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Pastor Says Coping With Stuttering Helps His Ministry
By
Phong Vinh Nguyen
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Friday, September 24, 2010
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (CNS)—Father Michael Dunn considers his stuttering to be a blessing.

"I believe that my stuttering has made me a more compassionate, patient and understanding person in my dealings with others," said the Bridgeport diocesan priest, who is the pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Weston.

In an interview for Catholic News Service, the priest recalled the poor treatment he received as a child when classmates mocked his speech. But when he made the decision to enter the seminary -- he was going for a graduate degree in counseling at the time -- he was heartened by how his superiors treated him.

"They were always very supportive and helpful and remained more confident than I was that my speech would not be an issue for me," he said.

Such understanding and encouragement was far different than what he experienced as a child.

One of the most embarrassing moments of his life, he said, was during grammar school when he tried out for a part in the school play. When it was his turn to read, he could not get out the first word at all and eventually gave up and sat down.

In September 2009, people in the Bridgeport area might have been surprised to see a feature article in the Connecticut Post about Father Dunn and his struggle with stuttering.

But it should come as no news that priests, women religious and brothers would be among the 1 percent of adults worldwide who stutter. Four percent of children show signs of stuttering at some time during their development.

Father Dunn encourages young Catholics who stutter not to let their speech stand in the way of pursuing a vocation.

"I think with God's grace and help you can do or overcome anything, so young people should not be afraid or think they can't do it," he told CNS.

Father Dunn has come across other priests who stutter and they have shared both advice and techniques they have found helpful.

Father Michael Skrocki, pastor of St. Ann Melkite Catholic Church in Danbury, is the product of numerous failed speech therapy programs. He cannot remember a time when he did not stutter.

Saying Mass has never presented a problem for him.

"Well, most, if not all, of the Divine Liturgy in the Eastern Catholic Churches is sung, so I suspect I have less difficulty than if it were recited," he said. "The primary 'spoken' part would be the homily. If I run into a problem, I simply pause and try again. Perhaps that effort makes my congregation listen a little closer to what I'm saying."

Asked how he would advise people to look to their faith when dealing with such a speech problem, Father Michael Skrocki answered: "Whether it's a stutter, some other physical, emotional or psychological disability, I've always looked at it as the way God made us, ... the challenges that God has given us to overcome—for whatever reason."

"As St. Paul says, 'I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me,'" added the priest, who has a doctorate in canon law from The Catholic University of America in Washington.

One woman religious who has vast experience in working with children who stutter, but does not stutter herself is Ursuline Sister Winifred Danwitz, a retired speech language pathologist.

Nearly 50 years ago, Sister Winifred saw a need to help children in the Bronx section of New York with communication problems. In 1961 she founded the Mount St. Ursula Speech Center. The center's mission—to treat children with speech and language disorders at low or no cost— is still going strong.

Reflecting on the center she founded, Sister Winifred said, "I am most proud of the fact that we never refused treatment to a child because of a parent's inability to pay a fee."

"It was a marvelous step to meeting a need that was not addressed," she added.
Since the 1970s federal law has mandated that any child enrolled in school—whether public, religious or private school—is entitled to free speech therapy if he or she needs it. The therapy can begin as early as preschool and continue throughout high school.

The Stuttering Foundation, a Memphis, Tenn.-based nonprofit organization, has a brochure titled "Special Education Law and Children Who Stutter," which spells out the benefit. The brochure can be downloaded at the foundation's website, www.stutteringhelp.org. It can be found using the link "Brochures for All Ages." The site also offers various other resources.

Jane Fraser, foundation president, hopes to make the benefit of free speech therapy better known to parents of children in religious-based schools throughout the U.S.
"The United States has the best policy in the world for helping children with speech problems. It is a shame that this awesome benefit is little known," she said.

Father Dunn noted something else positive about giving advice to people who share his speech problem.

"I have always felt that God has been the source of my strength not only with my stuttering but in every other challenge and obstacle as well," he said. "Without him I would have never made it. ... I would have given up or thrown in the towel."


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