Don Pedro de Tovar, the Real First Deaf Priest
(depicted above as a child with Don Pedro Ponce de Leon, his teacher)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today Word and Sign publishes our first guest post! The translation below excerpts a 1986 WORLD DAY OF THE DEAF document which offers the best scholarly evidence so far that the first deaf priest was not Fr. Charles LaFonta (1878-1927) of France (as believed until recently) but DON PEDRO VELASCO DE TOVAR of Spain, a student of Don Pedro Ponce de Leon, the sixteenth-century Benedictine abbot and teacher of the deaf.
The original translation was graciously contributed by John McLucas, Professor of Italian and Chair of Foreign Languages at Towson University. The document quotes at length a 1986 Spanish-language biography of Ponce de Leon by Fr. Antonio Eguiluz Angoitia, which references the original diaries and writings of Ponce de Leon extensively. We are in the process of acquiring this book and hope to offer even more conclusive evidence soon.
Previously, scholars only mentioned what might be considered a bit of gossip, that a servant of the House of Velasco confirmed that Don Pedro Velasco was certainly a priest who celebrated mass in the estate’s chapel [see T. Labarta de Chaves and J. Soler, Sign Language Studies 5(1974):52]. He would have done this by voice in Latin, as this was the requirement at the time and Ponce de Leon was known for teaching the deaf to speak. However, scholars also indicate that Velasco used sign language extensively as his first language. The emphasis in Deaf Studies scholarship throughout the 1980s and 1990s focuses on Ponce de Leon’s probable methods for educating the deaf and not whether his pupil became the first deaf priest—an astounding thing to overlook from the perspective of Deaf Catholic history.
As a final confirmation, Fr. Joe Bruce, S.J., has already written to Rome with a request to find the letter of dispensation for Don Pedro Velasco in the Vatican Library. Thanks also to Fr. Bruce for finding the Italian pamphlet at the Deaf Catholic Archives at Holy Cross College!
And now, Dr. McLucas’s translation. I have left his delightfully informative translator’s notes throughout.
To all you older students in schools for the deaf, who are about to finish your obligatory school course [in 1986, this was through age 14] and are about to choose the kind of superior school in which to continue your studies, I offer these brief accounts of the lives of seven deaf priests, so that by reading them you may acquire the desire to choose the life of the priesthood, following their example, so as then to put yourselves at the service of your deaf brothers [and sisters].
In Italy we do not yet have a single deaf priest: I hope that one of you, the readers of these pages, may become a priest!
Fr.* Alelmo Puccetti
Rome, Sept. 28, 1986: WORLD DAY OF THE DEAF
*Throughout these translations, I have rendered the Italian “P.” (for “Padre”) as English “Fr.” (for “Father”). Where the Italian is “Fr.” (for “Fra” or “Fratello”), I have put “Br.” (for “Brother”). I think this is correct, but in one or two cases I wondered if the “P.” in Italian was actually an abbreviation of “Pedro.”
A STUDENT OF FR. PEDRO PONCE DE LEON WAS THE FIRST DEAF PRIEST
Despite what has been previously believed and written, Fr. Giovanni La Fonta was not the first deaf priest; rather, it was DON PEDRO DE TOVAR, the favorite student of Abbot Pedro Ponce de Leon. This information was brought to light by Fr. Antonio Eguiluz Angoitia, a Franciscan priest, in his recent work, “Br. Pedro Ponce de Leon – the new personality of the deaf-mute” (Madrid, 1886). Don Pedro de Tovar was ordained priest with pontifical authorization or dispensation. Indeed, being deaf-mute constituted an impediment to priestly ordination, because, it was said, words pronounced orally form the main part of the Sacraments. This was a point discussed in detail by jurists and moralists. It was not easy to obtain the Holy See’s authorization for the first deaf-mute priest. No doubt he was helped by information given by his teacher [maestro – I have rendered this word sometimes as “teacher” and sometimes as “master”; the Italian word maestro can mean “master” in the sense of “teacher,” but not normally in the sense of “owner (of a slave)”.] and the mediation of some monks of Oña who were present in Rome as theologians of the Concilium/Council. Fr. Ponce would have rebelled against anyone who denied the priesthood to his student. Without doubt the day of greatest joy and satisfaction in his career as a teacher of the deaf was the one on which he watched, marveling, as PEDRO de TOVAR went up to the altar to receive from the Bishop the anointing which made him a minister of the Lord. This fulfilled the proverb which says, “God can write straight on crooked lines.” The intentions of the Marquesses of Belanga to consecrate their handicapped children to divine service were also fulfilled in this way, to the great and unexpectable [great word – something which “couldn’t have been expected”] joy of the parents, thanks to the brilliant work of the monk Fr. Ponce, truly a virtuous and wise man.
We do not know what pastoral ministry Fr. Pedro de Tovar performed as a priest. What we can attest to is his filial affection for his “master and father.” Don Pedro de Tovar leaves the most important decisions about his will to his teacher, Fr. Pedro Ponce de Leon; he names him the principal executor of his will, and he reserves for him all those mementoes and objects of which he was fondest or which he used personally, with the suggestion for some of them that he “keep them for himself.” He bequeaths his jewels and precious objects to his monastery, according to the testimony/witness of Br. Mauro de Tosantos, of Don Iñigo de Velsco, and of his brothers. Fr. Ponce receives them and thanks the Marchesa and her son Don Pedro directly: these jewels and precious things were displayed for many years in the Church and sacristy of the monastery. The master, for his part, recognizes Pedro de Tovar as his greatest glory. Speaking of his students and their merits, he does not fail to mention the one who doubtless provided him with the greatest satisfaction. Even without naming him, the allusion to Don Pedro de Tovar is clear when he writes, “And he came to be ordained to the benefit of the Church and to recite the canonical hours.”
This was only natural: the master had a special affection for the most brilliant of his students. The news of his death, which occurred and the end of 1571 in Medina di Pomar, was a hard blow for him. In his will, the student expresses his wish that his teacher might be with him in his last moments. It would have been the “It is finished!” [Christ’s last words, quoted here in Latin] of such a marvelous work.
The fairest and most precise praise of the artist/author/creator [bold metaphor for “teacher”] and his work/creation [bold metaphor for “student”] may be the words which are directed to them both in one document: “Everything was taught him by Brother Pedro Ponce, monk of St. Bento (St. Benedict) in Oña, from which he emerges as a perfect[ly educated] man skilled in all subjects.”