Among the documents I discovered during my recent trip to the Deaf Catholic Archives in Massachusetts was a biography of the first priest who was born deaf, Fr. Charles Jean-Marie La Fonta (1878-1927). The book is called Un Miracle de la Foi. Un Sourd-Muet Devenu Pretre — A Miracle of Faith, A Deaf-Mute Becomes a Priest, by Mme. Raoul de Chaunac-Lanzac (1930, Paris). In the 1970’s, Sr. Elizabeth Kass found this rare book in a Canadian convent, photocopied it, and gave it to Fr. Joseph Bruce for the Deaf Catholic Archives. He had it translated by Joseph D. Gauthier, a fellow Jesuit. Four installments were published in Listening magazine, a publication of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, but Gauthier’s manuscript is the only complete English translation.
The book illustrates some common misconceptions that deaf people have faced. For example, the term “deaf-mute” was commonly used in the 1800s and the first half of the 20th century to refer to all deaf people–whether or not they could speak. Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac’s biography often refers to Charles La Fonta’s deafness as an “infirmity,” as if being born deaf meant being permanently sick.
However, Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac also carefully describes Fr. La Fonta’s decades of grueling training in spoken elocution, as well as his ceaseless dedication to preaching to the deaf after his ordination in 1921 (in both spoken word and sign language). For anyone interested in rhetoric, deaf studies, pulpit oratory, or Church history, Fr. La Fonta’s rhetorical education and his preaching are jewels of interest and inspiration. Although he was a prayerful boy, the presumption for La Fonta and his family was that a deaf man simply could not be a priest.
At a very early age, Charles amused himself by saying Mass. The boy prepared everything on the table and with genuine respect, imitated the priest at the altar… His mother was deeply pleased by her son’s piety, regretting meanwhile that his deafness would not allow him to attain the priesthood.
By the time he was 3 years old, Charles’ mother Helene would have him do articulation and lip-reading exercises for an hour each day, and she continued his early intervention at an institute for the Deaf in Bordeaux run by the Sisters of Nevers. By the age of 8, Charles began to study French with a teacher while his mother continued daily lessons in articulation and pronunciation. Although there were no hearing aids at the time, Charles’ rapid progress in speech indicate both the tremendous amount of time spent on early (pre-school) intervention and the probability that he had some residual hearing:
The Superior of the Institute for Deaf-mutes, Mother Angelique, encouraged the young mother and Sister Philippe outlined the program of studies. In Paris, Mlle Dubois, by another method, obtained softer tones in the voice. With such teachers, Charles’ pronunciation became clear, articulate and soft. Charles understood everything and made himself understood. In the way he shared in a general conversation, one would never have imagined that he was deaf. Furthermore, he led the same life as his brothers and sisters.
Although Charles had great concentration and worked harder and longer than his hearing peers at school, he was well-adjusted and accepting of his deafness. When he was fourteen years old, he told his sister, “I do not ask for a cure. I would not want Our Lady to make that a condition for becoming a priest.” Even this young, Charles knew that he could set a precedent for deaf people after him.
In his preparation for college, Charles studied mathematics, history, English, and Latin. He finally enrolled in the University of Bordeaux in 1898, when he was 20 years old, and completed his studies with honors. In 1899 he attended the Institute of Agriculture at Beauvais, where he always sat in the front row. “He lost none of the lecture, following the movement of the lips with great concentration, thus using his eyes to replace his hearing. Then he would borrow his neighbor’s written notes, enlarge on them and if need be, he would go to the professor for further clarification.” In July of 1901 he graduated second in his class.
By the time he was 27, the desire to become a priest was foremost in Charles’ mind. Unfortunately, he faced almost unilateral opposition because of society’s preconceptions and the general mislabeling of “deaf-mutes.”
The Benedictines and the Jesuits were categorical in their refusal to accept him, the former because of the chanting of the divine office and the latter because of the importance of preaching. Impossible to make an exception. ‘You could be admitted into a religious order,’ he was told, ‘but only as a lay brother.’
The Assumptionists, however, considered the possibility that he might make a choir vicar, an administrative position in support of cathedral activities. They agreed to a trial of three months “because there was a certain anxiety about the difficulties that might arise from the infirmity. And yet, there was also the fact that a religious vocation should not be thwarted.” Charles wrote to his mother:
You see that our prayers have not been fully answered. We just continue to pray with great patience. The Consultors feel it is better not to pursue the request for the priesthood at this time. They feel it would be better to wait a little while so that I can learn to pronounce perfectly and thus make a better impression on the examining bishop, who might happen to be very exacting.
With perseverance, Charles entered the novitiate, but he endured a great deal of anxiety about whether he would be accepted into the priesthood–so much so that he reversed his earlier desire not to have a cure:
Dear Mother, I’d do anything to help you bear this cross. I have made a novena asking for the healing of my ears. I will continue again and again until God hears me. Please ask the little deaf-mute (girls) of Bordeaux to pray for this intention. Should the Assumptionists decide not to keep me, I would be deeply sorrowful and would be loathe to accept the separation…I will certainly suffer many contradictions and many criticisms. They do not bother me in the least, since God wanted me.
In Rome, however, the cardinals who studied the case all gave a negative answer without giving a reason for their refusal. The superior of his order told Charles that “such a dispensation has never been granted and could not be granted unless the person were cured.” When Charles heard this result, he did not give up. He expressed his conviction that the Pope would have the final say “and one word from him would indicate God’s will.” Again Charles wrote his mother:
The answer was not a surprise to me. The cardinals must have thought that the deaf-mute in question, although better trained than most, did not posses the necessary aptitudes nor a suitable pronunciation. They must have said: Ma nono tutti matti! They are all mad! Not having seen me, they based their decision on generalities. …If the Roman congregations persist in their refusal, in order not to create a precedent, then the only way to know God’s will is to speak to the Holy Father himself.
In May of 1916, when he was 38 years old, Charles met Canon Rousselot, professor of linguistics at the Sorbonne, who continued work on correcting Charles’ pronunciation. Being impressed with Charles and his speech, he made a recommendation to his friend, Cardinal Gasparri in Rome. Finally, in 1918 a consultant came to examine Charles’ pronunciation and variations in tone of voice. Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac explains, “Very much interested, Mgr. Minghini inquired about the way his mother had trained him and then understood why it was so easy for him to complete his studies. He left with a friendly smile saying ‘I hope the Holy Father will accept you.'”
Finally, in 1920, a favorable answer came! Jean-Marie (as he became known by) was 42 years old and had worked for decades to perfect his pronunciation so that he could say the words of the Mass clearly. This delay and struggle was largely because of a general preconception about “deaf-mutes.” An earlier in-person interview would have dispersed these preconceptions, but Jean-Marie’s patience and perseverance were unshakable. Fr. Jean-Marie La Fonta was ordained on June 29, 1921 with his mother and siblings in attendance. At first he was allowed to say Mass only in private, but these restrictions were lifted almost immediately when it became apparent that he performed every function perfectly and spoke flawlessly. Perhaps the best news for future deaf men who wished to pursue the priesthood was this:
Several Roman congregations decided that there was no incompatibility between the sacerdotal functions and deafness.
As Jesus said to the deaf man in the Gospel of Mark, “Ephphatha!” — Be opened! The way for other deaf priests was opened by the hard-earned ordination of Fr. Jean-Marie La Fonta, but it was the prayerful perseverance and faith of this gentle man that opened the closed mindset of society at large about deafness and religious ritual. Immediately Fr. La Fonta began to minister to and preach to the deaf. As the next post to Word & Sign will show, Fr. La Fonta made ministry to the deaf his constant, driving work as a priest.