Saints of the Day for August 27th

Saints of the Day for August 27th

Author: Deacon James Tyree
August 26, 2020


Today we will return to considering a saint on our feast calendar and, in fact, today there are two: Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle, who, in 1888, became the first deaf person to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church.

When I first saw that Thomas Gallaudet’s name for today, I thought, oh yes, the man after whom Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is named after. But no, this Thomas was actually one of his sons who, like Syle, was an Episcopal priest who, like his parents, was a champion for the education, rights and abilities of the hearing-impaired throughout the 1800s.

Backing up a bit, this progressive view of people who could not hear was not always prevalent. The ancient Greeks and other societies believed deaf people were not capable of being educated, and there are very early religious accounts that viewed deafness in children was evidence of God’s anger. Of course, this was believed far too often over the centuries, that somebody did something wrong – that person or a parent, perhaps – to account for that disability.

Fortunately, the tide of this wrong thinking began to turn ever so slowly. Far too slowly, of course, but a few people began to see what people could do, instead of what they couldn’t do, and they found ways to help them fulfill their potential like anyone else. In the 1600s, a Benedictine monk named Pedro Ponce de Leon, developed a way to teach deaf people to speak. And then in 1760, a French priest named Charles Michel de L’Eppe created the first free ever public school for the deaf.

And then here in the U.S., in the very early 1800s, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet co-founded in Hartford, Connecticut, a school for the deaf and mute that was described as the “principal institution for the education of the deaf in our country,” from the year of its founding until nearly a half-century later, when in 1864 the elder Gallaudet’s youngest son Edward founded the college in Washington D.C. that is now known as Gallaudet University.

Interestingly, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet intended to become a priest before dedicating his life to education for the deaf. But his older son, Thomas, did become an Episcopal priest and it is he who we commemorate today. But he did not become a priest until after he worked for a while as a school for the deaf, as his father had requested and persuaded. In addition to the remarkable impact that his father made for deaf education, his mother, Sophia, also happened to be deaf.

So the younger Thomas Gallaudet taught for awhile and, during this time, met and later married a woman named Elizabeth Budd who also was deaf. But Thomas did pursue the priesthood and he was ordained in 1851. The very next year, he established St. Ann’s Church in New York, which had services primarily in sign language. From this church, St. Ann’s, other congregations for the deaf became established in other cities, which, of course, was great.

Now the other saint of the day, Henry Winter Syle, was a student and parishioner of Fr. Thomas Gallaudet. Syle was born in Shanghai, China, and lost his hearing at a very early age due to scarlet fever. Even so, Henry Syle studied at prestigious universities on both sides of the pond and wound up teaching at a deaf school in New York, where he was active at St. Ann’s Church.

The priest Thomas Gallaudet saw something special in the young man and encourage him to become a priest. Well, he moved to Philadelphia to prepare for ordained ministry and after a lot of study and perseverance, he was ordained as a deacon. This happened in October, 1876, one month short of his 30th birthday. Seven years after that, in October 1883, he became our church’s first deaf priest. Five years later, he led the building of All Souls Church for the Deaf in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Henry Winter Syle always battled poor health and he died at age 43 in January 1890, less than two years after the church was built.

It is so good for the church to remember the lives and ministries of these two men, these compassionate followers of Christ. Thomas Gallaudet had hearing, but he fully knew and understood from his mother and wife and others around him about the struggles faced each day by those who couldn’t hear, and he did what he could to make things better.

His friend Henry Syle was deaf and he achieved for himself and helped others despite his physical difficulties. I learned that despite support from Gallaudet and the bishop of Pennsylvania, there were many at the time who firmly believed that the impairment should keep him from ordination. Some still see people in that way, focusing on what they can’t do instead of what they can do.

But let us instead, as we remember Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle, also remember and stay true to our answer for the baptismal covenant question of whether we will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human beings.

We will, with God’s help. Amen.


St. John’s Episcopal Church

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