On 15 May 1864, for the first time in the Institute, a deaf postulant entered the novitiate at Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre when he received the religious habit. Others imitated him: there were 14 deaf Brothers in the 19th century and as many in the 20th. Apparently no other Institute in the world has ever admitted any deaf candidate. Not even the Daughters of Wisdom. They do have deaf Sisters but they belong to a parallel Institute, the oblates, which has its own government (there were 23 of them in 1998). Unlike them St Gabriel opted for complete integration of the deaf candidates. Br. Bernard Truffaut, who is deaf himself and therefore well placed to know the difficulty of the experience, has written, “It is a gamble to gather hearing and deaf people in one religious community.
I think that St Louis-Marie would have liked the idea, as he appointed a deaf woman as head of the small group of Sisters he had gathered in Poitiers. It is a wager because it is God’s wager to unite what is humanly irreconcilable.” In order to reduce the risk of isolation of the deaf Brothers, efforts have been made to appoint several of them to the same community, as far as possible.
Most deaf Brothers are former pupils of our schools for the deaf. Br. Jean-Marie Vianney is an exception: he had left the senior seminary and become deaf as a result of meningitis and had therefore to give up the idea of becoming a priest.
The early deaf Brothers were allowed to teach classes of deaf people, as did Br. Isaac who spent nearly all his life at La Persagotiere. The Milan Congress held in 1880 banned teaching by signs and obliged the deaf Brothers to turn to other tasks. The more flexible use of oral teaching enabled them to resume teaching in the 20th century. For 40 years Br. Jean-Marie Vianney trained the senior pupils in the Bordeaux school for their vocational training qualification. In the Poitiers school Br. Tharcise taught carpentry, and at the school at St-Jean-de la-Ruelle Br. Eucher taught painting and technical drawing. Br. Eucher was himself a recognized artist whose paintings were chosen for exhibitions where they sold well. Bro Roch (who left the Institute in 1903) was another artist: he was the author of the paintings hanging in the assembly hall of the boarding school at Saint­ Laurent.
Other deaf Brothers engaged in manual work: housework, looking after the sacristy, bookbinding. Br. Antoni was a tailor all his life at Clavieres and Brussels. Among those who engaged in deskwork let us mention Br. Joachim Jouannic who died
in 1999 and was secretary of the FISAF (See 1st April), and also Br. Adrien who was highly valued: he made his novitiate with Br. Martial, who had fully mastered sign language and kept him as his private secretary for nearly 40 years.
The deaf Brothers in their dealings with other deaf persons in the schools and with former pupils of our schools have a great moral and spiritual influence.