Saturday, August 27

How beautiful the hands

While wandering around Washington, D.C. this week (between earthquakes and hurricanes) I couldn't help but notice the beautiful hands on the Abraham Lincoln memorial.

Monument theorists have suggested that the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Statue is using sign language to represent the letters A (left hand) and L (right hand). The National Park Service says this is an urban legend, but historian Gerald Prokopowicz writes that it is possible that sculptor Daniel Chester French intended Lincoln's hands to be formed into sign language versions of his initials.

French was familiar with American Sign Language since he had a deaf son and he would have had a reason to pay tribute to Lincoln for signing the federal legislation giving Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf, the authority to grant college degrees.

Coincidentally, the Episcopal Church remembers two important leaders for the deaf today in Holy Women, Holy Men.

Thomas Gallaudet was born in 1822, in Hartford, Connecticut. His mother, Sophia was deaf, and his father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, was the founder of the West Hartford School for the deaf, which was the principal institution for the education of the deaf in America from 1806 to 1857 (the year of the founding of Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C.). The father had intended to become a priest, but had become an educator of the deaf instead. The son also intended to seek ordination, but was persuaded by his father to work for a while first as a teacher of the deaf. He did, and so met and married Miss Elizabeth Budd, who was deaf. He was ordained in 1851, and the next year established St. Ann's Church in New York, especially for deaf persons, with services primarily in sign language. As a result of his work, congregations for the deaf were established in many cities. (Alternatively, some congregations that are mostly hearing will have someone standing near the front and signing the service for the benefit of deaf parishioners.) Gallaudet died Aug. 27, 1902.

One of Gallaudet's students and parishioners was Henry Winter Syle, deaf from an early age, who had attended Trinity College (Hartford, Conn), St. John's (Cambridge, England), and Yale. Gallaudet encouraged him to become a priest, and in 1876 he became the first deaf person to be ordained by the Episcopal Church in the United States. He established a congregation for the deaf in 1888, and died Jan. 6, 1890.

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