Memories of St. Jacques

Clayton Hunt
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Community historian recalls good times and bad growing up on the south coast

Emma Amelia Burns (Burnsie) Lawrence is a pillar of her community in a time when pillars are getting harder to come by. "I've always lived in St. Jacques and I wanted to help the community in any way I could," the 75-year-old says simply.

She's been a member of the Anglican Church Women for more than half a century and treasurer of the group for many years. She's been treasurer of St. Michael's and All Angels Church for almost 40 years.

Emma Amelia Burns (Burnsie) Lawrence was named after a nurse who worked for Dr. Conrad Fitzgerald. - Photo by Clayton Hunt/The Coaster

St. Jacques - Emma Amelia Burns (Burnsie) Lawrence is a pillar of her community in a time when pillars are getting harder to come by. "I've always lived in St. Jacques and I wanted to help the community in any way I could," the 75-year-old says simply.

She's been a member of the Anglican Church Women for more than half a century and treasurer of the group for many years. She's been treasurer of St. Michael's and All Angels Church for almost 40 years.

She's served on the Citizens Health Committee, the St. Jacques Community Centre Committee and the Come Home Year Committee for 1992, and she collects donations for the Red Cross and sells daffodils for the Canadian Cancer Society.

Consider all that community service and the fact she's lived in St. Jacques all her life and it's no wonder she's the resident historian in this community south of Belleoram.

"It doesn't happen every day, but sometimes people visiting will want to look at old church records for one reason or another," she said.

"Just recently, a lady from Port aux Basques visiting wanted to obtain some information about her father's sister, who married here years ago. She only knew that her name was Julia, and sure enough, we found the information she was looking for by searching the church documents here, which go back as far as 1904."

Lawrence's parents, Albert and Louisa (Scott) Skinner, named her after a nurse who worked with Dr. Conrad Fitzgerald in the area, but soon after she acquired a nickname that took hold.

"Shortly after I was baptized, my godmother decided to add the letters 'ie' to Burns, and that's how the name 'Burnsie' came about," she explained.

"I've been called Burnsie from that day to this."

The Skinners lived in St. Jacques in the family home, which was built in the late 1800s. Times were tough back then.

"My father became crippled from a leg injury during the last few years of his life and couldn't work as often as the other men," she said.

"He died when I was three, and Mom was left with five children in a very difficult time in Newfoundland history - the Great Depression years. Very few families were well-to-do in those days, but we were not as well off as most. Times were tougher than usual if you lost a parent ...

"Some people suggested to Mom that she should put us in an orphanage, but she wouldn't hear tell of that. She worked at any job she could get to help us survive.

"Because of Mom's hard work we always had enough bread to eat and she grew her own vegetables, so there was always enough food around."

Eight years after Albert died, Louisa married Clarence Fudge.

"Mr. Fudge built a new home for us, and he and Mom had two children of their own," Lawrence said.

She went to school as far as Grade 10 but had to stop that year because her family couldn't afford to buy her books. At age 15, she went to work.

"Immediately after leaving school I went to work for the Young family in St. Jacques to look after an invalid mother," she remembers.

"The Young family came over from England and was one of the more prosperous families in the community, as they owned several fishing schooners. I worked for the Youngs for three years and 10 months for $6 a month, or about 20 cents a day.

"After working for the Young family for nearly four years, Edgar Dyett offered me a job at his store for $30 a month. That was a fair amount of money back then and I jumped at the opportunity."

A year later, she was introduced to a young man from Bay du L'Eau Island who was about to change her life.

"I met Thomas Lawrence in 1952, as he had bought a house in St. Jacques. His sister was already living here, so Tom decided to move here with his widowed mother as well. He was fishing out of Lunenburg at that time.

"After a brief courtship, we married in 1953 and settled down here in St. Jacques. Tom was a wonderful husband and a great provider. I never wanted for anything after I married, as he was a very hard worker."

Tom Lawrence captained draggers out of Harbour Breton from the early 1960s until his death in 1988.

He and his wife raised eight children - five boys and three girls.

Lawrence also looked after her mother-in-law and an elderly gentleman named John Joe Bullen who had arrived with Tom Lawrence from Bay du L'Eau Island.

"Mr. Bullen was 80 when Tom arrived to live in St. Jacques," she recalled.

"His wife and children had passed away and he had no family of his own. So, out of charity, Tom brought him here with him, so when we married he was living with us.

"Mr. Bullen was good to take care of. He loved children and was great to the family. He never complained about anything and we just came to consider him as one of the family. ... Some people said that I should have put him in an old folks' home, but he was one of the family and we just couldn't bring ourselves to do that. He died at the age of 101. He had no medical records upon his death because he had never been to a doctor in his life."

Tom's mother, who was 50 when she came to live with the family, stayed until her death 30 years later.

"People used to ask me, 'How can you look after two elderly people in addition to raising your family?' I didn't think it was a challenge then," Lawrence said.

"I just felt it was my duty - something that I was expected to do and I did it."

Lawrence says she's had her share of good times and tragedies.

"My daughter, Ruby, passed away in 1976, when she was just five years old," she said. "She was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, which is a blood disorder similar to leukemia. We had gone to Toronto with her to see doctors, who told us that her condition was too late for a bone-marrow transplant. My daughter Hazel was ready to donate bone marrow, but it was too late and wouldn't work.

"Ruby was diagnosed with her condition in January 1976 and she died in July of that year. The doctors told us at that time that children in the future would not die of the disease, and apparently many, if not all, survive the condition today."

In 1988, she suffered another major blow, when her husband died.

"Tom suffered for a long time with stomach cancer," she said.

"He had surgery for the cancer but it didn't work in his case. In spite of the suffering though, he wanted to go back to work. The doctors said it was OK for him to go back to sea, but three weeks after his last trip he passed away. He was 57 years old.

"The pain is still there to this day. I've never really gotten over it. My children were and remain a great support to me and have helped me tremendously in getting by since 1988."

Five years after Tom's death, she was forced to face cancer herself.

"I had gone to Grand Falls-Windsor for a routine mammogram as I had turned 60," she explained. "The procedure detected a lump in my breast, which was diagnosed as cancerous. ... I cried a bucket of tears upon hearing the news.

"However, following a mastectomy shortly after my diagnosis, the cancer has not returned, and 15 years later I'm doing fine."

Lawrence has seen a lot of changes in her hometown through the years.

"A lot of the family names that I grew up with are no longer here," she observed.

"I'm the last member of the Skinner family here, and there are still members of the Hickey, Evans and Lawrence families here.

"However, such family names as Burkes, Young, Dinhams, Piercey and Dawe are gone now. ... Of course, the number of children here now is down from what it was in my day. I can remember when there were at least 30 children in this little section of the community around where I live. I doubt if there are 30 children in the entire community today."

Lawrence finds comfort in thinking about the good times in the comfortable home where she lives on her own.

"I enjoy my card games and bingo games today and I'm still an active member of the community," she said.

"Of course, my children are a great comfort to me. All of them have done really well and I'm extremely proud of their accomplishments.

"I have a souvenir collection from a large number of countries on nearly every continent that my children have visited either through work or for pleasure."

The Coaster

Organizations: Anglican Church Women, All Angels Church, Citizens Health Committee St. Jacques Community Centre Committee Come Home Year Committee Red Cross Canadian Cancer Society

Geographic location: Belleoram, Port aux Basques, L'Eau Island Newfoundland England Lunenburg Harbour Breton Toronto

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  • William
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    It was with great pride that I read about my cousin, Burnsie. Although I never met Burnsie, her sister, Lucy, stayed several years with my Mom and Dad, Stella and Louis Skinner in New Bedford, MA.

    Like many Newfoundlanders, my Dad was a fisherman, too.

    My younger brother, Louis, visited Burnsie this past month and thoroughly enjoyed his time with relatives.

  • Carolyn
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    It is wonderful to read a story about Aunt Burnsie , my father Lewis Skinner is her brother.
    She would open her home to us when we went to visit our grandparents in the summer. Myself and my 4 sisters would usually hang out there cause their children were our ages.
    I remember her & Uncle Tom and their family would stay at our house when they had to come to St. John's. Her & their family still visits with mom & dad now & then.
    I was delighted a couple of years ago to see her at my parents aniversary party. I hadn't seen her in awhile.We talked and laughed about those days.
    She is a great lady! Myself and my sisters love her dearly!

  • William
    July 01, 2010 - 19:54

    It was with great pride that I read about my cousin, Burnsie. Although I never met Burnsie, her sister, Lucy, stayed several years with my Mom and Dad, Stella and Louis Skinner in New Bedford, MA.

    Like many Newfoundlanders, my Dad was a fisherman, too.

    My younger brother, Louis, visited Burnsie this past month and thoroughly enjoyed his time with relatives.

  • Carolyn
    July 01, 2010 - 19:47

    It is wonderful to read a story about Aunt Burnsie , my father Lewis Skinner is her brother.
    She would open her home to us when we went to visit our grandparents in the summer. Myself and my 4 sisters would usually hang out there cause their children were our ages.
    I remember her & Uncle Tom and their family would stay at our house when they had to come to St. John's. Her & their family still visits with mom & dad now & then.
    I was delighted a couple of years ago to see her at my parents aniversary party. I hadn't seen her in awhile.We talked and laughed about those days.
    She is a great lady! Myself and my sisters love her dearly!