Honoring Phyllis Winter

 Here from the Beginning

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Phyllis Winter was born in 1932 in St. Louis, the youngest of five children who survived infancy.  She graduated from Resurrection CatholicPhyllis Winter Elementary School in 1945 and went to Notre Dame Academy, an all girls’ school.  Phyllis says that she and her sister took the street car downtown to the motherhouse for the Sisters of Notre Dame.  “It was right on the bank of the Mississippi,” she remembers, “and at that time US Army base Ft. Leonard Wood was right next to the school.  There were soldiers everywhere.”

Phyllis entered the convent of the Sisters of Christian Charity in Wilmette in 1949, assumed her habit in 1950 and began to teach in 1952 before she had completed her education degree at Loyola.  She taught second grade at St. Teresa of Avila near the DePaul campus and had ninety (90!) children in her classroom.  (“I know people don’t believe this,” Phyllis says, “but I have the picture to prove it!”)  The school had many European families who had been displaced by the war so her students spoke German and French – but very few of them spoke English.  After two years in second grade Phyllis taught three years in sixth.

The Mother Provincial told her young teachers she had been contacted by Catholic Charities, asking whether anyone would be interested in teaching children with disabilities.  Catholic Charities was transferring the responsibility of all special needs children to the Archdiocese and Fr. Marren, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish, had responded with an offer of two classrooms.  The nuns who answered Fr. Marren’s call were offered training at Loyola, where they could choose among programs to teach the deaf, blind or developmentally delayed.  Phyllis, who as a child had been close to a young cousin with special needs, decided this was her calling, and chose the deaf thinking that the greatest challenge for her would be to bring language to the deaf.

She welcomed the first children to Holy Trinity School for the Deaf in 1957.  She has not left the corner of Taylor and Wolcott since then.

As parish schools in the area closed, Children of Peace School opened on that corner, encompassing the school communities of Holy Trinity, St. Callistus, Our Lady of Pompei, and Holy Family.  In 1994 Phyllis became the principal of COP, a role she served in until 2001.

Phyllis has seen tremendous differences in the mechanics of teaching the deaf – and great changes in the philosophy.  “In 1957 every child was wearing heavy headphones, regulated with a big box on a desk.  When we built the current building we put in ceiling microphones for teachers.  Then we moved to neck mics for the teachers.”  Consistent throughout has been the use of ASL (American Sign Language) which is taught to all children at Children of Peace School.

Many children have cochlear implants now, devices installed in the occipital bone behind the ear which gives sound to the system of the ear.  It does give them the opportunity to learn in a more traditional way.  Phyllis is sensitive, though, to those students who don’t have the make-up for cochlear – and to the politics of implants and hearing aids.  “Most in the deaf culture sign,” she says.  “They don’t wear hearing aids.”

Phyllis is most proud of the fact that the Holy Trinity program offers a full continuum of service for the deaf and hard of hearing, whether they are profoundly deaf or only somewhat impaired.  “We have always served those who can only hear the beating of a drum and those who have trouble making distinctions between drums.  This is our mission and we are passionate about it.  The future of deaf education is in the hands of those who understand the science of sound, speech and language.”

In addition to her work at Children of Peace, Phyllis had a leadership role in the Archdiocesan initiative for Racial Justice that began 20 1980.  “Bishop Goedert brought us together after some Catholic school students were part of a terrible racial incident.  Our work was to launch conversation in schools, parishes, and homes, about what the role of a Catholic is in the face of injustice.  I was a school rep and went to principals’ council meetings to start this dialogue.  I worked with some wonderful people when I was doing this work; hard work but so worth it.”