Jesuit’s Speech on Deaf Catholic Ministry, 1908

Jesuit’s Speech on Deaf Catholic Ministry, 1908 January 24, 2011

Paper by THE REV. F. A. MOELLER, S. J., Chaplain, Ephpheta School, Chicago.
Delivered at the First American Catholic Missionary Congress, Chicago, 1908.

Right Reverend Chairman, Right Reverend Bishops, Reverend Fathers, Ladies and Gentlemen:

The New Testament tells of the kindness of Our Divine Lord, who, doing good to all, did not forget the deaf and dumb. After His example the Catholic Church has extended her charity to these afflicted people and has inaugurated their systematic education.

There can be no doubt that the handicapped condition of the deaf as regards faith and morals enlisted from the very dawn of Christianity the sympathy and zeal of priests and missionaries, and that, by various ingenious devices, they succeeded in teaching them the essential truths of faith and disposed them for the Sacraments; but history has left a meager record of their good work. The pitiful condition of the deaf awakened the zeal of St. John of Beverley; of Ponce de Leon, a Benedictine Monk; of Juan Pablo Bonet, a Spanish Priest. St. Francis de Sales, on his missionary tour, having met a deaf-mute boy, took him into his service and by a method of signs prepared him for confession and Holy Communion.

Lana Terzi, S. J., and Lorenzo Hervas y Panduro, a Spanish Jesuit missionary in America during the time of the Suppression, wrote learned treatises in the interest of the education of the deaf. The true apostle and most interesting personality in the annals of the deaf is Abbe de 1’Epee, who died in 1789. Happening to meet two deaf-mutes, he was moved to pity and, in his zeal for souls, invented a systematic sign-language for the deaf and opened for them at Paris a school which soon won international fame. Abbe de 1’Epee was succeeded by Abbe Sicard.

With the mention of the name of Abbe Sicard begins my sad story of the Catholic deaf in the United States. An exceptionally large number of deaf-mutes having been found in the state of Connecticut, a corporation of gentlemen was enlisted for the purpose of establishing a school for deaf at Hartford. Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Protestant minister, being very much interested in the project, was sent to England for the purpose of learning the methods of teaching the deaf. Having met with a cold reception on the part of the instructors of the deaf in that country, who were unwilling to let him into the secrets of the profession, Gallaudet, when almost discouraged, happened to meet the Abbe Sicard, who, with his pupils, was visiting London. The good Abbe kindly invited him to visit Paris and offered him every advantage. He not only personally gave him instructions, but, when Gallaudet returned to America, he permitted Laurent Clerc, one of his most distinguished pupils and associates, to accompany him, for the purpose of assisting in founding the Hartford School for the Deaf. (Applause.)

In the contract drawn up between Dr. Thomas Hopkins, Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, we read, article llth: “He (Laurent Clerc) is not to be called upon to teach anything contrary to the Roman Catholic religion;” and in his letter to Bishop Cheverus, of Boston, Abbe Sicard writes: “The extreme desire to procure for the unfortunate deaf-mutes of the country in which you dwell and fulfill so well the mission of the Holy Apostles, the happiness of knowing our holy religion leads me to a sacrifice which would exceed human strength. I send to the United States the best taught of my pupils, a deaf-mute whom my art restored to society and religion. He goes fully resolved to live and be faithful to the principles of the Catholic religion which I have taught him.”

Notwithstanding the kind solicitude of his beloved master, Laurent Clerc, like so many thousand deaf-mutes in this country deprived of constant religious instruction, in his non-Catholic surroundings weakened in the faith and apostatized. Little did the good Abbe Sicard think that his kindness only served to lay the foundation of a Protestant propaganda which has monopolized the education of the deaf ever since the opening of the Hartford School in 1817.

For nearly a century the education and care of the deaf have been in the hands of our separated brethren, notably of those of the Methodist Episcopal Church. While we have been asleep, “wolves in sheep’s clothing have invaded the fold, not sparing the flock.” Such has been the havoc wrought in the silence of the dark night of a hundred years, which, I hope, has passed, that today on our awakening we find that out of about 16,000 Catholic deaf-mutes at least 11,000 have lost the faith. Some even are Protestant ministers for the deaf.

In our zeal for souls and the preservation of faith and morals, we have provided asylums for widows and orphans, homes for wayward boys and girls, excellent parochial schools, academies and colleges, and have extended a helping hand to the negro, the Indian and foreign missions. We have listened to the earnest pleadings of those gifted with hearing and speech, but have failed to notice the pleadings of our silent little ones of the faith who, standing outside of the gates of our Catholic institutions which are closed against them, say to us: “Why are we neglected?”

Only during the past two years have our Catholic deaf received public recognition. For this the deaf-mutes of the United States are largely indebted to the zeal of the Rt. Rev. Dennis O’Connell, president of the Catholic Educational Association, and its efficient secretary, Rev. Fr. Howard, at whose invitation there was formed, a little more than a year ago, in Milwaukee, the Catholic Deaf-Mute Conference, which has taken up the work of pleading through the length and breadth of the land the Cause of the Deaf.

Why have the needs of our Catholic deaf in this country been almost entirely overlooked? Is it because we consider them incapable of religious instruction? In pagan times they were considered accursed of heaven, were called monsters, and Lucretius wrote: “To instruct the deaf, no art can ever reach, no care improve them and no wisdom teach.” Christian charity looks upon these afflicted people as the children of God, redeemed by the blood of Christ who loved them, and deserving our sympathy and assistance. (Applause.)

As regards their education in modern times, the deaf ask for nothing more than opportunities which are given to hearing and speaking children, and they will, in many respects, surpass them, grade for grade. (Applause.) A deaf-mute here in Chicago, the pupil of a Sister of St. Joseph, Buffalo, is also blind, and yet is an author and poet.

Have we overlooked the needs of the deaf because we think their number too insignificant to deserve our attention? To save one soul is worth our living: but permit me to state that their number is very considerable. There are in Continental United States 89,287 persons with seriously impaired powers of hearing. Of these, it is estimated by the U. S. Census, 51,871 became deaf in childhood, and 36,416 in adult life.

The question of interest to us is, how many of these are Catholic? According to the United States Census there are 1,175 deaf to the 1,000,000 population, and, according to the Catholic Directory, there are 13,000,000 Catholics in the United States; i. e., 17% of the entire .population. Assuming conditions and causes to be the same for Catholic and non-Catholic deaf, we find that there are 15,275 Catholic deaf in Continental United States; i. e., 8,872 who became deaf in childhood, and 6,403 in adult life.

The total number of Catholics deaf in the United States, estimated to be, according to our figures, 15,275, is undoubtedly far below the true number, since deaf-mutism is largely among the poor, “and the poor we have always with us.” Still that number, 15,275, represents a Catholic deaf-mute population greater than the population of the city of Alton, and there are eight (8) dioceses which have each a smaller Catholic population. The 8,872 Catholic deaf who lost their hearing in childhood represent a number greater than the combined number of orphans in the dioceses of Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.

If it is worth our while to extend our zeal to the aforesaid number of non-hearing and non-speaking people, we cannot overlook the 15,275, say 16,000, Catholic deaf-mutes who are so handicapped. God bless our zeal for orphans for whom the guiding voice of Christian parents is silent; but for the deaf the whole world is silent. The blind suffer a terrible physical affliction; but, while the world is dark to them, the bright light of faith may illumine their imprisoned souls. The widow needs to be comforted in her poverty; but, through the faculty of hearing, she may become spiritually rich and in her last moments the angels of the poor can whisper the sweet consolation of faith.

By the voice of good shepherds wayward children are brought back to the path of virtue which they deserted when, abusing the faculty of hearing, they refused to listen to the voice of parents and guardians; but where shall the deaf find a guide or receive the light and consolation of faith or be kept in the path of virtue and called back to it, if he has deserted it? It were better to leave ninety-nine hearing persons and go after one deaf-mute who is so handicapped. (Applause.) For ninety-nine hearing children of the faith, parents, teachers, friends and pastors are found ready to give them counsel and instruction. We all remember the first lesson we received in faith and morals at our mother’s knee.

Even these first lessons, to a great extent, cannot reach the mind and heart of the deaf-mute child. There are ninety-nine pastors to look after the spiritual welfare of the hearing where there is scarcely found one to look after the interests of the deaf. As a consequence, these silent children of the faith perish under our very eyes.

As pastors having the care of souls, we experience grief when, on being called to the sick and dying, we find that the patient can no longer speak; but still in our zeal we can dispose the dying through the faculty of hearing. We can through that faculty, which is the last one to leave us in death, invoke the sweet names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph; can speak to the dying soul of the goodness and mercy of God; can secure by the pressure of the hand an answer to our questions and thus dispose that soul for eternity.

It was thus that Venerable Mother Barat, the foundress of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, made her last confession after she had lost her voice. What can the priest do, unless specially qualified, when called to attend a dying deaf-mute who is perhaps too feeble to carry on a conversation in writing? If he has been brought up in non-Catholic schools he does not comprehend the nature of an act of contrition or of the sacraments administered.

Unless the deaf-mute has learned in a Catholic school how to live and how to die and what to do in the case of an accident, or when he cannot call a priest or make his confession, his salvation is very much endangered. (Applause.) Yet these deaf-mutes so handicapped we send to schools not safe for our non-hearing and non-speaking children, and where, by sermons and lectures in the sign language and anti-Catholic literature, they lose infallibly the priceless heritage of faith and become imbued with most erroneous ideas regarding the Catholic Church. We have known them after they returned home from such schools to have shown contempt for the faith of their parents by smashing the crucifix.

When, at the St. Louis convention of principals of deaf-mute institutions, we dared to complain of the proselyting going on in state institutions for the deaf, one of the first to leap to his feet and resent being told what should be done for the Catholic deaf, was the superintendent of the Indiana School. In the catalogue of that institution we find rule 17, page 42: “The institution is non-sectarian, but thorough moral and religious instruction will be given, especially on the Sabbath, the nature of it being general and such as is accepted by all churches and creeds.” Notwithstanding the boast of non-sectarianism, by which, as experience proves, is meant any religion but the Catholic religion, a leader of the Christian Endeavor Society occupies a place among the faculty and the graduates are, at commencement exercises, presented with Protestant Bibles honored with the superintendent’s autograph.

The rule governing the Indiana institution is one which is generally observed in all state institutions for the deaf. The state institution of Jacksonville, 111., was for over 37 years nothing but a Methodist Episcopal propaganda under the elder Mr. Gillet, who, according to his religious views, established Protestant missions for the deaf. Among these missions is one in Chicago at the head of which is a deaf-mute minister who lost the Catholic faith of his parents at Jacksonville and at Gallaudet College, Washington.

Even in institutions where the superintendents are fairminded and are ready to give to Catholic priests, for the asking, the same privileges as are granted to Protestant ministers, the poor deaf-mute child comes to the conclusion that one religion is as good as another, and, naturally enough, when he leaves the state institution, he prefers that religion which calls for little sacrifice and where the moral code is less stringent.

As regards morals, attention may be drawn to what came to light, about two years ago, in the School for the Deaf at Rome, New York. That institution had to be closed until its immoral atmosphere could be disinfected. Superintendents, teachers and pupils had to be dismissed. Perhaps it was thought by those in charge that the silent children could not disclose the horrid secrets which later came to light.

What are we doing in the United States for the preservation of the faith and morals of our Catholic deaf-mutes?

There are in the United States l33 schools for the deaf. Of these there are l3 under Catholic management—4 in New York and 9 in the remaining portion of the United States. In the four Catholic schools in the state of New York there are 593 pupils and in the remaining portion of the United States, from Alaska to the Gulf and from New York to California, where there is a deaf population at least eight times as great as that of the state of New York, there are only 409 in Catholic schools. If all states were as generous and broad-minded as the state of New York in educational matters, we should have over 5,000 deafmute children in Catholic schools. (Applause.)

With the exception of the New York institutions, the other Catholic schools are almost entirely dependent upon the charity of religious sisterhoods. Good work is being done by these devoted sisters; but as they carry on their schools with no state aid and with little or no ecclesiastical support, their schools are struggling for existence and the number of deaf pupils is necessarily small. The pupils are, for the most part, girls, while the less fortunate deaf boys, who always outnumber deaf girls, and who, more than their afflicted sisters, must face the dangers that threaten faith and morals, are lost sight of. There is need in our time of the missionary spirit of a De La Salle to organize a brotherhood pledged to labor for the salvation of deaf-mute boys.

The duty of providing for the salvation of the deaf-mutes in his parish is incumbent on every pastor, and he cannot plead the excuse, when called upon to aid the missions or educational institutions for the deaf in the diocese, that he has other works of his own that require his attention. If the parochial school cannot afford facilities for the education of the deaf, and if he himself is not in the position to preach to them and instruct them, it is reasonable to expect that he will help those who have assumed the burden of caring for the deaf of his parish. (Applause.)

We hope to see the day when Ephpheta Sunday, the llth after Pentecost, on which is read to us the Gospel reminding us of Christ’s kindness to the deaf and dumb, will annually remind priest and layman to remember the Cause of the Deaf. (Applause.) Then we shall no longer see the good sisters, already overtaxed with the severe strain which the classroom for the deaf entails, crushed beneath the additional burden of holding bazaars and entertainments in order that their silent children, for whom they are sacrificing their lives, may have bread, shelter and a Christian education.

In considering the Cause of the Deaf in the United States, we are principally concerned with the education of about 4,000 deafmute children who are today, like their predecessors, losing their faith owing to a lack of Catholic educational facilities; but we cannot neglect the thousands of deaf adults who are scattered throughout the land, especially in our great cities, and are in constant danger of being drawn into non-Catholic meetings and associations.

The spiritual education of hearing people is never completed. It is continued through life by admonitions, counsels, instructions, sermons, retreats and missions, the benefit of which cannot, in ordinary circumstances, reach the deaf. There should be, at least in every large city, a Catholic center or mission for the deaf having attached to it a priest free to devote his energies to the work, who will look after the spiritual welfare of the deaf and defend them against the wolves in sheep’s clothing, who, going about the country, entice them to their meetings.

A Protestant minister for the deaf travels every month from Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska, and, in his itinerary, regularly visits the state institutions along the way. When such zeal is shown for the deaf on the part of our separated brethren, is there any wonder that the deaf say to us, as was said to us some time ago when we asked a deaf-mute why he had abandoned the Catholic Church: “Because,” said he, “the Protestant Church is the friend of the deaf and the Catholic Church does not care for them.”

The Cause of the Deaf in this country is indeed a sad one; but far be it from me to attribute this to a lack of zeal on the part of those who have been entrusted with the care of souls. The thousands of educational and charitable institutions that mark the progress of faith through the land are a proof of their heroic zeal. That the deaf have been overlooked is due to the fact that their needs have never been sufficiently brought to the attention of those in whose power it is to ameliorate conditions. Only such as are familiar with the language of the deaf and mingle with them as one of them, hold the key to their minds and hearts and fully understand what is going on in the silent world of the deaf and dumb.

I see a brighter day dawning for the Catholic deaf of this country. The Catholic deaf-mute conference referred to has already done much in bringing the Cause of the Catholic Deaf before the public, and sincerest thanks are returned to the Catholic Church Extension Society for the opportunity afforded us of placing the same, on the present occasion, before this influential assembly. A powerful factor for the amelioration of the condition of the Catholic deaf I see in the work undertaken by the Extension Society. God bless the chapel car as it speeds along the iron way of commerce, bearing in its flight one greater than a railroad king in his private car; God bless the automobile bringing the shepherd of souls within hearing of the people scattered through the mountain passes of Virginia. The same zeal which inspired the use of these aids for the salvation of souls will, I am sure, inspire the Extension Society to discover a way of bringing salvation to the deaf and dumb, whom no automobile or chapel car can bring within the hearing of the priest. (Applause.)

Zealous for the glory of God, we, as Catholics, in this country have accomplished wonders; but it cannot be said that we have done all things well. In order that this may be said of us we must also, like our Divine Lord, extend our zeal to the deaf and dumb. We may not be able to make the deaf hear our voice, but we can, by using the means at our command, cause them to hear the voice of God. We may not be able to make the dumb speak to us (although in the present state of deaf-mute education it is possible to cause many of them to speak more or less perfectly), still, if we can make them speak to God, who is the Father not only of hearing children, of widows, orphans, Indians and Negroes, but also of the deaf and dumb, we shall have accomplished a sublime work. (Applause.)

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