Foreign Priests Work to Improve their Accents

Home Brooklyn Life Foreign Priests Work to Improve their Accents

By Alejandro Lopez de Haro

Father Vincentius Do during a Saturday Mass at St. Rosalia’s Roman Catholic Church in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (Alejandro Lopez de Haro/ The Brooklyn Ink)
Father Vincentius Do during a Saturday Mass at St. Rosalia’s Roman Catholic Church in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (Alejandro Lopez de Haro/ The Brooklyn Ink)

On a recent Saturday evening Father Vincentius Do, 34, is in the midst of performing a Mass in English at Saint Rosalia Roman Catholic Church in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. “You take for granted that there are good priests in your church, and then you get one like me, and then you really have something to think about,” said Rev. Do to the parishioners at the pews who immediately chuckled at his self-deprecating joke. Rev. Do is originally from Vietnam and has a strong Vietnamese accent. He admits that when he first arrived three years ago several parishioners made complaints about not being able to understand him. “I think my English is ok, but people have had trouble understanding me,” he said.

A widespread catholic priest shortage in the United States has made the presence of international-born priests like Rev. Do much more visible, prompting concern within dioceses all over the country that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for churchgoers to understand the Holy Mass through the sometimes impenetrable accents of non-native English speaking priests.

In Brooklyn most international priests come with knowledge of English. However, their strong foreign accents have lead to confusion during church services. In Brooklyn there are currently around 100 international priests with the majority of them coming from Nigeria, Ghana, the Philippines and Colombia, according to the latest statistics provided by the Diocese of Brooklyn.

A study of U.S. parishes by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a non-profit Georgetown University affiliated research center, found that 34 percent of Catholics surveyed stated that an international priest had often served at their parish in the past five years.

“We had one international priest that would say ‘The Lord be with You’ during Mass, and the parishioners would not answer back because they could not understand him,” said Sister Kathleen McGonigle. Catholic parishioners are expected to reply to this prayer by saying “And with your spirit.”

McGonigle administers the accent reduction classes for the Diocese of Brooklyn, which began eight years ago as a direct response to parishioner complaints. Rev. Do attended these classes for up to a year. Here non-native English speaking priests participate in all sorts of phonetic drills, like reading scripture out loud, to better their speech in English. The teacher is also instructed to help them individually with any specific pronunciation problems that they may encounter.

“If we don’t understand the priest how can we be expected to stay through the Mass?” said Ric Lo, a parishioner at St. Rosalia. Lo attends both Rev. Do’s English and Chinese sermons and he says that his pronunciation is very good in both.

According to Antoinette Degaetano, 75, the teacher currently in charge of the accent reduction classes, non-English speaking international priests face problems with syllabication, stressing of vowels and final consonance. Further adding their mastery of these speaking rules is a must if the priests wish to verbally communicate effectively in the English language. The mispronunciation of words will result in a confused congregation, said Degaetano.

Fast speech on behalf of international priests can also hinder a parishioner’s ability to comprehend the Mass. Father John Jairo Granados, 44, of Colombia arrived in Brooklyn three years ago and is an alumnus of the accent reduction program. English is difficult for Rev. Granados. He believes that pausing between words and careful pronunciation has been a successful strategy for his effective delivery during Mass. “I make sure that I am understood by pronouncing each word slowly,” said Father Granados.

The accent reduction classes do not just seek to help out the priests in delivering the gospel. Pronunciation of day-to-day words has led to funny but annoying situations for international priests. In the case of Rev. Do this means being able to finally say the word pizza without potentially bringing laughter when parishioners invite him to dinner.

“The class was successful,” says Father Do, “because people don’t complain anymore.”

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