind, said executive director Malachy Fallon. They are distributed to about 800 people in the United States and 20 other countries around the world.

Those patrons are among about 2,000 active users of the service. There are 89 in Illinois, and 30 in Chicago, according to Aisling Redican, coordinator of communications and fundraising for the society.

“I suspect there are a lot more blind people out there who could use our materials,” Fallon said.

Users include people like Provost, who learned to read Braille as a child, and people who lose their sight as they age from macular degeneration and other conditions. That audience usually chooses audio materials, Fallon said.

While most audio materials are sent out on CDs, the society now is moving to MP3 cartridges that are compatible with readers that are provided to the visually impaired for free by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. About 500,000 readers have been distributed, Fallon said.

The Xavier Society is a not-for-profit founded in 1900 in New York City at what was then the College of St. Francis Xavier to provide tactile reading materials to the blind. Then, as now, all materials are provided to patrons free of charge.

Users keep Braille materials and send back audio discs. Because they are materials for visually impaired people, the U.S. Postal Service delivers them for free as well, Fallon said.

Most materials are religious, and of those, most are Catholic, Fallon said.

“We provide 750,000 pages of Braille annually,” he said.

Other than standard items like the Mass materials and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, most books are transcribed on request, Fallon said, although the society is trying to make multiple copies of books that are expected to be in high demand.

All of them are produced and distributed by an agency with a paid staff of six, along with a handful of freelance proofreaders and several volunteers. The bills get paid by individual donors, several family foundations that have an affinity either for Catholic causes or causes benefiting people who are visually impaired and from bequests.

Provost, for one, is grateful. The Braille versions of religious materials have allowed her to participate more fully in the life of the church, she said.

That includes transcribing religious education materials so that she could work with a sighted student who needed extra help to prepare for First Communion at Our Lady of the Snows Parish.

“He had the printed version and I had the Braille version, and we were able to work together that way,” she said. “These materials are a godsend, especially for someone who grew up at a time where there was very little available in Braille at a reasonable price.”

Visit xaviersocietyfortheblind.org for more information.