Fr. Cyril Axelrod is a UK-based South African Roman Catholic priest and author. He reportedly can speak nine languages and can communicate with the deaf and blind in others. The first-ever practicing deafblind priest in the world, he is based at the Our Lady of Hal parish in Camden Town in the Archdiocese of Westminster, where he administers the Archdiocesan ministry for the deaf, blind and deafblind.
Cyril Axelrod was born profoundly deaf into an Orthodox Jewish family in South Africa in 1942. No one else in his family is hearing-impaired. There were few facilities for the deaf in those days in South Africa, but he was sent to St Vincent's School for the Deaf in Johannesburg.
This experience helped impel him towards becoming a Roman Catholic in 1965, aged 23, but has reportedly continued to preside at Passover meals and at other Jewish ceremonies.
He studied philosophy and psychology in the United States. One day at Mass he noticed some deaf people there were completely missing out what the priest was saying. "That was when I decided to become a priest", he said. Following studies at St. John Vianney's Seminary in Pretoria he was ordained in 1970.
He began his ministry in South Africa with deaf and deafblind people using over eight indigenous sign languages. Defying apartheid, he established a multi-racial school for deaf children in Soweto, a hostel for deaf homeless people in Pretoria, and an employment centre in Cape Town. He also made pastoral visits to Europe, America and Asia.
In 1979, he received the devastating diagnosis of Usher syndrome which meant that he was gradually going to go completely blind. Undeterred, he continued his work and in 1988 traveled to Macau, where he set up many projects including a centre for deaf children, the Macau Deaf Association, and a deaf social service centre.
Father Cyril arrived in the United Kingdom in 2000. As his sight faded he learned new skills to help him prepare for his new situation. By 2001 he had lost all his sight.
Describing himself as a "modern hermit" he has his own flat and copes independently doing his own cooking and housework. Braille on his phone, computer and doorbell enable him to communicate with the world. On a trip to Lourdes some time ago a friend asked him to pray for sight, however the balding Axelrod "told him [his friend] I would pray for hair. Sometimes I feel as though I've been born upside down."
He has celebrated Mass for the deaf and visually-impaired at Our Lady of Hal. At Westminster Cathedral he is trying to develop awareness among sighted and hearing people to create an outreach service for diabled people to help integrate them more into the community.
- I want a world where people are integrated, not separate.
- "..My mission to parishes is to open hope and faith that the deafblind persons receive God's message through the kindness of sighted people and that they learn to enjoy the gift of communication with them."
Fr. Axelrod authored And the Journey Begins (ISBN 0 946252-55-6).
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