The parson and the doctor

Hans Rollmann
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In August 1892, a lad of 17 from Bareneed, Conception Bay, joined his brothers following in their father’s footsteps to fish cod each summer in Labrador. John Thomas (J.T.) Richards had fished cod ever since his father had taken him north when he was nine.

That morning in August, he joined a group of other fishermen at Indian Tickle. The men, while waiting for the bait boat to arrive, were listening spellbound to a man “with a slouched hat, light homespun suit, and high rubbers.” The speaker was breaking “the news of the great fire at St. John’s, and recounted the destruction of the various parts of the city in detail.”

That man was Dr. (later, Sir) Wilfred Grenfell, the British physician, educator, social activist and evangelical lay preacher in northern Newfoundland and Labrador.

A friendship

Fast forward to August 1904, after J.T. Richards, encouraged by Dr. William Aspland of the Grenfell Mission, had become a teacher and, more recently, an ordained clergyman in the Church of England.

He had just arrived in the Anglican mission of Flower’s Cove on the Great Northern Peninsula as successor to the Reverend Henry Leggo, at the same time that Grenfell was also visiting the community on the Strathcona.

The doctor did not remember the youth who had once so attentively listened to him in Indian Tickle, but he was glad to meet him and take him along on his boat across the Strait of Belle Isle to Forteau and other places in Richards’ sprawling parish.

Thus began a friendship between the doctor and the parson that would last until Grenfell’s death in 1940.

What brings this friendship once more to our notice is the republication of Richards’ memories of Grenfell, written after Sir Wilfred’s death, and the now complete, annotated epic poem, “Monologue on the Ice Pan.”

Richards wrote the poem in 1908, shortly after Grenfell told him how he had nearly perished on an ice pan and was rescued by men from Lock’s Cove.

Retired Anglican priest Irving Letto, born on the Labrador coast and once a student at Canon

J.T. Richards Memorial School at Flower’s Cove, obtained from the Richards family the two manuscripts by Richards, which he first published in 1989 and now has augmented in a revised edition.

Heroic persona

Richards is not a professional historian, who weighs and sifts the evidence in search of a critical assessment, but a friend and admirer of Grenfell who writes a tribute to the doctor and Christian humanitarian.

The problem of such testimonies lies in the closeness of the writer to his subject matter, here an ideal figure that Richards truly admired.

Richards finds no shades of grey in Grenfell’s heroic persona and the work he was single-mindedly pursuing on behalf of the needy people of his 1,000-mile parish. Yet Richards’ closeness to Grenfell enables him also to offer important and vivid insights into the man’s activities and the effect he had on others.

Take Richards himself, who without Grenfell’s example would likely not have developed as productively the social passion he already possessed.

Richards’ co-labour with Grenfell kept him ever mindful of opportunities to minister not only to the souls of his parishioners but also to their bodies. Thus he established a skin boot operation in which he employed people for the curing and production of skin boots.

The undertaking was not designed to gain profit for the clerical entrepreneur or even his church, but represented a dignified self-help initiative for those who needed it most, the people of his parish.

Opening a window

Richards’ “Snapshots of Grenfell” shed not much light on the administrative and institutional projects Grenfell undertook, but they do open a window on his work among ordinary people who were greatly affected by him, as well as on the affections that these fishers and their families showed toward the doctor.

Take, for example, the unsolicited initiative of Uncle John James in Forteau to tell others in Newfoundland about Grenfell’s service.

“While people are sleeping snugly in their beds,” Uncle John told Richards, “he is battling the rough seas and dense fogs of the Labrador coast in all weathers to bring us medical service.”

It was the wish of this invalid fisherman from southern Labrador that Parson Richards have a poem published in a Newfoundland newspaper which Uncle John had composed about the doctor, who visits “Up and down this shore, Helps to feed the hungry, Helps to clothe the poor.”

To the delight of Uncle John, Richards succeeded in having the poem and a short article about Grenfell appear in the Bay Roberts Guardian.

Anyone interested in the work of Grenfell and Canon Richards, as well as the social and cultural history of northern Newfoundland and southern Labrador, can find “Snapshots of Grenfell” and Grenfell’s “Monologue on the Ice Pan” in St. John’s at The Rooms gift shop and the Anglican Diocesan Resource Centre.

The volume is also available for purchase online at

Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email at

Organizations: Church of England.He, Canon J.T. Richards Memorial School, The Rooms Anglican Diocesan Resource Centre.The

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Northern Newfoundland and Labrador, Conception Bay Southern Labrador

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