Deaf ministry a sign of the times

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Danny Blakeney, Mary Profilio, Robert Beath, Danni Wright, and Brian Johnston will celebrate 100 years of the NSW Catholic deaf community.
Danny Blakeney, Mary Profilio, Robert Beath, Danni Wright, and Brian Johnston will celebrate 100 years of the NSW Catholic deaf community.

A century after it was founded, members of the NSW Catholic deaf community reflect on the foundation of a ministry to the deaf and hearing impaired, and how to maintain their identity in a changing culture …

In the Gospel of St Mark, Jesus healed a deaf man with the command ‘Ephpheta’, meaning ‘be open’. It is a phrase long since adopted by the Catholic deaf community and the name of the Sydney archdiocesan deaf ministry, just part of the story of this tenacious community.

Deaf Catholics Danni Wright, brothers Brian and Dennis Johnston, Robert Beath, Mary Profilio and Danny Blakeney teamed up earlier this year to plan the centenary celebrations.

The Catholic Deaf Association (CDA) was formed in Sydney in 1914 with the support of deaf man Arthur Power and the Dominican Sisters from the Rosary Convent Deaf School in the Newcastle suburb of Waratah

“It began as a social gathering at one deaf couple’s home, all the deaf Catholic people would get together at the home of Michael and Mary Carmody in the Abbotsford area,” Brian said.

The association was born of necessity. Young Catholic men and women were graduating from their Catholic boarding schools and returning to parishes, and sometimes families, unable to minister to their needs.

“There was nothing,” he said. “There was nothing. And that is why the CDA came about.

“It was first established because there was nowhere for these young deaf kids to go to Mass, and their parents were upset about it.”

The home gathering began to include religious education from the Dominican Sisters and a priest. In 1922 the Christian Brothers opened St Gabriel’s Deaf School for Boys in Castle Hill.

The order drafted the constitution to formalise the Catholic deaf community into an association.

Under the tutelage of Christian Brothers and Dominican Sisters, Catholic deaf children learnt the distinctive Irish sign language.

Around the same time, deaf Scotsman Thomas Pattison established the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children

“He was from Britain, so he brought his British sign language, which was very different to Irish sign language,” said Danni, a community worker with the Ephpheta Centre.

“British sign language spread throughout the community and was more dominant at the time.

“The children from Waratah and St Gabriel’s would leave school and join the secular world and had to modify their sign language in order to communicate.

“We still see now when the old Waratah girls get together and the St Gabriel boys, they revert back to their old sign language. It’s like a secret language.”

This “secret language” was later banned in Australian schools for more than two decades.

“Around 1950 sign language was banned from all schools in Australia, and a new system was introduced for educating deaf children orally,” said Brian, who attended St Gabriel’s with his brother Dennis.

“Deaf children were forced to speak and were banned from using their hands.”

Banning sign language and forcing deaf children to speak may have helped prepare them for living and working in the hearing community, but it had a lasting impact on their education and identity.

“For us, who had sign language banned from our education, we were lost when we left school. We couldn’t communicate with each other very well, and spoken language wasn’t working,” Brian said.

Robert was born deaf to deaf parents and signed from an early age.

“When I was forced to speak at school I lost my sign language because it was a boarding school,” he said.

“When I came home my mother was devastated, she cried and cried, so she kept me at home and she taught me to sign again because she knew how important it was to a deaf person.

“I have a deaf brother so sign language is a very big part of our life.”

For Mary, sign language was banned for her 14 years at Waratah Rosary Convent.

“The nuns were very strict and wouldn’t let anyone sign,” she said,

“Now when I think of the two different languages I think of sign language as being innate, or natural, and being the way that my brain and my body need to communicate.”

But she has always been grateful for the ability to communicate with hearing people.

“I don’t harbour any ill feelings about having spoken language forced on me. I understand that it was the attitude of the times.”

For a lucky few, furtive lessons continued thanks to one defiant Christian Brother who understood the importance of the language.

“One of older teachers at St Gabriel’s, one of the Brothers, very quietly continued to sign with us even though it was banned,” Brian said.

“The Christian Brothers can be quite rebellious at times, so some of us had the great opportunity to continue to sign.

“I have a deaf brother and a deaf sister so sign language at home was a big part of my life, whereas other people didn’t have deaf family so they had to speak at home, they had no choice.”

For Mary, going home for school holidays was “hard work” while “going back to school was like going home”.

That sense of familiarity and acceptance, of ‘be open’, has always underpinned the CDA, later the Catholic Association for Deaf and Hearing Impaired People of Australia.

In 1979 the Ephpheta Centre was established as an agency of the Sydney archdiocese.

Throughout its history the community has welcomed chaplains who are deaf, hearing, full-time, part-time, fluent and less-than-fluent signers.

In 1935 Fr Dominic Phillips was the first chaplain to the deaf anywhere in Australia, and his appointment lasted just two years before he was sent to New Zealand.

“At the time deaf people just went to Mass and didn’t understand anything,” Brian said of Fr Dominic’s appointment.

“If people wanted to go to confession they had to write everything down and pass it through the grate to the priest.”

Fr Bill Malone was the beloved part-time chaplain for 35 years and a “great signer”, Danni says.

“But if deaf people wanted to have Mass they couldn’t use a church, they had to use a hall somewhere because the churches were in use. And that’s still the case now sometimes.”

The need for signing chaplain was most evident during the sacraments, Mary said.

“I remember going to deaf people’s weddings years ago. The priest would talk and deaf people would say, ‘are we married yet?’ They didn’t know what was happening.

“For us to truly engage with the Church, when you are taking your vows, when you are receiving the sacraments, it is so important for us to understand. It would be so much nicer if the priest could sign.” During World Youth Day 2008 a hearing English priest fluent in British Sign Language and a deaf Korean priest concelebrated Mass in Sydney.

“The two of them celebrated Mass together,” Danni said. “Neither of them was using Auslan, and the deaf community was in tears.

“It was the most emotional thing I have ever seen.

“I will never forget the experience of having these two priests stand at the front of our church and use our language, and for us to be able to engage in the Mass, without any delay, without any influence by somebody’s interpretation.”

Sydney priests Fr Michael Lanzon and Fr Kim Ha and Parramatta priest Fr John Paul Escarlan were appointed chaplains to the Sydney Catholic deaf community earlier this year.

“We can’t wait for these young men to learn to sign,” Mary said.

“For me to have a one-on-one conversation with a priest would be a wonderful thing. I haven’t been able to do that for many, many years.”

A chaplain is essential to maintain Catholic deaf culture and identity, Danni said.

“We understand that priests are very busy and we don’t want to imply that we feel neglected, but it would be lovely to have a priest who understands us, who is concerned for the next generation of Catholic deaf people,” she said. “There are no more Catholic deaf schools, so families can’t necessarily pass on their faith to their young deaf children because communication is such a problem.”

Mary added, “We’re concerned that the deaf Catholic history will be lost to our newer generation.”

Interview interpreted by Nicole Clark.

Tribute to Brothers, nuns, volunteers

Ephpheta Centre director Stephen Lawlor said the centenary is “a wonderful milestone for many Catholic deaf, past and present, who have striven hard to have access given to our community over the years”.

“However, I must not forget those behind the scenes, the parents, the Christian Brothers and Dominican nuns, the lay teachers and volunteers who also contributed to the ongoing support of the Catholic deaf community of NSW over 100 years.

“This is a true example of the mission and vision statement of the Catholic deaf community which is to give God’s love by following the Good News of Jesus Christ and to create opportunities for continuing faith development respectively.”