This week’s saint might not have a long a fraught story like some of the saints I have featured. The story may also be short but his work for the church is unique and I think it is worth recognizing. It’s easy to get caught up in the big stories and miss the smaller moments of grace and gracious people who help reveal them.
This week’s saint is Thomas Gallaudet and life is remembered in the Episcopal church on August 27th.
The father of Thomas Gallaudet was also (and confusingly) named Thomas Gallaudet. He had wanted to become a priest and professional minister. However his plans changed by a chance encounter with a deaf and mute child by the name of Alice Cogswell. This led the senior Thomas Gallaudet out of professional ministry and down a path that would see him opening the first school for the deaf and mute in America. At the school Thomas Gallaudet senior met Sophia Fowler who was also deaf and they married. Sophia Fowler would work to help found what would later become Gallaudet University which was the first institute of higher learning for deaf and mute students. It was into this work around education of deaf and mute children that Thomas Gallaudet junior was born on June 3, 1822.
The junior Thomas Gallaudet graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He, like his father, also had planned to enter professional ministry. However, at the encouragement of his father, Thomas Gallaudet junior began teaching at the New York Institution for Deaf Mutes. It was here that he would also meet his wife, Elizabeth Budd, who was deaf.
After teaching at the New York Institution for Deaf Mutes Thomas Gallaudet junior wanted to fulfill his dream of being a professional minister. He was ordained in the Episcopal church in 1851 and the next year would go on to found St. Ann’s Church in New York. Church services at St. Ann’s were focused primarily towards deaf and mute parishioners and services were mainly communicated in sign language. Along with the church, Thomas would continue his work with the deaf and mute community and even helped found a home for older and disabled deaf and mute people in 1872.
A student of Thomas and member of his church, Henry Winter Syle, was also deaf and had attended Trinity College, St. John’s College in England and Yale. At the encouragement of Thomas, Henry Syle would go on to become the first deaf ordained priest in the Episcopal church in 1884. Henry would later found a church for the deaf in 1888.
“But the more we think of the whole matter, the clearer we shall see that sounds are outward symbols of ideas, as well as signs, and that in the sight of God for the benefit of His silent children, the language of motion is the real, genuine method of conducting a service, whether it be sacramental or otherwise.”
Thomas Gallaudet, from his sermon The Language of Motion preached at the ordination of Henry Syle
Because of Thomas’ work, many congregations began that focused mainly on serving the deaf and mute population. Also because of his devotion to communicating the gospel to the deaf and mute community, many churches include a sign language interpreter during services. Thomas Gallaudet died on August 27, 1902.
May we, like Thomas Gallaudet, see that the church is and should be open to all regardless of disability. May we be open to all forms of communication of the gospel, even when vocal words cannot be used. May we realize that the miracle of Pentecost includes even those who cannot hear the words but can see the tongues of fire through motion of hands. May we welcome our deaf and mute brothers and sisters with open arms and see the beauty in their worship. While they may be silent, their words through motion still rise as a sweet fragrance to God.