Have Faith: The Island’s historical deaf community

Martha’s Vineyard could be held as an example of the best we can be.

Molly Sturges and Dr. David Martin at the Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday. — Connie Berry

The Unitarian Universalist Church welcomed a special guest last Sunday, Dr. David Martin, former dean of the School of Education at Gallaudet University, a higher-education institution for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington, D.C. By coincidence, the music at the service was provided by pianist Molly Sturges, who was filling in for the church’s music director, Emily Anderson, that day. Sturges’ mother’s name is Gallaudet, and her great-great grandfather, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, founded the first school for deaf students in the U.S. in Hartford, Conn. His son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, became the university’s first superintendent, and the school was eventually named after his father.

To make things even more interesting, we were told during the service that Sturges had planned to go to Washington, D.C., that weekend to explore some of those Gallaudet family connections, but instead stayed on the Island and filled in for Emily.

Not only is Martin an accomplished professor with degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Boston College, he’s also a member of the Cape Cod Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. (He and his wife Susan retired to Marstons Mills in 2001.) He played the UU church’s historic Hook and Hastings pipe organ during the service, sharing music duties with Sturges.

Even the songs chosen had meaning last Sunday; Sturges played “Try,” a song written by a deaf performer on “America’s Got Talent” a couple of years ago. Excerpts from Nora Ellen Groce’s book, “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language,” were read aloud. The book chronicles the deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard, where from the 17th century to the early 20th century, the Island population included a high incidence of hereditary deafness. Not surprisingly, in this special place the deaf population was integrated seamlessly into the community, which certainly wasn’t the case in the rest of the U.S. Here, both deaf and hearing Islanders grew up using sign language, uncharacteristically breaking down communication barriers. Martin thinks this history has a lot to teach the rest of the world about human rights. “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language” makes it clear, he said, that the attitudes of the people and their ability to communicate with one another meant there was no language barrier and, by extension, no social barrier between the hearing and deaf members of the Island community. In other words, the Island provided a sort of organic inclusion model, with no distinction made between the deaf and the hearing population. “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language” is required reading for first-term graduate students at Gallaudet, Martin said.

In his talk Martin went through the history of deafness in society, and the belief that the deaf would not be able to learn because they could not hear.

“Alexander Graham Bell was a strong advocate of the oral method,” Martin said. Decades ago, they would tie the hands of deaf students behind their backs, forcing them to read lips instead of using sign language, and marriage for deaf persons was prohibited in the past.

On Martha’s Vineyard, hereditary deafness was passed from a family who arrived here from Kent, England, Martin explained. By 1854 the instance of deafness off-Island was 1 in 5,700, Martin said, but on the Island the number was 1 in 155 people. In Chilmark it was 1 in 25, and “on Squibnocket, it was 1 in 4,” he said.

“It was a community where deaf people and hearing people could go back and forth,” Martin said. The Island is held up as an example of what could be an ideal environment for deaf people, Martin said.

One of the takeaways from this history of the deaf community on the Vineyard is to look at life through the eyes of those who have special needs, who are marginalized or excluded for any reason, and see things through those eyes, he said.

Martin’s talk was an eye-opener itself for reminding everyone of the good we’re capable of.



The Lenten season in the Christian tradition begins next week, with Ash Wednesday on March 6. The “end” of this time culminates in Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, which is April 21 this year. The 40 days of Lent represent the 40 days Jesus was in the desert leading up to his death by crucifixion. (Sundays don’t count when you add up the days.) This is inevitably the time of year when Christians think about “giving something up for Lent.” I’ve tried giving up everything from ice cream to cursing to coffee to beer over the years. Instead of feeling like I’m on a journey with Jesus as he suffered in the desert, I just count the days until Lent is over and I can get back to my various vices.

This year, instead of giving something up, I’m going to try to do something positive, like be grateful for every single day that I manage to wake up. Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at how often I forget to do this.


Island churches will commemorate the beginning of this important season by the distribution of ashes next Wednesday. Grace Church in Vineyard Haven celebrates Shrove Tuesday, March 5, the day before Lent begins, with a Pancake Supper from 5 to 7 pm. Then Ash Wednesday services are held at 8 am, 12 noon, and 6 pm.

At St. Augustine’s Church on Ash Wednesday, there will be 8 am Mass, a 12 noon service, a 6 pm service, and a 7 pm service in Portuguese.

St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown offers a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper at 5:30 pm, and the imposition of ashes at 12 pm and 6 pm on Ash Wednesday.


The Federated Church in Edgartown, 45 South Summer St., celebrates National Women’s History Month on Sunday, March 3, with a special Sunday service at 10:30 am. The program is titled “A New Look at Biblical Women.” The lives of the women of the Bible are often hidden, the church’s press release says, and sometimes these women aren’t named at all. “At other times, they are given subservient roles,” the release says. “Many times, they rise up as brave or compassionate, daunting or enduring, patient or restless. They have dared to do what men did not or would not. They have led armies, outlasted suffering, and have reached out to grasp what others thought was not theirs to have.” You’ll hear about these women if you come to the service.

On Tuesday, March 5, at 5:30 pm, celebrate Mardi Gras (a.k.a. Shrove Tuesday) at the Federated Church. All are invited to a family time and a free supper of gumbo, dirty rice, pralines, and King Cake.

On Ash Wednesday, March 6, the church offers a 12 pm service, and ashes will be given to those who would like them.

On Sunday March 10, the First Sunday of Lent, Tom Hallahan, executive director of Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, will speak at the 10:30 am service This is the eighth in a series of Federated Church Community Partners programs. All are welcome to attend.

Call 508-627-4421, or email officefederatedchurchmv@gmail.com for more information.



The next Neighborhood Convention is also hosted at the Federated Church on Tuesday, March 5, at 11 am. The Rev. Sharon Eckhardt will lead worship, and the speaker will be Karen Tewhey, who will talk about Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard. You’re invited to bring a bag lunch; drinks are provided by the host church.

If you have news for “Have Faith,” please email it to connie@mvtimes.com.