— Photo by Dale Jarvis/Special to The Telegram
Last week, I made a pilgrimage to Father Duffy’s Well, on Salmonier Line. I had driven past the spot on numerous occasions, but had never stopped. But last Thursday, I made the trip specifically to see the well itself.
While holy wells are fairly common in Europe, we have very few here in Newfoundland.
Father Duffy’s is certainly the best known. Rev. James Duffy was born in Ireland around 1797, and came to Newfoundland in 1833 with a group of priests who had volunteered to assist Bishop Fleming. Duffy eventually became the first parish priest of St. Mary’s, a position he held for 16 years.
His time in St Mary’s was eventful, as he became embroiled in a conflict with a local merchant about the site of a new church. The merchant had a fishing flake constructed to block the entrance to the church, and Duffy gave orders to the parishioners to tear it down. They did so, and the merchant (also the magistrate) had Duffy arrested and charged with leading a riot.
Over the next year, the priest had to travel back and forth several times between St. Mary’s and St. John’s to deal with the court case — trips which he made on foot. Along the way, he rested at a spot in the woods between Riverhead and Holyrood. It was at this spot in the woods that things got interesting, and there are several versions of what transpired.
My favourite version is found in the research conducted by Barbara Rieti, and included in her PhD thesis, on file at Memorial University. In her thesis, she relates a short story told to her by one of her informants:
“In the car on the way to Mr. Joe’s house, he told me the legend of Father Duffy’s Well,” she writes, “where Father Duffy struggled with an evil spirit, and overcame it when he struck the ground and water welled out.”
In a 1926 article in the Newfoundland Quarterly, Rev. T.J. Gough of Portugal Cove described Duffy as “tall, broad of shoulder and well fitted to cope with hardship.”
In my imagination, I can see a pugilistic, broad-shouldered priest combating fiercely with an evil figure both horned and caped, Duffy picking up the spirit and dashing him to the ground like a professional wrestler, holy water bubbling up at the point of impact. I suspect, however, the truth of the legend was much less athletic or theatrical.
It is more likely the good Father Duffy chose that spot to camp because there was already a spring there. As Gough writes:
“We can … easily imagine Father Duffy and his guide halting half way their journey, in that lonely spot, to take a scanty lunch and to drink from the pearly crystal spring well. Perchance, too, in his many travels across the Chisel Hill Country from Fermeuse or Cape Broyle to Salmonier, he made this his camping ground for the night. However that may be, popular tradition says, ‘Father Duffy blessed this well, and our forefathers, wishing, no doubt, to see some resemblance in Fr. Duffy’s Well and the holy wells of Ireland, invested this simple mountain well and its surroundings with a sacramental character.’”
That “sacramental character” included a belief the water from the well had healing or medicinal properties, and the well became a regular stopping place. People began to perceive it as a holy place, and its fame spread.
By April 1880, two decades after the death of Father Duffy, the well was so well known that it was referenced in The Evening Telegram in a slightly scandalous joke about one of Newfoundland’s governors. A gentleman travelling between St. Mary’s and Holyrood saw a painted signboard on the path. When he asked his cabman what it meant, the man said:
“Once upon a time, there was a well underneath that mark. It was called Father Duffy’s Well and many a weary traveller quenched his thirst with a draught of its coolin’ water. One day the governor happened to travel this road, and he stopped short where that mark is and took a drink. The well has been dry ever since!”
I’m uncertain if the comment is meant to refer to the governor’s ability to drink, or to imply that he was so unholy he undid the priest’s good work of creating the well in the first place.
Comments in The Telegram aside, the spring continued to flow, and does so to this day.
The 1880 article mentions a sign, and a photo taken in 1926 by G.R. Williams shows a sign stating “Rev. James Duffy’s Well, R.I.P.”
The spring at that time fed into a small rectangular rock pool. In 1935, the Knights of Columbus replaced it with a grotto, which has been added to and still stands today. Eventually the spot was made into a provincial park (it saw 5,000 visitors in 1963) and today it is a picnic and rest spot.
I came back from my visit with a bottle of water from the spring. I’m curious about its potential healing properties, as a 1934 contributor to the Newfoundland Quarterly referred to it as “an elixir for man and beast.”
If anyone has a memory or story about miraculous cures achieved through use of water from the well, email me at the address below.
Storyteller and historian Dale Jarvis can be contacted
by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.