It Changed My Life

Born deaf, he heeds a higher calling

Rowland Yeo yesterday became the first hearing-impaired Catholic priest in South-east Asia

Above: Father Rowland Yeo, 58, (right) hugging Father John-Paul Tan, Order of Friars Minor, Chancellor (Chancery of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore), after he was ordained a priest yesterday. Left: Father Yeo built tables and chairs in hi
Father Rowland Yeo, 58, (right) hugging Father John-Paul Tan, Order of Friars Minor, Chancellor (Chancery of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore), after he was ordained a priest. ST PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, ALPHONSUS CHERN
Above: Father Rowland Yeo, 58, (right) hugging Father John-Paul Tan, Order of Friars Minor, Chancellor (Chancery of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore), after he was ordained a priest yesterday. Left: Father Yeo built tables and chairs in hi
Father Yeo built tables and chairs in his first job. ST PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, ALPHONSUS CHERN

Father Rowland Yeo was not, by any yardstick, dim or lazy, but he struggled with his studies in Mount Vernon Secondary School.

He was born deaf, and the mainstream school had no resource teachers to provide sign language interpretation for hearing-impaired students in the 1970s.

"It was frustrating because I could not always lip-read the teachers who moved and walked around the classroom," says the 58-year-old, typing out his feelings on a laptop.

After he repeated his Secondary 3 education, his school told him he was better off picking up a trade at the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB). On his father's advice, he enrolled in a furniture-making course.

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Rowland Yeo, who was born deaf, dropped out of Secondary 3 to study furniture making at the VITB. A meeting with a deaf priest from the US changed his life. Fr Tom Loughlin sponsored Yeo to study philosophy in Gallaudet University in Washington. The latter went on to study theology in the US and Philippines, join the Franciscan order and will become Southeast Asia's first deaf priest when he is ordained this Saturday.

However, building tables and chairs - which he did for a few years after graduating - did not become his vocation. A more spiritual calling beckoned, one which upended his life and took him to the United States, Peru, the Philippines and the region.

It involved getting out of his comfort zone and taking on odds which at times seemed insurmountable.

Yesterday morning marked another turning point in his life.

In a solemn ceremony at the Church of St Mary of the Angels in Bukit Batok, Catholic Archbishop William Goh invested him with, among other religious garments, the stole and chasuble and ordained him as a priest.

Father Yeo is now South-east Asia's first hearing-impaired Catholic priest, and one of only 22 such priests in the world.

In his quieter moments, the bearded and bespectacled priest cuts a solemn and serious figure in his Franciscan religious habit.

But when he gets animated, he turns tactile and his face, like a mime artist's, becomes wonderfully expressive.

"I've given several mime performances in public," says the diminutive man who attended a workshop conducted by Bernard Bragg - the co-founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf in the US - when the latter was in Singapore in the 1980s.

He is especially good, he adds, with a skit called The Hunter And The Dog.

To demonstrate, he squeezes his shoulders, cocks the index fingers of both hands into the shape of a rifle and heaves his body stealthily like a hunter in a forest.

Then, like a Chinese mask changer, he does an about-face, sticking out his tongue and sniffing the air like a merry little hound.

Father Yeo is the second of five sons and the only one born deaf.

His late father was a clerk turned news vendor; his housewife mother died when he was in his early teens.

He grew up in a kampung house in Jalan Wijaya (which no longer exists) off Changi Road.

Although occasionally bullied by boys in his neighbourhood, he was a happy-go-lucky child.

"I was happy catching guppies and other fishes in the drains and canals. I was only sad when I got scolded by my mother," he says, his shoulders drooping and his lips curving down to indicate dejection.

He completed his primary education at the Singapore School of the Deaf, where he learnt to lip-read and articulate words.

His favourite subjects were arithmetic and English, but his passion was chess.

"My elder brother taught me how to play chess when I was 10. My father wanted me to spend my time on my schoolbooks instead, but whenever he was out at work, I would beg my brother to play with me."

"I like it because it is good for the brain and it's all about strategy," says Father Yeo, who took part in several competitions and once placed 10th in a national chess tournament in his 20s.

He spent four years in Mount Vernon Secondary School before studying furniture-making at VITB.

His first job was making tables and chairs for Diethelm, for which he was paid $13 a day.

A few years later, he left to become an assistant clerk with the Community Chest of Singapore.

A friend introduced him to Catholicism when he was 15 years old.

At Novena Church, he met an Australian Redemptorist priest who gave him catechism classes every Friday evening for nearly two years.

"Father Gasper taught me by writing everything down," says Father Yeo, who was baptised when he was 21.

While attending a Catholic retreat when he was 20, he met Father Tom Coughlin, the first deaf priest to be ordained in the US in 1977.

The meeting changed his life.

Father Coughlin encouraged him to pursue his studies and even sponsored him, with help from the House of Studies for Deaf Priests, to study philosophy at Gallaudet - a university for the hearing-impaired - in Washington, DC.

For a few months, Father Yeo threw himself into studying English and maths so that he could pass the university's entrance examinations. He did, and left for Washington in 1986.

"It was very cold. And it was very challenging but it was an opportunity for me," says Father Yeo, who had to grapple with the writings of Plato, Socrates and Descartes.

"I worked very hard. Sometimes, it was just sleeping and studying."

After he graduated, Father Coughlin told him to head out to Lima in Peru to teach at a school for the deaf located in the slums.

"I spent three months learning Spanish by myself and then left for Peru. I didn't even attend my graduation," he says.

"I'd never seen a slum before this. The people were very poor. My students were happy that I was there to teach them," says Father Yeo, who lived in the school and taught Spanish, maths and religion for two years.

"I was sad to leave. I miss the food. Beef in wine, barbecued chicken with radish - so delicious," he says, smacking his lips and making a thumbs-up sign.

In 1995, one year after his return to Singapore, he left for St Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York, to study theology.

He stayed for more than two years, spending a year working with the deaf community in St Elizabeth's Church in Manhattan.

In 1997, shortly after his return to Singapore, he joined the Franciscan friars.

Five years later, in 2003, he made his solemn profession.

His Buddhist father, who died in the same year, did not object.

"He asked me what I actually did. But he was happy I became a Franciscan friar."

Father Yeo began working in the columbarium ministry in the Church of St Mary of the Angels about 10 years ago.

Besides administrative work, he conducts catechism classes and interpreter services for the hearing-impaired community.

He also conducts sign language classes at the church; he prepares his own teaching materials, which include his drawings.

"I also pray for all souls," says the animal lover, who learnt how to train dogs in sign language when he was in New York.

Ordained a deacon last year, he has a soft spot for the deaf community and often plans activities, such as making and selling dolls and other knick-knacks, to raise funds come every International Day Of the Deaf in September.

He says more could be done for hearing-impaired children in schools in Singapore, such as having qualified resource teachers to provide sign language interpretation.

With his ordination, Father Yeo - who also spent a couple of years in Quezon City in the Philippines studying theology and doing missionary work - will become active in regional church work, helping hearing-impaired communities.

Becoming a priest, he says, is a dream come true.

"I'm very inspired by St Francis of Assisi," he says, referring to the patron saint of animals and the ecology, and founder of the men's Order of Friars Minor.

He adds: "I'm very happy. I thank God and I've been waiting for this day for a very long time.

"I hope more deaf Catholics will come to church."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline Born deaf, he heeds a higher calling. Subscribe