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Ohio's Pioneer Priest to the Deaf
In 2017, when we celebrated the Bicentennial of our Diocese with a timeline, a glaring error was the omission of any mention of Ohio’s history of ministry to the Deaf community. That summer, Archive Intern Grace Comley and I sat down for a visit with Patricia Cangelosi-Williams and Charles Williams at St. Paul’s, Cleveland Heights and were given a gracious introduction about Ohio’s connection to this important ministry. Our ears were opened to the story of some amazing pioneer priests and people. I am grateful to Pat and Charles for their generosity of spirit, their stories, and the loan of a history of ministry to the Deaf in The Episcopal Church which led me to the discovery of several important holdings in our own diocesan archives.

Of particular note for us in Ohio is the life and ministry of the Rev. Austin Ward Mann born on December 16, 1841 in Pendelton, IN. He was a true pioneer growing up in a log cabin and assisting his parents with farming. At the age of five, an attack of scarlet fever left him deaf and quite lame. At the age of nine, he entered the Indiana School for Deaf-Mutes and graduated eight years later. In 1867, he became a teacher at the Michigan State School for the Deaf. In 1872, the same year the Episcopal Society known as the Church Mission for DeafMutes was incorporated, Mann acquired a lay reader’s license to work with the graduates of the Michigan School. By his own admission, it was the Book of Common Prayer which brought him into The Episcopal Church. He was so successful in this endeavor that in 1875 he was convinced to devote himself wholly to church work. On January 24, 1877, Mann was ordained a deacon by Bishop Gregory Bedell at Grace Church, Cleveland. On October 14 of the same year, Bishop Bedell ordained Mann to the sacred order of priests at the Church of the Covenant in Philadelphia, PA. He was ordained alongside of another deaf man, Henry Winter Syles, who was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop William B. Stevens. Their ordinations took place exactly halfway through the General Convention meeting in Boston, MA. It must be noted that this was a time when a number of bishops, clergy, and laity disagreed with the actions of Bishops Bedell and Stevens believing “the ancient and wornout rabbinical doctrine respecting the physical perfection of those who minister at the altar.” But the qualifications of Mann and Syles for ordained ministry and the sufficiency of sign language to convey the intent of the words of Christ in the act of consecration changed minds and hearts over the next season or two in the church.

In the Diocese of Ohio Archives we are blessed to have the pastoral/liturgical journals from Mann’s almost 40 year vocation as an itinerant missionary priest to the deaf. Mann served as the only priest for the Mid-Western District of the Church Missions to Deaf-Mutes which was headquartered at Cleveland, Ohio. His title was General Missionary in Charge.

On October 7, 1910, in an address to the Joint Houses of the 43rd General Convention meeting at the Music Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, “The Rev. A. W. Mann presented his report on the work among Deaf Mutes.” A notation of this can be found in the Journal of the 1910 General Convention available in electronic form on the website for the Archives of The Episcopal Church. We are so very fortunate to have the original typewritten manuscript in our Diocesan Archives.

Mann was received by Presiding Bishop Daniel Tuttle and sat with his hands crossed on his cane and his eyes lowered while his report was read “by the strong tones of the Reverend Thomas Irving Reese of Columbus.”

The following excerpt from this report reveals a full, rich, and demanding ministry:

“My work has been that of a pioneer. For nearly forty years as a layreader, deacon, and priest to the deaf mutes I have represented the ‘voiceless ministry’ at general and diocesan conventions, of teachers and graduates, from one end of the United States to the other; and in Canada, Great Britain and Ireland–more than a hundred conventions in all. I have crossed the great Middle West in all directions hundreds of times... All the Missions in the Middle West have been founded by me. For years I labored alone...this field has been divided four times and still there is work for more. Years have been spent in day and night travel between missions hundreds of miles apart.” [Most of this travel occurred by train and it is beyond belief to imagine that during these years of travel Mann was involved in no less than six train wrecks and escaped unscathed each  time.] “Only eight Sundays a year are spent at home. These are days of work at the Cleveland mission.” [The Cleveland Mission was St. Agnes which was named for Mann’s only daughter, Agnes, who died in infancy.] “A vacation has been taken only twice. Much time is given to the details of missionary tours, to correspondence with bishops, rectors, and others. Over 300 of my annual reports to bishops may be found in convention journals, from the Alleghenies to the Missouri River.”

The Rev. Otto Berg in his seminal work A Missionary Chronicle: Being a History of the Ministry to the Deaf in the Episcopal Church (1850-1980) offers these statistics based on Mann’s records: “His life was a constant journey, and he was tireless in his travels. He held over 6,000 mission services in 438 different parishes; baptized 1,062 persons, presented over 500 candidates for confirmation, solemnized 114 marriages; wrote 600 reports to various bishops; and carried on correspondence consisting of at least 75,000 letters and postcards."

Berg offers a wonderful concluding “synopsis” of Mann’s ministry saying, “The essence of Mr. Mann’s work, however, cannot be summarized in statistical figures. He was an intensely spiritual man, never ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and powerful in preaching the Word of God. The humble and heroic were blended in his nature.” He died at the age of 69 at the Union Railroad Station in Columbus, OH in the midst of his duties on January 21, 1911. At the time of his death, he was the senior priest with canonical residence in our diocese. His Requiem Eucharist was held at Grace Church, Cleveland where he had been ordained a deacon 34 years before on the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25). In the absence of Bishop Leonard, the Rt. Rev. Charles Williams, Bishop of the Diocese of Michigan (and former Dean of Trinity Cathedral), presided. Mann’s earthly remains were interred at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, OH. His grave is marked by a marker on which is a simple life size cross with his name and the words “A Priest in the P. E. Church and a Minister to Deaf Mutes thirty six years.”

Among the missions which Mann founded in our diocese were St. Martin’s, Toledo; Emmanuel, Youngstown; Grace Church, Akron; Epiphany, Canton; and the aforementioned St. Agnes, Cleveland. Each of these congregations served the Deaf in their communities well for a season. For the purpose of this brief retrospective we will focus on St. Agnes.

In 1925, after serving in house churches and host churches since its founding in 1909, the Chapel of St. Agnes Mission for the Deaf was purchased for $12,000. Several faithful clerics and scores of faithful lay persons served this congregation. In 1974, the Rev. Jay Croft, under the guidance of the Rt. Rev. John Burt, became responsible for St. Agnes while also having charge over the missions in Akron, Canton, and Toledo. Throughout the years, St. Agnes Mission for the Deaf was an active member of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf. The members of St. Agnes hosted the 1977 national conference at St. Thomas, Berea as well as at Baldwin Wallace College where participants were treated to a signed performance of the musical “My Fair Lady!”

Members of St. Agnes Mission were actively and fully involved in diocesan activities including Diocesan Convention, the Disabilities Outreach Network (D.O.N. - organized and supported by Penny Moodey), and the annual Boar’s Head Festival at Trinity Cathedral.

St. Agnes Mission for the Deaf took up residence with the congregation at St. Philip the Apostle in 1972. After a season in the wider church, spanning over 100 years, St. Agnes closed in 2002 and was feted at Diocesan Convention. That same year, the congregation from St. Agnes was invited to join St. Paul’s, Cleveland Heights, where they now worship on Sundays at 9:00 a.m. For special diocesan services and events at St. Paul’s, ASL interpreters are present in cooperation with Deaf Services of Cleveland, Inc. Long time St. Agnes member Charles Williams joined The Episcopal Church in 1952 because he wanted the benefit of a Deaf priest. He continues to worship with the congregation at St. Paul’s along with his spouse, Patricia Cangelosi-Williams, an ASL interpreter, who frequently signs for special services and events in our wider diocese. In addition to beloved clergy, the Deaf community, in recent memory, have worked with Bishops Tucker, Burroughs, Burt, Moodey, Grew, and Hollingsworth as well as assisting Bishops Davidson, Williams, Bowman, and Persell.

As we live into the next 200 years of God’s mission and ministry let us give thanks not only for those faithful laborers with the Deaf community who came before us but for those who currently travel the Way with us as bearers of the Gospel Good News that God loves us. “No Exceptions
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