Hymnal transcribed into Braille

Mary Williams checks out her new Braille transcription of the Common Praise hymnal. Photo: Contributed
Mary Williams checks out her new Braille transcription of the Common Praise hymnal. Photo: Contributed

When Mary Williams attends services at St. John’s Anglican Church, South March, in Kanata, Ont., she likes to sing all the hymns along with the rest of the congregation, but in recent years that has become increasingly difficult.

Williams is visually impaired. She owns a Braille edition of a previous edition of the hymn book, 10 bound volumes, because Braille takes more pages than the printed text. That was awkward and cumbersome, to say the least, but when a revised hymnal, Common Praise, was published in 1998, she inquired with the CNIB and a Braille bookstore, but was told that no Braille edition was available.

A large print edition was published, but the text was not large enough for Williams. “I had a little more vision [at that time]…so I started creating a hymn book back then in a 20-point font, sans serif, as simple as I could possibly make it.” Glasses that magnified the text 10 times allowed her to see about three letters at a time. “For many years, I could just about read fast enough,” she said in an interview. “It was okay, but a struggle, and sometimes the lighting in church isn’t the best.” Gradually over the last five years, however, her remaining vision deteriorated to the point where she found it “more of a stressor than a help.”

“I know a lot of the old hymns by heart, but with the revision in [1998], so many [words] were changed to be gender neutral, and I find I make mistakes and go back to the old text or I don’t know the hymn at all,” she said. “It’s very frustrating just to ‘la-la’ and not know the words.” Braille, she concluded, was the answer, but she didn’t know how to go about obtaining a transcription.

Then one day, she happened to mention her frustration to Rebecca Blaevoet, a member of a technical group she was in. Blaevoet, unbeknownst to her, was a director of Tactile Vision Graphics, an Ottawa- and U.K.-based company that produces Braille material. Blaevoet said her company could transcribe the hymnal into Braille.

That set the wheels in motion for Williams, who asked the priest at St. John’s, the Rev. Karen Ann Coxon, where to start looking for support in the church. Williams wrote to Bishop John Chapman of the diocese of Ottawa, as well as to Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. When news of Williams’ idea reached the Anglican Foundation, the organization provided $1,000 for the transcription.

Judy Rois, executive director of the Anglican Foundation, said, “One of the things we really liked about it was that it provides accessibility for those with visual limitations or visual impairments…Anything like that that allows access for everybody to the resources we have is really important.”

Williams asked Blaevoet to produce the transcription as hymns on individual pages in three-ring binders, so that she could simply select the hymns for that Sunday and take them to church with her, instead of hauling several volumes of bound books. “I was determined if we had the revised version that it would be a single page and very practical to use,” she said.

Williams uses technology such as screen readers to do many things now, and she noted that there are now devices that will provide a transcription of written text in refreshable Braille lines. “That would be a way of reading a hymn book, but I don’t have the device, it’s not cheap, and the old-fashioned paper works beautifully.”

Williams received her copy of the hymnal in five black binders in March. “It’s a beautiful production,” she pronounced, saying that she had already found the hymns she would need for that Sunday’s worship service.

Copies are available through Augsburg Fortress Canada (www.afcanada.com) at a cost of $335. Williams acknowledges that some people may not be able to afford to buy a copy of their own, but said she hopes parishes might invest in a copy for their visually-impaired parishioners.


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Leigh Anne Williams
Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.


  1. Is the `Common Praise` that your article refers to, the Hymn Book published in the United Kingdom (by Canterbury Press, Norwich), which is an updated version of `Hymns Ancient and Modern` ?
    The church at which I am Organist, (St. Luke`s, Torquay, Devon, England) occasionally has visits from visually impaired people, and it would be marvellous if we could provide a braille version of some of the hymns we use. (though I am not certain that we could afford to buy a copy just yet ).
    It would be extremely useful if any publisher would supply single sheet copies of 20 or so of the best known hymns, because there are so many hymns in every hymn book ,which are rarely used ; and many of the best known hymns are traditional ones ,which are out of copyright . What a useful service it would provide for visually handicapped people everywhere.

    • Thanks for your comment and question, Peter Gutteridge. The author of this article no longer works for the Anglican Journal, but I believe the book referred to is the 1998 hymn book published by the Anglican Church of Canada; you can find more information about it at the bottom of this web page: https://www.anglican.ca/ask/faq/hymn-books/
      Hope this helps!


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