On July 1, 1875, Austin Ward Mann, a deaf lay missionary held religious services in sign language for deaf people in the basement of St. James’ Church in Chicago, Illinois. From this service, a mission was founded in the city that would offer spiritual guidance, support, and gathering space to deaf people for over 100 years.
Across this period the Mission was served by at least three deaf ministers, meetings and events were led by a number of deaf lay readers, and members of the congregation supported the mission as members of the vestry and church guilds. Though the Mission had a solid foundation, for most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it lacked a physical structure.
Intermittent services were held in St. James, St. Clements, Trinity, and Grace Churches through the 1880s. In the 1890s Rev. Mann attempted to raise funds and support for a chapel and parish house. In 1908, Rev. George Flick moved to Chicago, expanding the Mission by initiating weekly services and organizing church agencies. Despite efforts by the Bishop and clergy to locate a suitable building the Mission continued to operate in borrowed chapels, basements, and meeting rooms until 1915. Under the sustained leadership of Flick, the Mission acquired St. John’s English Lutheran Church in January of that year. Renovations converted the building into a space suitable for the sensory preferences of clergy and laity and the Mission “flourished.” Fifteen years later, however, the congregation again [Flick, ‘Story of All Angels’ Mission’]. Once again, the mission was temporarily housed in borrowed church spaces in the city.
The challenges that the priests in charge of the deaf ministry in Chicago faced in the struggle to firmly plant the congregation are many; financial concerns, location, building size, maintenance, renovations, and the competition of Rev. Hasenstab’s Methodist ministry in the city. Larger historical trends also influenced the relocation of All Angels’ Mission to the Deaf, including attitudes toward deafness, barriers to employment, and ideas about race. These challenges, however, are echoed in the histories of Missions across the United States.
The challenge to the historian, however, is that the frequent movement of itinerant ministers and the relocation of missions results in a scattering of documents and materials related to this ministry across church and diocesan archives. For instance, Mann, a missionary with seemingly boundless energy, regularly offered services in six states. As the clergyman-in-charge of the midwest, he traveled by train using postcards and newspaper announcements to manage his schedule as he moved between missions, schools, and large deaf community events in the US, Canada, and the UK. His travel produced a particular type of historical record; reports that offer limited insight. The sacramental registers, pamphlets, guild reports, posters, and other documents that are associated with the activities of the church are noticeably missing.
Several sources refer to a detailed record book used by Mann. In his August 1906 report to the Diocese of Chicago, he wrote, “A record has been kept in a suitable book of 500 pages. The last page was filled a few days ago, and another book purchased. The records show upwards of 5,300 services held in 419 different parishes; nearly 1,000 baptisms and 900 confirmations.” [pg 12] This record book is invaluable, offering considerable insight into his activities across multiple dioceses. It is, however, also missing.
Despite efforts to locate this rich source of information about Mann’s activities, the record book remains elusive. Though the evidence of his ministry is abundant in diocesan archives across the country, none I’ve contacted have this book preserved in their holdings. Nor does the expansive archives at Gallaudet University. This challenge is not unique to the history of the Deaf Episcopal Ministry – historians struggle with a scarcity of sources from every time period and across many fields of interest. The difficulty is compounded, however, by the unique circumstances of this religious organization. Frequent movement makes preservation difficult without concerted effort. Given the divided attentions of the clergy, the distributed nature of the Episcopal church, financial burdens, and linguistic/cultural divisions, the records of clergy and congregation may not have been preserved by traditional means. For me, the search continues.