As you enter the door to St. Paul’s chapel, if you glance to your right, you will notice a brass plaque, one of only two from the Lancaster Street building to be displayed in our present church home.
You may be touched, as I have been, by this memorial to the first deaf person ordained in this diocese, and one whose ministry, both lay and ordained, was connected with this parish.
When Harry Van Allen came to his first service at St. Paul’s in 1894, he had already accomplished much for a young man of twenty-eight. Deaf since the age of ten as a result of scarlet fever, Van Allen had first attended the school for the deaf in Oneida County, and then the institution now known as Gallaudet University. He had taught printing for three years at the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (where he also served as editor of their newspaper, Mt. Airy World), and had worked as a printer in several central New York cities. But Harry Van Allen had a vocation as well as a career. Since his days in Philadelphia, he had served as a lay reader in Episcopal churches, conducting Bible classes for the deaf. In 1894, he was appointed missionary to the deaf by the Albany diocese’s newly-organized Commission for Church Work Among Deaf-mutes, whose secretary was St. Paul’s rector, Freeborn G. Jewett.
Van Allen moved his young family from Johnstown to Albany, obtained a job at Riggs Publishing and Printing, and began an energetic round of visits to churches throughout the diocese, leading classes and conducting services. Just as important, in a period when deaf people were isolated, Van Allen’s services drew them together for mutual support and encouragement. Van Allen also provided practical assistance not otherwise available, including translating, counseling, and help in finding jobs.
To add to a schedule that few of us could maintain, Harry Van Allen also began to study theology and church history and applied to Bishop Doane as a candidate for ordination. The bishop at first rejected his application, but after discussions at the General Convention of 1895 decided to accept him as a postulant. Harry Van Allen was ordained deacon in 1898 (with the recommendation of St. Paul’s vestry) and priest in 1902.
Through these years, Harry Van Allen was listed in the Albany City directory as “missionary and printer,” as he continued his printing job during the week and on Sundays traveled across the diocese. In 1900 he added the Central New York diocese to his responsibilities and shortly afterwards moved his family to Utica. In 1916 he also took on Western New York, extending his mission field from Albany to Buffalo and from Ogdensburg to Binghamton.
At a celebration of the twenty-fifth year of his missionary efforts held at St. Paul’s just a few months before his death, Harry Van Allen estimated that in those years he had traveled 150,000 miles and reached more than 1,500 deaf men and women. We see him in the final photograph as he must have often stood, overnight bag in hand, about to board another train or interurban car, heading off yet again to serve “the deaf to whom he ministered.”