When I asked the world’s first recorded Deafblind priest whether he had ever prayed to God for physical healing he becomes more animated than at any other time in our interview. “No, no, no”, Fr Cyril Axelrod states emphatically, “My deafness and blindness are gifts from God. My prayer to Him is that I can help those who are not blind to see.”
It is a statement that epitomises this humble and joyous priest, who has shone the light of Christ into some of the darkest corners of the globe for over four decades.
Born deaf and afflicted with Usher’s Syndrome, a disease that caused his eyesight to gradually deteriorate in his adult years, Fr Cyril’s many achievements include advocating for the rights of deaf black children at the height of apartheid in South Africa and opening a doorway for deaf children in China who were once hidden away in shame from their communities.
The interview process itself reflects a microcosm of the challenges that face Fr Cyril each day as he travels the globe on a mission to open the eyes and ears of those who can see and hear.
With the use of two interpreters I was able to delve into the life and mind of an extraordinary individual who sees stepping stones where others see hurdles.
My questions to Fr Cyril would be conveyed by an Auslan interpreter to a Deaf interpreter who was holding Fr Cyril’s hands and would convey my questions to him using Tactile Sign language.
Fr Cyril would then communicate his answers to the Auslan interpreter who would verbalise them to me.
Father Cyril lives in darkness and in silence, yet it is these “gifts”, he says, that have allowed him to become a bridge between those who can hear and see and those who cannot. “Because of my own experience I am able to connect with people”, he explained. “I can share my own struggles of loneliness and isolation and help others to accept themselves as deaf and blind and to improve their attitude about self. I can also tell their parents that they should not be frightened – that they have been given a gift. Hopefully I can be the bridge that brings these worlds closer together.”
Born in South Africa in 1942 to poor Jewish parents, Fr Cyril’s journey is as unlikely as it is inspirational.
There were difficult early years as Abe and Yetta Axelrod came to terms with their only child’s deafness and the reality that communication between them would always be limited. At the time there were no schools for deaf Jewish children and his parents had to reluctantly send him to the only alternative – a Catholic school run by Dominican Sisters – knowing that this could jeopardise the continuation of their Jewish heritage.
Life at home was not always easy despite the love between Cyril and his parents as each struggled with the helplessness of the other to effectively express themselves.
It was a sensitivity that Cyril would later utilise in his interactions with families who faced similar difficulties. In his biography published in 2005, And the Journey Begins, Fr Cyril acknowledged that it was his parents struggle to communicate, their religious practice and their love and service without words that would later motivate him in his own call.
“They showed me that there can be communication without words and to me this is something beautiful, like God.”
Fr Cyril’s exposure to Catholicism did, as his parents feared, lead him to explore the faith more deeply, but only after he had been rejected in his effort to become a Rabbi because of his “disability”. He was 15, and his dreams were shattered.
He became confused about his religious identity, but a series of events, including a dream in which he was surrounded by a mysterious orange light, led him to discover more about the Catholic faith.
Fr Cyril describes how he visited a church and in a moment of revelation recognised the orange light shining through a stained-glass window.
“I knew it was God calling me to become a Catholic”, he recalls.
His decision led into another painful chapter in his journey as his mother refused to accept his decision. “If you become a Catholic; do not come and see me again”, she stated.
It was a painful choice, but Fr Cyril knew that God was calling him, not just to become Catholic, but to be ordained as a priest.
He was estranged from his mother for three years, before she accepted his decision.”I do not understand your faith”, she said to him, “But I accept it so long as you do God’s work with deaf people.” She attended his ordination in Johannesburg in 1970.
Father Cyril’s entry into the priesthood also opened the door to a world of injustice and poverty that he had been shielded from throughout his life.
He was shocked at the oppression inflicted under apartheid in all areas, including education and job opportunities and was particularly horrified at society’s neglect of black deaf Africans. It was an affront to the understanding of human dignity that had been moulded by his Jewish upbringing and confirmed by his new faith.
For the next 18 years Fr Cyril was assigned to various locations throughout South Africa where he battled government policy and officials and an ingrained attitude of discrimination to become a champion of some of the country’s most marginalised people.
Amongst his many projects he successfully campaigned for black deaf people to be taught in English and soon after was able to open a school for deaf children in Soweto as well as programs designed to bridge the communication and geographical gaps that were separating families.
He acknowledges that he encountered many difficulties in the pursuit of justice and recognition for those that had been forgotten by society, but his desire to assist the broader community in seeing the uniqueness and worth of each individual, and for those with deafness to recognise their own value, was a motivation that kept him going.
It was during this time that Fr Cyril realised that his eyesight was deteriorating. Following the typical symptoms of Usher’s Syndrome, tunnel vision began to slowly envelope the world around him. “I was like a good monk with my hood up”, he would later joke, but at the time he was completely devastated by the doctor’s diagnosis that he would eventually be totally blind. “It was like a light slowly going out, like a candle flame dwindling”, he described.
However the gradual deterioration allowed Fr Cyril to emotionally and practically prepare and adjust to his impending blindness. “It was a painful and distressing experience”, he shares. He went through a period of anger as he battled to accept what was happening, but eventually accepted that God had a plan for him and would provide everything that he would need. “God had used my deafness to reach out to those who are deaf’”, he explained during our interview, “I knew that He would also use my blindness for those who could not see”.
Once he accepted his blindness as a gift he used it to drive himself with even more vigour and passion, leading him into China to confront an underlying attitude of shame and guilt which dogged Deaf children throughout that country. Here he discovered children with deafness and blindness who were kept isolated from their communities because they were considered to be a burden and source of shame for the family.
Fr Cyril uses himself as an example to those he interacts with, showing them that disabilities do not have to be barriers for people to being effective and equal members of society. “I think that out of all the projects I have, the most important one is myself as a model”, he explains. By allowing others to see that his deafness and blindness were not hinderances to developing his unique skills and talents, he could become a living example of hope for them.
Not only did Fr Cyril become an Honorary Consultant for the Hong Kong Association for the blind, but he was also able to assist with the development of a Specialist Education Centre that would allow parents to spend time with their children and learn more effective ways to communicate with them.
In addition he was able to establish training courses to maximise the gifts of those with deafness and blindness and to assist the seeing community in recognising the uniqueness of each person with a disability.
Father Cyril, who currently lives independently in London, spent his time in Perth as a guest of the Emmanuel Centre, a Catholic self-help centre for people with disabilities and addressed numerous schools, disability services and deaf communities in his role as bridge-maker. He did not take long to recognise the need for improving disability services in Perth, stating that he hopes that one day he would have the opportunity to reside here to assist the Emmanuel Centre in the wonderful and effective ways in which they are providing services to deaf and blind people.
During our interview Fr Cyril passionately shared his views on two topics close to his heart – his visions of Inclusive Communities and Educational Empowerment. “We are all people of God and we belong to one community”, he expresses passionately. “Regardless of whether we are hearing or deaf or have any other disability, we are all equal and must have the same rights to education and work. We need to understand each other’s differences, but not be frightened … we have to respect one another.”
It is a passion that has driven this globe-trotting priest as he seeks to open the eyes of those blinded by the disability of others. It is a mission that provides no shortage of challenges as he travels independently from country to country, but Fr Cyril is adamant that he is never on his own. “I thank God for the strength and faith He gives me”, he says. “Nothing is impossible…God makes everything possible for me”.