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Paul Sparkes: Religious extracts

The Moravian Mission House at Nain, Labrador, c. 1908. From a photograph taken by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell.
The Moravian Mission House at Nain, Labrador, c. 1908. From a photograph taken by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell. - Contributed

“Falling on me as an inspiration in a walk from Newman’s Cove in Bonavista Bay to Elliston in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, in the year 1916 came the idea to write a life of Christ — as it is now in 1936 completed. For seven years such idea lay in my mind, at times arising with an urge that would not be denied — until in August, 1923 it broke in words that spake themselves to inner hearing as a beginning.”

Part of the foreword by Rev. William H. Dotchon of his 424-page “Chronicles of the Christ” (rendered in poetry); the book was published by a vanity press, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., in 1936 while Dotchon was serving The United Church at Brigus.

The Stockwell company has been in operation well over a century. Here is part of their mission statement: “We publish books under many different genres, and whether you have an autobiography, a novel, a children’s story or a collection of poetry, our objective is to help turn your dream into reality and to produce a book for you to be proud of.”

Newfoundland and coastal Labrador have had a long relationship with religion. There is nothing in our history that has not in some fashion had an acquaintance with religion. Except, maybe, the price of fish. Religion and its subdivisions, the denominations, have been divisive and unifying. Its expression has attracted the best and lowest of minds. In this column I have collected a variety of extracts from a variety of sources.

Young sibling’s death

“Mamma! Mamma!” she exclaimed. “I saw little brother Willie!” “Where, Dearie?” asked her mother, now heeding her. “Just now — a little while ago — and he leaded me by my hand near to where Heavenly Father was sitting on his great chair. Then Heavenly Father got up and opened his closet and took down one of our little boy’s playthings and gave it to our little Willie; (he didn’t give any to me).”

— A child in the process of handling the death of a brother, extracted from New Priest in Conception Bay, a work of fiction placed in Bay Roberts, and written by Boston native Robert T.S. Lowell in 1857. In 1974 the book was edited by Malcolm Ross and included an introduction by Patrick O’Flaherty.  

Fleming’s great project

In 1937, Monsignor Thomas Flynn wrote of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming (1792-1850), “from this work of organization in outside places, the outports,” (he had first divided the island into parishes or missions of his church) “he turned to the work of his own city. He began the erection of the cathedral which stands out so boldly, greeting the eye as the first great landmark of the city of St. John’s, as the city unfolds itself to travellers coming by sea ... Bishop Fleming did not live to see the cathedral completed.” 

Labrador coast mission

“For over one hundred years Moravian missionaries from Germany have lived in Labrador among the Eskimo. They have built churches and schools for them, and taught them to read, write, play music and sing beautifully. They love singing, as everyone does who has a contented mind. The Moravians are a trading mission, selling the Eskimos what they need and receiving in return their fur and oil. Of late, also, they have encouraged the Eskimo to catch ‘fish’. An Eskimo man thought it beneath his dignity to do any such work, formerly.”

—Dr. Wilfred Grenfell writing in his 1905 book, “The Harvest of the Sea”.

Shocking sins

No collection of this sort would be complete without old William Wilson who penned “Newfoundland and its Missionaries” in 1866. He was a Methodist trail-blazer from the Canadian Maritimes who spent 14 years in Newfoundland in the early years of the 19th century. In the following, Wilson is quoting Mrs. Elizabeth Locke of Lower Island Cove, “then in the seventy-fifth year of her age.” She is referring to the first Methodist missionary here, Lawrence Coughlan.

“She always mentioned the name of Mr. Coughlan with respect. She would tell of his faithful preaching and of its effect upon the hearers. ‘You cannot think,’ she would say, ‘what a state Newfoundland was in when that man of God came among us. Imagine any sin you will and you cannot think of anything too bad. He would sometimes describe the sins of the land in language that polite people would seem to be shocked at; yet they knew he was speaking only the truth.’”

No church, lots of drink

In 1838, Ephriam Tucker, a young American missionary student who journeyed to Labrador and who put in at Bonne Bay en route, was greatly distressed by the amount of strong drink that was available and its effects on the inhabitants:

“There are probably not more than one-tenth of the population who make any pretension to religious faith and worship, the great mass of the population regarding the Sabbath as a day for sports and pastimes and usually spending it in drunken frolics and carousals ... one of their principal means of excitement is a free use of stimulating drinks. The men, women and children partake of it freely.”

From “In the very early days of settlement”, from “The Newfoundland Character” by Ryan & Rossiter, 1984.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  paul.sparkes@thetelegram.com.

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