On Saturday 27th June 2022 over three hundred past pupils along with six Daughters of Charity gathered in the Mercure St Paul’s and Spa Hotel, Sheffield to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the establishment of St John’s School for the Deaf. The event should have taken place in 2020 but because of the COVID pandemic had to be deferred. It was a wonderful reunion filled with warmth and a real sense of “family”. The next day Fr Paul Fletcher SJ, (who also attended St John’s as a pupil), celebrated Mass in St Marie’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, just down the road from the hotel, to thank God for all the blessings of the past 150 years.
Here is a brief history of the beginnings of St John’s. In June 1870 St John’s Catholic School for the Deaf was founded in Handsworth, Sheffield by Monsignor Desire de Haerne, a Catholic Priest from Belgium. Monsignor de Haerne was the Head of the Royal Deaf and Dumb Institute in Belgium and he travelled the world extensively, promoting education for deaf children. He had visited England in 1869, and had been concerned by the small number of institutions providing education for deaf children in comparison to the provision in other European countries. In particular he was concerned that there was no specific education for deaf Catholic children, with many of them being educated in non-Catholic asylums or receiving no education at all.
When he returned to Belgium in December 1869, Monsignor de Haerne brought with him two English deaf girls, to educate at his school in Brussels. The girls were under the tuition of Miss Lydia Edwards, who was to train as a teacher of articulation at the Royal Institute in Belgium. The following year, with the support of the Catholic Church in England, Monsignor de Haerne opened St John’s Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, a Catholic school which would also accept pupils of other denominations. The two girls who had gone to Belgium, Catherine Mooney and Joanna Connell, became the first pupils with Miss Edwards as the Directress. As well as providing a Catholic education, the other objective was to teach them household work and to prepare them for trades, the ultimate aim being that, having attended St John’s, they would leave school able to find employment and to take their place in society.
The new school was to be based in Sheffield, as the Sheffield Union had paid the school fees for one of the girls when they went to Brussels, and Sheffield was considered to be a central point in England and Scotland. The school, which was an oral school, was named after St John of Beverley who, legend has it, taught a deaf and dumb boy to speak. Many deaf schools around the world share this name for the same reason, although they have no connection to St John’s in Boston Spa.
By September 1870 the school had six pupils, prompting Monsignor de Haerne to approach the Order of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, with whom he already worked in Brussels, to take over its running and administration. Some of the Daughters of Charity had trained under his guidance, and four of them moved to England to run the school, with a number of them taking up vocations as teachers of the deaf. They brought five orphans with them and the school continued to grow until, by the end of 1874, the school in Handsworth, which was a rented cottage designed for 12, accommodated 41 pupils. Monsignor de Haerne approached the Bishop of Leeds for help in finding larger premises, and a house was found which had formerly been a school for gentlemen’s sons. Collections and legacies enabled Monsignor de Haerne to buy Boston Spa College, and the school moved from Sheffield to its present site in Boston Spa in 1875. And, as they say, …. the rest is history!