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Cathedral School for Deaf-Mutes

March 1st, 2017posted by Sarah L. Ater

In conjunction with the history we have been giving of the work of Mrs. Sarah Peters, now would be an appropriate time to share a bit of the history of Reuben Springer, a friend of Mrs. Peters. Born in 1800, Springer first clerked under his father with the post office and then became a clerk on a steamer running between Cincinnati and New Orleans. In 1827 he switched to the grocery house of Taylor & Co., marrying Jane Kilgour in 1830. Poor health forced him to retire in 1840, but by then he was a wealthy man. Converting to Catholicism in 1842, he financially supported the cause of several Catholic institutions as well as non-Catholic institutions, including Music Hall and the College of Music. In fact, the auditorium at Music Hall is named the Reuben Springer Auditorium. Springer died in 1884, and at his death left a large sum of money to the Archdiocese, including funds to reopen the seminary which had closed in 1878 due to the financial crisis of the Archdiocese, and $30,000 to build a parish school beside St. Peter in Chains Cathedral at Eighth and Plum Streets. In addition to a parish school, plans were made to include a school to be of special assistance to the deaf mutes of the city.

Reuben Springer

Reuben Springer

Rev. John Mackey was the pastor between 1870 and 1887 at St. Patrick Church, located in Cincinnati at Third and Mill Streets. One of his parishioners, Edward Cleary, was a deaf child and his father asked for the assistance of Rev. Mackey in his son’s education. There were no Catholic schools that could accommodate his special needs. Edward attended public school and received personal catechism classes from Rev. Mackey. Transferred to the Cathedral as pastor in 1887, Rev. Mackey expressed his concerns to Abp. William Elder about the need of a Catholic school to educate deaf and mute children.

An unsigned letter to Abp. Elder written on 9 July 1886 advocating a new school makes the following statement:

So far as Catholics are concerned, a necessity has been laid upon them – it is not a question of simple choice, whether they will go forward as a body in their work of education, but one which involves their existence. Self-preservation as far as her well-being is bound up in the interests of education, it is repeated, to say nothing of other elements of duty, requires the Catholic Church in Ohio to be engaged actively and vigorously in the work of educating the deaf.

Rev. John Mackey

Rev. John Mackey

Abp. Elder agreed and in the fall of 1887 the Deaf Mute School opened at the Cathedral School with none other than Edward Cleary as teacher. Cleary had recently graduated from Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. and was eager to serve in Cincinnati. The school was open for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and adults as well as children. Edward Cleary writes this following report to Abp. Elder at the conclusion of the first school year:

Sixteen pupils were present October 10, 1887. The number increased until February when 20 pupils – 10 boys and 10 girls – were enrolled; 23 were on the roll of the year….The course of instruction followed in the school is substantially pursued by a majority of the institutions for the deaf in this country. Its general aim may be thus stated: To give its pupil a practical understanding and command of the English language, a knowledge of the principles of arithmetic sufficiently extensive to meet his needs in business transactions, a full course in political geography and a reasonable course in history…In the limited time allowed for school instruction, in a decided majority of pupils, great sacrifice in mental development and general education is made by entirely ignoring the readiest means of communication with deaf mutes – the sign language. Therefore, it is used by us as a means to convey ideas. The ideas, once obtained, are given in written [form] – and next year we hope to be able to add spoken language, the attainment of which is the constant aim of the teacher…Before closing, we wish to add that the most earnest expression of our gratitude is due to the Sisters of Notre Dame on 6th St. for the zeal and energy with which they continue to cooperate in advancing the best interests of the school and to all directly and indirectly connected with us.

Sadly, the Cathedral School for the Deaf Mutes did not exist for long. At the end of the 1890 school year, Cleary writes to Abp. Elder:

We regret to be obliged to complain of the apathy of many of the parents and friends of Catholic deaf mute children. We urge upon the clergy throughout the various parishes of the Archdiocese the necessity of redoubling their exertions in favor of their Catholic deaf children…They are isolated in society and in the Church, and cannot be reached by ordinary religious and benevolent means.

The closing of the school meant an end to a Catholic school dedicated to deaf students for the time being, but in the meantime the Sisters of Notre Dame continued to teach day classes to the students. An anonymous letter to Abp. Elder written in 1894 begs him to open just one school room for these children and to assist their needs. Two years later a census was taken throughout the Archdiocese to have a better understanding of the number of deaf Catholic children.

It was not until 1914 that Abp. Henry Moeller asked Rev. Henry Waldhaus to minister to the deaf of the Archdiocese. A ministry close to his heart, his brother, Rev. Ferdinand Moeller, had been in charge of a school for the deaf in Chicago for 12 years. This lead to the establishment of St. Rita School for the Deaf, located in Evendale, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati.

Laboring on the Mission is a blog of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Archives. The title is taken from a letter written by Bishop Edward Fenwick, OP, describing his mission work in Ohio. Whether in the wilds of the 19th century or the baby boom of the 1950s, the Catholic Church continues the mission entrusted to her by Jesus Christ. Here we tell that story.