When area Roman Catholics who are deaf wanted to attend mass, it used to be that they had two choices. They could follow the service in a prayer book and lip-read the sermon. Or, they could attend a mass interpeted in sign language, keeping their eyes on a translator instead of the priest.

Over the past several years, services and religious education classes were changed as church officials became increasingly aware of the special needs of the 3,000 to 5,000 hearing-impaired Catholics in this area.

Now, deaf Catholics have their own church, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and Center for the Deaf in Landover Hills has given many deaf Catholics their first opportunity to fully understand and participate in the mass and the sacraments.

At St. Francis, the congregation can concertrate on the priest who offers the mass and translates into sign language simultaneously. Sermons are delivered orally and in sign language in simple terms. The deaf participate in the mass by translating the readings into sign language from the altar and they sign and sing the words of hymns.

The mass involves many means of communication, such as sign language, speech, lip-reading, finger spelling, facial expressions and gestures to convery meaning and is therefore called a total communication mass.

"All my life I grew up never knowing what was going on at church," said Shirley Hortie Christian, 27, who can speak clearly but has been deaf since early childhood. "Can you imagine sitting in church every Sunday for an hour and looking at the people around you not knowing what's going on? It's very boring. All the people around you know what's going on and you don't know."

Nearly every Sunday, the 150 seats in the small church are filled with deaf people and members of their families, as well as several hearing families.

In the past, "most of the time [deaf Catholics] just didn't go to mass and there were no religious education classes for them," said the Rev. Jay Krouse, church pastor and founding director of the center. "So, the adults of today do not have the religious background like the children of today."

"I was aware of a feeling of God when I went to church." said Dorothy Stephanic, 50, who has been deaf since she was 2. "I would ask my younger sister basic questions and she would point and pantomime, but it was very limited," she said through a sign language interpreter. "I didn't understand my religion until much later."

Krouse, whom the congregation knows only as "Father Jay," says he became involved in ministry to the deaf by accident. "Back in 1971 I was called to work in Washington when I was still in the seminary and was asked if I would work with the deaf after I was ordained." Krouse said he had taught religion to the deaf but had never considered working with the deaf full time. "But then after becoming more involved I realized the need for religious education for the children."

By September 1972 Krouse was celebrating weekly total communication masses for 10 or 15 families of deaf children or parents. By December there were 35 or 40 deaf people regularly attending his mass and the first Catholic deaf center was opented in a Wheaton town house.

In June 1975 the center moved to its present location at 7202 Buchanan St. in Landover Hills. "Now we are about 125 families from all over the metropolitan area," said Krouse.

"Our church isn't much different from St. Mary's Catholic Church next door," said Krouse. "They don't have anything we don't have except a school. We have altar boys, a parish council, religious education, a teen club and field trips. But unlike them we are in total communication and we get our congregation from all over the area instead of just the surrounding neighborhood."

But his congregation disagrees. "It's not just a church," said Christian, an accounting technician with the Department of Treasury. "Whenever people need help, Father Jay is there. He comes to the hospital and family homes. If someone dies, he's there. He's always there, all you have to do is ask and he comes. I've known a lot of priests but there's no one like him. The center wouldn't be the same without him."

The center also privides translators for church members for doctor visits, and any other time one is needed.

Dottie Agnew and her husband Troy can both hear but joined St. Francis of Assisi Church because "it is a small, close-knit community and they all know each other," said Agnew. "I've noticed in most hearing churches that everybody rushes to the parking lot immediately after mass but that doesn't happen here. They sometimes stay for two or three hours having coffee and visiting with their friedns."

"There are a few hearing Catholics who come just because we love what's going on here," said Agnew, who learned sign language after joining the church in 1974. "For me the ability to use my whole body in worship is much more fulfilling than a regular mass."

Krouse says the archdiocese of Washington is a pioneer in the field of ministry of the deaf. "We're only one of 8 to 10 centers like this in the U.S. and Canada. We're the third largest o fthe centers."

"The emphasis is on mainstreaming and you can't mainstream a hearing impaired person into a hearing parish because they're not participating. He is not going to be sought after to participate in activities. My philosophy is that the church has the responsibility to provide to this deaf community a church of their own and a priest of their own." CAPTION: Picture, The Rev. Jay Krouse, right, leads congregation with Brother David Skarda at St. Francis of Assisi. By Joel Richardson-The Washington Post