|Karen (Ahearn) McGann|
|With her flair for public relations, Karen Ahearn McGann might have thrived in corporate America,
but she devoted her life to making deaf people at home in the Catholic church. The 47-year-old Brookline
resident died Wednesday from Hodgkin's disease, leaving a legacy of support programs and strong faith.
"She was a woman who was completely dedicated to the mission of including all people with disabilities, but
particularly our deaf and deaf-blind people, into the fullness of the church. And she succeeded brilliantly,"
said Grace Harding, director of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh's Department for Persons with Disabilities.
"Karen created joy wherever she went. As a woman of faith, all the joy radiated from Jesus Christ. Everything
she did was for the Lord."
That faith was an inheritance from her parents, Lee and the late Marilyn Ahearn. But it was her little brother,
Jimmy, who influenced her life's mission. She was 12 when the 17-month-old lost his hearing due to spinal
meningitis. With the rest of the family, she learned sign language and became immersed in deaf culture.
During the golden years of the Pittsburgh Steelers, she worked as a personal assistant to star running back
Rocky Bleier, developing a flair for public relations. Her ministry began informally when a priest asked her to
teach religious education to a deaf child. In 1983, the diocese hired her as its "pastoral worker for the deaf."
Eventually she became director of the Catholic Office for Deaf Persons. As such, she oversaw an
after-school program of Catholic education for Catholic students at the Western Pennsylvania School for
the Deaf. "She was a warm, caring person who went out of her way to help anyone who she came in contact
with. It didn't matter if they were Catholic or not," said Gregg Bowers, dean of students at the school.
Mrs. McGann ran a program to enable each parish to have a trained volunteer advocate for parishioners
with disabilities. She also worked with Opening Doors, in which volunteers with disabilities spoke at parochial
schools and religious education classes. She lobbied the diocese to include closed captioning in all of its
video programming, including Bishop Donald Wuerl's television show, "The Teaching of Christ." She made
sure that all diocesan events offered interpretation for the deaf, and she recruited volunteers and interpreters
for the deaf community inside and outside the church. She received numerous awards for her service to the
deaf and deaf-blind communities.
In 1994, St. Justin on Mount Washington was designated a bilingual parish for deaf Catholics, and Mrs.
McGann became a pillar of parish life. Of the 500 people who worship there on Sundays, about one-third are
deaf. The pastor, the Rev. Walter Rydzon, relied on her as a guide to deaf culture. During his first wedding in
sign language, he was rattled when the congregation kept breaking into laughter. During the passing of the
peace, Mrs. McGann gently told him that, instead of the sign for "marriage" he had been making the sign
for "hamburger." She authored a book of photographs called "My Church." It documented the faith of a
family of deaf parishioners through the eyes of their young daughter. Mrs. McGann met the love of her life
at a picnic for deaf people. Richard McGann had been born deaf and was losing his eyesight due to Usher's
disease. But he shared her deep faith and relentlessly optimistic outlook. They were married in 1985 by
then-Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua of Pittsburgh. Together they started a support group for blind-deaf Catholics
and the nation's first Lion's Club chapter for the deaf-blind. They founded the Western Pennsylvania
Association of the Deaf-Blind. "She saw him as a gift, and he saw her as a gift," said Mrs. McGann's sister,
Mary Ann Ahearn. Mrs. McGann was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease more than seven years ago. Doctors
were initially hopeful she'd be cured. But when it was apparent that was not to be, "she said that her goal was
to be the happiest dying person she knew," said Rydzon. Although she suffered a great deal, she never
complained, her friends said. Last fall, when she was very weak, she eagerly volunteered to do all of the
publicity for a special Holy Year Mass, Harding said. "She loved putting together brochures, and she
handled all of the mailings. It was life-giving for her," Harding said. By the end of the year it was difficult to
breathe, but she came each week to teach religious education to deaf Catholic children, Bowers said.
"She never talked about herself or her problems. She wasn't looking for any sympathy or attention. She was
selfless," he said.
In January her heart began to give out, and her doctors told her to quit working. So she
began a ministry of prayer from her home. People throughout the diocese wrote or e-mailed prayer requests
to her, and she prayed for them faithfully from her sickbed. On Aug. 5, St. Justin held a special Mass in her
honor, which she attended in a wheelchair, with fans blowing over a bucket of ice to keep her cool on the
sweltering day. She had helped to teach Rydzon that deaf culture is very blunt, so he began his homily by
telling the packed assembly that, "This is not a funeral." He could see jaws drop among the hearing people,
who undoubtedly thought him tactless, he said. But when he looked at Mrs. McGann and, "she just laughed.
She was howling," he said. At the end of the Mass she told the assembly that the Mass had been a foretaste
of heaven. "I want you to remember how much Jesus loves you," Harding recalled her saying. "That was her
last message to us." The manner in which she faced death was an inspiration to her pastor. "I would say that
she let us know that dying is no big thing, that living is the work. I just hope, when my time comes, that I can
face it with that same faith," Rydzon said.
On the day after her sister's death, Mary Ann Ahearn told a mutual friend that she believed her sister was a
saint. The friend put it in different terms. "She said that Karen is what God wants all of us to aspire to be, but
few of us attain," Ahearn said. Mrs. Ahearn is survived by her husband, Richard of Brookline; her father,
Lee Ahearn of Palm Coast, Fla.; a sister, Mary Ann Ahearn of Palm Coast, Fla.; and a brother, James Ahearn
of Mount Washington. Visitation will be today from 10 a.m. to noon in Beinhauer's, 2630 West Liberty Ave.,
Beechview. A Mass will be celebrated at 1 p.m. in St. Justin parish, Mount Washington. Memorials may be
made to the Catholic Deaf Council of St. Justin, 539 Boggs Ave., Pittsburgh 15211.
| Post-Gazette 1 September 2001|