Tears of joy were shed last Sunday as eight area Roman Catholics gathered to form the world's first St. Francis Fraternity of the Deaf, part of the Third Order Secular of St. Francis.

The eight parishoners of the Catholic Deaf Center were joined by their families and friends at a mass of acceptance in the small chapel styled like a family room on Buchanan Street in Landover Hills.

"Thie particular fraternity is no different than any other St. Francis Fraternity, except that its members share the experience of being deaf," said Brother John Lass, a Franciscan who will serve as the group's spiritual leader.

The Third Order is a brotherhood of lay people who want to follow the lifestyle of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century poverello or "little poor man" who led a joyful reformation of spreading the Gospel.

Members of the Third Order take vows of poverty and chastity as do Franciscan Friars Minor and priests (the First Order) and the cloistered poor Clare nuns (the Second Order). The Franciscan orders were organized by St. Francis between 1209 and 1221.

Third Order Franciscans are urged to commune with other Franciscans and are required to form support fraternaties.

Paul Pernecky, a permanent deacon who is deaf, was instrumental in establishing the new fraternity in Landover Hills. He is the group's lay director.

In a homily he delivered last Sunday that was both verbal and given in sign language, Pernecky said, "I have been a member of the Third order for over 20 years. It was difficult being the only one without hearing.

"I used to fall asleep while watching the homily," he said as his quick hands expressed chuckles in sign language.

The new fraternity is seen as an important breakthrough for thousands of deaf Catholics here because individual membership in the brotherhood sometimes was denied to them in the past, as it is still denied to those in ill health or those suffering from "the infirmities of age" because they could not be fully "involved in the apostolate."

Brother Lass said that once the new group "understands the full dimensions of what they have taken on they must then decide what they want to do. These eight people have unique capabilities, so it will be interesting to see what they come up with."

"Our parish expects much joy from this small group," said the pastor, the Rev. Jay Krouse, who concelebrated last Sunday's mass at the Deaf Center with Father Peter Sheridan.

Sheridan is regional director of the Third Order of St. Francis Secular, which presides over all such fraternities in the area.

There are about 800 full members of the Third Order in the Washington area.