It might not seem extraordinary at first that Jennifer Tissot periodically serves as a lector at Masses in her parish or that her sister Rebecca often sings at those Masses. After all, lots of teens and young people are involved in lay liturgical roles in their parishes.
The unique nature of their involvement becomes clear when one learns that Jennifer is blind and proclaims God’s word after reading it in Braille, and that Rebecca and her sisters took the initiative to form their own children’s choir because there wasn’t any music at the Mass they attended.
In November, Jennifer, 21, and Rebecca, 19, were among more than 800 high school seniors who received the diocesan Hands of Christ Award, which annually honors young people who are dedicated to serving their communities and showing God’s love through their actions.
Jennifer, Rebecca and their younger sister, Rachael, 17, formed the children’s choir more than five years ago at their mother’s suggestion. There was no organist or cantor during the Mass at their church, St. Bernard’s in Scipio Center, which was one of six worship sites for the Good Shepherd Catholic Community in southern Cayuga County. The Tissot sisters and several other young girls began singing each week while their fellow parishioners received Communion.
“We liked the idea of having music during Communion,” Rebecca said. “I just really wanted to bring music to the Mass.”
The sisters gradually took on more and more responsibility, and eventually began choosing and singing all the hymns for weekend liturgies. When the Good Shepherd Catholic Community stopped conducting regular weekend liturgies at St. Bernard’s, the sisters began providing music for Masses at St. Isaac Jogues Chapel in Fleming, another of the parish’s six worship sites. When the chapel closed in 2004 the Tissot sisters brought their music ministry to St. Patrick’s Church in Moravia. Rachael, who now plays the organ, and Rebecca continue to provide music for the parish community whenever they’re asked, Rebecca said.
“I just love singing, and I have a passion for doing music in church. It’s one of the things I was good at, and I was able to give back to the church in that way,” she said.
While Rebecca and Rachael are still very active in music ministry, Jennifer has begun to focus on her role as a lector. Each month she receives a Braille copy of the Sunday lectionary readings for that month, and she serves bimonthly as a lector at St. Patrick’s.
People are occasionally surprised that she’s able to lector at Mass even though she’s legally blind, but Jennifer has spent the past 11 years breaking commonly held stereotypes about the blind.
“I don’t want people to think of the blind community as helpless. I feel like I do have to prove myself more to a lot of people because they think I can’t do a lot of things. If I put my mind to it I can really do a lot of things,” she said.
Skateboarding, archery, swimming and biking are among the activities Jennifer regularly enjoys. Although there are some things — like playing paint ball or riding a dirt bike — that she wishes she could do, she tries to focus instead on the things she can do, and she credits her parents with pushing her to be as independent as possible.
Her Catholic faith has also helped her deal with her blindness. Although she’s always had vision problems, Jennifer was not born blind. It wasn’t until she was nine that she suffered from retinal detachment and lost her vision.
“Over time I guess (my eyes) just got weak. It was very tragic for me,” she said.
Jennifer, who said she’d always been a very active child, wasn’t about to let a little thing like blindness slow her down. She quickly learned Braille and how to use a cane, and she said she tries to stay optimistic because she believes God has a reason for her blindness.
“My faith is a big factor in my life right now. I’ve become more dependent on my relationship with God to get me through,” Jennifer said. “I feel like God’s got a hold on this. I’m going to be OK.”
Over the years a number of people have told Jennifer her deep faith has inspired them to strengthen their own, she said. These people sometimes tell her they’re amazed she’s not angry at God and that her positive outlook has encouraged them to overcome their own challenges, she added.
Jennifer is now facing her next big hurdle — choosing a college major. She plans to enroll in Cayuga Community College in the fall, but she’s not sure if she will pursue journalism, creative writing or sound mixing. Jennifer plays the drums, so she’s also looking forward to taking some percussion classes and also hopes to try her hand at ceramics.
“God’s given me so much, and I don’t know what to do with it all,” she said.
Rebecca, currently a senior at Tyburn Academy in Auburn, also plans to go to Cayuga Community College this fall. She said she hopes eventually to become a teacher, and she’s already dabbled in the field of education by teaching a sixth-grade religious-education class at her parish.
“I really wanted to be able to reach out and teach my faith,” she said.
Rebecca also hopes to share her faith by participating in some kind of mission work in the future. She enjoys the thrill of meeting new people and said she would welcome the challenge of mission work. She’s not afraid of living and working in new and faraway places, but she also knows there’s work to be done at home.
“It’s really important to just reach the people here, too, in your own community and your own home,” she said. “In my school, I like to try and reach out to each person.”