Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
September 17, 2001
Sisters mark commitment to deaf
Providence Sisters have worked with deaf for 150 years
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — A century and a half ago, when many people considered it was useless to instruct deaf persons, Mother Emilie Gamelin, foundress of Sisters of Providence thought otherwise.
She supported one of her novices in learning sign language, a gesture that later paved the way for the foundation of Montreal's Institution for Deaf Girls and the Sisters of Our Lady of the Seven Dolors (SNDD), a congregation of deaf nuns.
To honour Mother Gamelin, who will be beatified by Pope John Paul on Oct. 7, the Sisters of Providence celebrated the 150th anniversary of her work with the deaf in a Mass, Sept. 9, at Providence Centre.
Jesuit Father Peter Monty, chaplain for the deaf community in Winnipeg, presided at the Mass, which was attended by St. Mark's Catholic Community for the Deaf.
John Shores, chair of the archbishop's advisory board for deaf ministry, is also involved with St. Mark's Catholic Community for the Deaf in Edmonton. That community in turn is connected with the ministry of the Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of Our Lady of the Seven Dolors.
"The deaf people have a culture of their own," said Shores, who has been involved with St. Mark's for 10 years. "It is a community within the community."
"Communication is fine among the deaf, but their education level is an important consideration," Shores said.
Not all deaf people are able to go to school and get an education. The level of language they understand varies. This poses a special challenge for those working with the deaf community.
This is the challenge that Sister Elizabeth Kass has constantly faced in ministering to the deaf.
"First of all I am deaf myself, we have the same need," Kass told the WCR when asked what motivated her to minister to the deaf.
"Some deaf people are lonely and depressed and we need to reach out to them," said Kass.
St. Mark's, which has 150 members in Edmonton and area, offers sacramental preparation, Bible study, a youth group and social services among other activities.
"We help not only the Catholics - most of the people we minister to are non-Catholics," said Kass, who worked with the deaf in her hometown Dubuque, Iowa, and then later in Chicago.
Kass came to Montreal in 1950 to join the congregation of deaf sisters.
"I felt that there was something missing in my life. I wanted to give myself to God in service of the deaf community so I joined the deaf sisters in Montreal," said Kass.
The congregation she joined is a product of the works of Mother Gamelin and Sister Marie de Bonsecours for the deaf.
Albine Gadbois, later known as Sister Marie de Bonsecours, had a keen interest in the needs of the deaf.
Mother Gamelin gave Gadbois permission to use her new skills to teach young deaf girls.
In 1850, a year after her first vows, she was assigned to teach English classes at Long Point, near Montreal. There she met a bright little deaf girl, Margaret, who had been entrusted to the sisters by her father.
Soon Gadbois was teaching Margaret and another girl in the only space available to them - a room in the attic. Because of her success, the number of girls kept growing, which eventually led to the establishment of the Institution for Deaf Girls.
Deaf people had a special spot in the heart of the Gadbois family. Not only did the spacious Gadbois residence house deaf people of various ages but Albine Gadbois' six sisters all became nuns, four of them joining the Sisters of Providence.
The present French school for the deaf in Montreal bears the name Ecolé Gadbois in their honour.
In 1887, through the help of Father Francis Xavier Trepanier, Philomene, the youngest of the Gadbois sisters, became successful with her formal request for the foundation of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Seven Dolors.
While canonically separate, the institute is under the authority of the superior general of the Providence Sisters because all the sisters are deaf.
"It was difficult when I joined the community because I had to learn French Sign Language," Kass said. "All the sisters signed in French."
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