In my last post on Word & Sign, I described the struggles of Charles Jean-Marie La Fonta to become the first deaf priest, including his decades of training in elocution and rhetorical delivery. Fr. La Fonta’s greatest handicap was not his inability to hear but rather the misconceptions of society about deaf people in general. Once Fr. La Fonta had broken through this barrier, he began immediately to minister to the deaf in France. As the first deaf priest, Jean-Marie La Fonta helped show the world that it was possible for deaf people to master languages and every subject matter studied by hearing people. But more importantly, he showed the world that deaf people have a need to use their personal talents and strengths, just like anyone else, by giving back as full members of society.
La Fonta’s biography, A Miracle of Faith (1930) by Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac, tells us that, on the day of his ordination on June 29, 1921, the new priest prayed:
Dear Lord, I will be your priest. I shall also be the deaf-mutes’ priest, teach them your commandments, and lead them on the way to you.
Only two days later, La Fonta visited the deaf students at an institute for the deaf at rue de Manille, Paris. He joined the children on the playground and talked to them about how happy he was to be their priest. After this school, he visited others, including the National Institute for deaf girls in Bordeaux and the Institute for the Deaf in Poitiers. At every school, the children were delighted to greet the priest who was a “deaf-mute” like themselves. In his work with the deaf in France, Fr. La Fonta traveled constantly and worked tirelessly for the remainder of his life.
Although Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac’s biography does not say much about his methods of preaching, the question arises: did Fr. La Fonta speak to the deaf with his well-trained voice or did he use sign language? The answer is surely that he used both and adapted to the needs of his audience. The school La Fonta had attended as a child, the Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Bordeaux, was the famous school founded in 1760 by Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée, somewhat erroneously known as the inventor of sign language. L’Epee did not actually invent signs for the deaf. He adapted signs that he learned from a community of deaf people in Paris for use in his school’s “Instructional Method of Signs.” This method included verb endings, articles, and prepositions in an attempt to communicate in French using the hands. This is similar to today’s Signed Exact English. L’Epee’s method of teaching the deaf was based on the natural principle that education for the deaf must teach through the eye what other people learn through the ear. Fr. Jean-Marie La Fonta knew both spoken French and sign language for the deaf, after his early education at the Institute under its second headmaster Fr. Cucurron Sicard. What a tribute it must have been when, for a centennial celebration in honor of Fr. Sicard, Fr. La Fonta offered his first public Mass in spoken French. The people heard him clearly say the words of prayer for his benefactor.
In 1924, Fr. La Fonta obtained permission to receive the confessions of deaf people. He then could offer them, most for the first time, the Catholic Church’s sacrament of reconciliation. Without this sacrament, many deaf people would not have been able to receive the Eucharist, and therefore could not participate fully in their religious heritage and the life of their community. He also gave religious conferences to deaf adults who were former students of the National Institute. His service to the deaf grew as his priestly life continued to grow:
At a reunion in Poitiers, Jean-Marie gave the homily at Mass. He spoke very distinctly and used sign language. Everyone understood him and appreciated the things he spoke about. His love for the deaf could be seen in everything he did. Jean-Marie knew only too well the needs of the deaf-mutes. They needed to be accepted in society, to overcome the sense of rejection, to be at peace with themselves.
In addition to his religious services, Fr. La Fonta spoke out about education for the deaf. Although he used and appreciated sign language, he was an advocate of new scientific and technological advances that might encourage the deaf to understand the spoken word, to read languages based on the spoken word, and also to speak to people in society at large. In July 1926, he wrote a paper for the General Assembly of the Association for the Deaf in Nantes, in which he advocated oral methods for educating the deaf: “After leaving school the students will be able to learn sign language which will allow them to communicate with each other at a distance. Lip reading can only be learned if the teacher avoids as many gestures or signs as possible. It requires too much attention focused on the lips and their movement.” It is interesting that La Fonta supported so whole-heartedly the English and German method of oral communication and lip-reading, to the exclusion of the French method of signs and speech, at least in the classroom. He was part of a controversy over methods in deaf education that continues to this day. Signs, for La Fonta, were not for learning the French language. Learning French was very difficult for deaf students who had to focus on oral language and its written counterpart through the easily confused visual shapes of the lips and tongue. He found signs useful, however, for communication exclusively between deaf people or for communicating ideas at a distance–for example while preaching.
In all of his work with the deaf, La Fonta supported inclusion and integration into society:
Jean-Marie devoted himself entirely to teaching the deaf. He loved them because he knew their needs, he became closely associated with them… In the short span of his priestly life, Jean-Marie planted the seed. He never knew the growth that followed. It was left to others to nurture the apostolate he had begun.
After only a few years of unceasing work, Fr. La Fonta’s health began to fail. In 1929 he died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family. He was 51 years old. His sisters said to him, “As a priest, you will have to be replaced by one of your nephews.” He nodded agreement, but then added,
May my death call forth a new deaf-mute priest, for they truly need one.