Missionary made ministering to the deaf his life's work

Brother John DeBold SVD, 89, a missionary who helped people with disabilities overcome isolation, died on Oct. 13.
Born in Pittsburgh, Penn., in 1934, John Paul DeBold was the second of Samuel and Ethel (nee Wagner) DeBold’s four children. As a 15-year-old high school student, he began to develop bilateral profound deafness but continued to learn with the help of hearing aids and sign language.
A Divine Word confrere once asked about his journey to missionary life, and Brother John responded, “I had the urge to become a priest or missionary since age 17 or so. I knew I was handicapped and knew what it meant and felt like. I had the call to help those in the world who were similar to [me].”
After graduating from Pittsburgh’s South Side High School in five years, the young John DeBold worked in Nabisco’s baking and mixing departments for 17 years. In his mid-30s, he yearned for more.
In 1973, he entered Society of the Divine Word in Washington, D.C., and professed vows at Bay St. Louis, Miss., in 1976. As a brother candidate, he earned the reputation as a reliable auto mechanic and a talented cartoonist.
Again, he set his sights higher. Brother John graduated from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in social work and a focus on deaf culture and clientele work.
In 1985, he professed perpetual vows and received his first assignment—to work full-time for the deaf ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He later was transferred to Bay St. Louis, Miss., and continued working in deaf ministry in the Diocese of Biloxi.
When his only sister and the caretaker of their blind mother died in 1990, he received permission to move to Pittsburgh so that he could help to care for his mother.
Simultaneously, Brother John volunteered at the Pittsburgh Deaf Center that focuses on deaf clients with developmental disabilities. While in Pittsburgh, he also worked in the Goodwill Industries’ wood shop training program, where he assisted deaf and developmentally disabled clients in learning the skill.
At an age when some think of retirement, Brother John worked for the Stephen Foster Community Center, operated by the Catholic Youth Association of Pittsburgh, where he delivered meals on wheels, helped with the pre-kindergarten program, did building maintenance and provided transportation for staff and clients.
Brother John moved to Techny in retirement in February 2023. His wake and funeral Mass took place on Oct. 19 at the Divine Word Residence chapel, followed by burial in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Techny, Ill.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations for the care of elderly and infirmed missionaries may be sent to: Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Rd., P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.
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