Sr M. Gabriel Hogan
Religious Name: Gabriel
Date of Death: November 25, 1915
Resting Place: Sandgate Cemetery Newcastle
ELLEN HOGAN (Sr M. Gabriel) 1844-1915
The Power of a Silent Life
In July 1875, a tiny Irish woman disembarked in Sydney from the Ellora. Ellen Hogan was deaf, but despite her disability, or perhaps because of it, this indomitable lady, then aged thirty-one, was destined for an uncommon greatness. She is remembered with reverence and deep affection as Sister Mary Gabriel, founder of an education system for the deaf that would become internationally renowned. Not a word did she speak, but the power of her communication skills and her ability to hand these on to young people who lived in the then separate world of the ‘deaf and dumb’, were her gift. Furthermore Sr M. Gabriel broke down barriers with hearing people to such an extent that she readily obtained the patronage necessary to create a viable, life-giving institution for those who could not ‘speak’ for themselves.
Ellen Hogan was born in Dublin in August 1842. Her parents were John Hogan and Mary McMahon. At about age eight, Ellen contracted Scarletina and its high fevers left her profoundly deaf from about 1850. Early years of hearing gave her language on which to build when the spoken word could no longer reach her. Ellen began at St Mary’s Dominican School for the Deaf, Cabra, on 1 December 1851 and she was appointed an assistant teacher in 1856, aged just thirteen. Two letters survive, written in 1862, attesting to her fine style of writing, both in English and French. She remained at Cabra until 2 October 1864.
Ellen wished to devote her life to God, but deafness seemed too great an obstacle, as she could not take part in the liturgical requirements of nuns, nor could she pronounce her vows publically. Pope Pius IX was consulted, and readily approved of her being accepted. She took vows as Sr M. Gabriel in the hands of Cardinal Cullen of Dublin, on 26 August 1867, the first religious Sister with a disability permitted to take solemn vows.
In 1871, Patrick Sullivan, from Rock Forest, approached St Mary’s Convent, Maitland NSW. He asked for a Catholic education for his daughter. This was no ordinary request since twelve year old Catherine was deaf. The twenty-eight Sisters in Maitland were sympathetic and some, having attended the neighbouring high school in Dublin, were familiar with the Irish one-handed signing. They accepted Catherine and immediately wrote to their Sisters in Ireland asking for a trained teacher to be sent to NSW.
When the call came to Cabra, Sr M. Gabriel volunteered. On arrival in NSW, she was sent to ‘Star of the Sea’ Convent Newcastle where Catherine, now sixteen, and Elizabeth Rewault, aged ten, awaited her. Numbers grew slowly. Only thirty were admitted 1875-1885. Sr M. Gabriel and her young pupils worked in a small cottage on the property.
By 1886 increasing numbers and limited space required a new school, and a new image. Sr M. Gabriel wrote to Cardinal Moran and asked that he and the bishops take a serious look at the number of Catholic deaf children in the wider community who were not receiving a Catholic education. New pupils arrived from all States and New Zealand. Suitable land was found in Waratah, Newcastle and a beautiful building erected by the Sisters, fully supported by the Australian Catholic Hierarchy. Sister ran the school, and designed much of the new building, but needed others to be its public face. Sr M. Columba Dwyer joined Sr M. Gabriel in 1889 and was trained by her, alongside other capable deaf students, like Marianne Hanney, early boarder and great friend.
A congress of teachers of the deaf in Milan in 1880 decided that all schools for the deaf should use oralism – that is, lip reading, speech reading and writing. Deaf education had consisted of pure manualism – sign language, fingerspelling, writing and reading. For many years the battle of the methods had raged throughout the deaf world and continues today. Sr M. Gabriel, was informed by the Bishop in 1892 that a new teacher, Sr M. Mechtilde Corcoran, an Irish Sister, trained in oralism in England, would be joining the staff. In the Waratah Report of 1888 Sr M. Gabriel made her opinion of oralism quite clear
We are not convinced of the advisability, or of the advantage, of devoting the limited time allowed for the education of the Deaf and Dumb to the slow and in most cases, the unsatisfactory process of teaching them to articulate a certain number of words or sentences. These must serve them for all the purposes through life. For the accomplishment of this very doubtful feat then to neglect to cultivate their minds with the vast amount of useful information they might acquire, by reading and explanation, in their natural language of sign.
Sr M. Gabriel appealed to the Bishop to allow manualism to remain the preferred method in the school. Such was her passion that she expressed a desire to return to Ireland if oralism was introduced. The Bishop did not change his mind, wrote that he would accept whatever decision she took, and pay her fare home if necessary. Sr M. Gabriel stayed with her deaf children. For the next twenty years speech was taught to some of the children. Oralism was not adopted fully until the 1950s.
In 1910 Sister’s general health broke down. Her friend and fellow teacher, Marianne Hanney remained by her side as nurse and constant companion. Sr M. Gabriel and Marianne travelled to Sydney in 1914 one last time for a reunion with former pupils. The 1915 Report recalled the event:
During the second week of January, Sr M. Gabriel who has ... since 1875 guided the destinies of Catholic deaf mutes in Australasia was able, though in a weak state of health, to spend a week at the Dominican Convent Strathfield for the purpose of seeing, and instructing her old children who came out to see her several times. ... to receive the parting words of advice, encouragement and consolation from the hands of their beloved friend.
Sr M. Gabriel, surrounded by her Sisters, Marianne and others of her pupil friends, died on 25 November 1915, and was buried in Sandgate Cemetery, Newcastle, deeply mourned. The Report of 1915 included an extract from her eulogy:
She came to labour for those similarly afflicted to herself, and began in a humble but earnest way the great work of hidden worth, which she continued almost to her last earthly hours. She was in all truth a messenger of glad tidings to such of the Catholic Deaf mutes as sought her services. All her thoughts and interests in life were for her silent children, who looked to her as a mother, and sought her counsel and guidance long after their years of school-life had passed away. To her life-work – the education of the Deaf and Dumb – Sr M. Gabriel was ever a pillar of light and strength, one whose place many cannot fill – whose work many can scarce do ... Though Sr M. Gabriel is no longer amongst us as the guide and inspiration of her cherished work, we cannot but feel that she still watches over it and obtains manifold blessings for her children and for their teachers, whom she has left to continue the struggle...
Today there are no more institutions. Deaf people are no longer considered dumb. Hearing aids, cochlear implants and Auslan have changed profoundly a person with hearing loss’s engagement with the hearing world. Dominicans still support deaf education. Teachers of the deaf learn of the pioneering work of the tiny deaf Irish Sister who left homeland, friends and family hoping to make a difference in the lives of those who shared her disability. The senior deaf community continue to use the Irish signs, and identify proudly with the heritage given them by Sr M. Gabriel. Her story has been passed on, and her name reverenced because Sr M. Gabriel’s love for her students was legendary and she taught them that disability is not a handicap to becoming a person whose life has meaning.