Chrissy Camello and her daughters are among the community who enjoy the services provided by the John Pierce Centre (JPC) in Prahran. Chrissy grew up in the Philippines, which she says ‘was sometimes challenging for a Deaf person’. As an 18-year old, she came across the JPC by chance as she was walking down the street while holidaying in Melbourne. ‘I was able to go in and find out more about the centre. It was such a blessing to find the JPC.’

Chrissy moved to Melbourne when she was 20 years old and started learning Auslan straight away. Growing up as a Deaf person in the Philippines, there weren’t a lot of supports for her. ‘Coming to Australia has meant more opportunities for study and work, which is great,’ she says. ‘Learning Auslan was important so that I could access Auslan interpreters to communicate with people in the community.’

Being Deaf and using Auslan is my culture, and it is important that I can share that with others like me. JPC provides a great space for getting together.

Chrissy has now been involved at the JPC for 23 years, regularly attending the monthly Masses. Following her studies, she began working as a baker, which she really enjoys. She also has three ‘beautiful daughters’, who keep her busy. ‘Being involved with the JPC church means that I am involved in the Deaf community and can access different events and workshops,’ she says. ‘I have also been involved in Signee Tots playgroup and counselling support services. The JPC is always there to support me when I need [it].’

The JPC is a culturally safe space for Deaf people, who often visit for assistance, referrals and support. Chrissy says, ‘We can come and get the support we need as well as meet other Deaf people to socialise with. Being Deaf and using Auslan is my culture, and it is important that I can share that with others like me. JPC provides a great space for getting together.’

She says it’s ‘worth’ coming into Prahran from the outer western suburbs for Mass services, as they are provided in Auslan, which means she can understand the readings, homilies and prayers. They also have baptisms, weddings, funerals and other sacraments at the JPC.

I feel comfortable being with other Deaf people because we have a shared lived experience, we understand each other, and we can communicate freely.

‘Just last year, one of my daughters was able to come for classes and gain her first Holy Communion. I enjoy coming in with my family for Christmas and Easter celebrations, which are big events for the community.

‘JPC is special because it is a centre designed for the Deaf community. It is a big, open space so that we can easily communicate with each other in Auslan. I feel comfortable being with other Deaf people because we have a shared lived experience, we understand each other, and we can communicate freely.

‘JPC staff know what information is relevant to Deaf people, so we get the right information for us. Other churches don’t provide interpreters, and often Deaf people feel left out.’

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Chrissy with her daughters at JPC’s anniversary celebrations.

Celebrating 100 years

In May, members of the Catholic Deaf community in Victoria gathered at the JPC recently to celebrate its 100th anniversary of foundation. A special celebratory Mass was held on Pentecost Sunday, followed by an annual general meeting and lunch, providing an opportunity to remember the long history of Deaf Catholics and share stories.

Gail Finn—who is Deaf and who worked at the JPC for many years and was involved in the Catholic Association for the Deaf in Melbourne—gave a presentation, along with Missionary Sister of Service Bernadette Wallis, who also worked at the JPC and is a CODA (child of Deaf adults). JPC Auslan (Australian Sign Language) interpreter and Communications Coordinator Teresa Paulet says it was fitting that the anniversary celebrations took place on Pentecost Sunday. ‘It fits with the idea of people having gifts of languages to share faith,’ she says. ‘Having access to Auslan is an integral part of our everyday operations at JPC, and it’s vital to the Deaf community.’

The story of Deaf Catholics in Australia goes back over 100 years. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic families who immigrated to Australia and who had deaf children wanted to educate their children in the Catholic faith. Catholic education for deaf children started with the Dominican Sisters in Adelaide in 1869. Later, in 1875, Sr Gabrielle Hogan, a Deaf Irish Dominican Sister, arrived in Newcastle, NSW, at a new school in Waratah, where she began teaching in the Irish Sign Language, which has a one-handed finger-spelling system.

In Victoria, many deaf students attended the Victorian Deaf and Dumb School in St Kilda, where they used British Sign Language, which has a two-handed finger-spelling system. Some Catholic families had children attend the local parish of St Mary’s in Windsor, in Melbourne’s inner-south, for Catholic faith development and education; others were sent to the School for the Deaf in Waratah, NSW.

Teresa explains that as these children grew up and became adults, demand grew for a social group for Catholic Deaf people who used the one-handed and Irish Sign Language systems. So in 1924, the first Victorian Catholic organisation for Deaf people was established: the Catholic Deaf and Dumb Association in Victoria. Over the years, this group would undergo several name changes, but its aim of providing a place of gathering and social connection for people who are Deaf in Melbourne has not changed.

In 1936, Fr John Pierce—who had a deaf niece—was appointed as Victoria’s first full-time chaplain to the Deaf community, and the first Ephpheta Mass was celebrated in 1940. ‘Ephpheta means “be open” and is linked to a Bible story about a deaf man that Jesus heals and is made to hear again,’ says Teresa. ‘The Ephpheta Mass is still celebrated every year in August at the JPC.’

Together we can share in language and faith, and weave a strong connection within our community where people are able to grow and thrive.

In 1948, Fr John Pierce found a property for a school—St Mary’s in Portsea—and the Dominican Sisters ran this first Catholic Deaf school. For many years, Fr Pierce also led Mass at Jolimont Chapel in East Melbourne, where the old Deaf Club was.

In 1980, the John Pierce Centre, as it is now known, was officially opened and continues to serve the Deaf community of Victoria and beyond. People gather for Mass each month, for social gatherings, and for access to the sacraments and pastoral support.

Executive manager of the JPC, Sophie Duncan, says, ‘Having access to Auslan/Sign Language social groups and faith groups is integral for the Deaf community. Together we can share in language and faith, and weave a strong connection within our community where people are able to grow and thrive. It was a lovely day of community coming together to celebrate 100 years of connection and faith.’

The services provided by JPC are unique and free. It is the only centre that provides services specifically for the Deaf Catholic community, including pastoral care.

Chrissy says, ‘I hope JPC is supported to keep going for many years to come because I don’t know what many Deaf people would do without it.’

Find out more about the John Pierce Centre for the Deaf.

Banner image: Chrissy with her daughters at JPC’s anniversary celebrations. All photos courtesy of Teresa Paulet, JPC.