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RELIGIOUS CONDIT1ON OF WEST NEWFOUNDLAND BEFORE THE TIME OF A RESIDENT PRIEST
The story as it comes down to us from authentic sources of the origin of the Catholic Faith in the West Coast of Newfoundland reads like a romance. Indeed were it not for the fact that I have the story before my eyes as I write in the very handwriting of the first Prefect Apostolic of St. George's in a document which he prepared for submission to the Society of the Propagation of the Faith at Lions I wou1d be inc1ined to consign it to the category of "Legends" which often in the minds of the unthinking serve as an exp1anation of facts which they cannot otherwise account for. But the testimony of the Prefect cannot be easi1y set aside, especially when we consider the circumstances under which it was given to him.
About the first part or midd1e of the last century (i.e., 18th century) one Henry L'Official, a Frenchman, arrived in Quebec. After a short sojourn in that Province he became acquainted with a young French-Canadian, whose Christian name was Nannette, this young lady he subsequently married and shortly after, for some reason or other which I cannot understand, sailed down the St. Lawrence in a small craft of his own, taking, with him his wife. Making for the Straits of Belle Isle he met with adverse weather and was wrecked and driven ashore some miles north of Bay St. George. At
this point he managed to spend the winter somehow and the summer following made his way to Sandy Point, the chief settlement of this same Bay. He settled her among a few Jersey families that were already in possession of the place. Of his union with Nannette there was issue two daughters and one son. The career of the latter is lost but of the daughters it is known that one married in Cape Breton, the other formed an alliance with a Frenchman born on the passage from France, this mans name was Benoit. From this union sprang a long lineage. The name Benoit is common in all parts of Bay St. George: in most cases in the original French spelling and in many instances in the English translation or adaptation Bennett. By intermarriage with their French neighbors or with compatriots of France or Canada their numbers rapidly increased.
As years went on the ranks of the Catholic population was further increased by the advent of Scotch settlers from Cape Breton. Before dwelling on this point however, it is necessary to make an apparent digression in order to make the reader aware of a few facts of Newfoundland History which affected both the Ecclesiastical as well as the Civil administration adversity on the West Coast for a long period. These facts will receive more attention later on in the narrative.
As is commonly known, even at the period of which we write the Church was pretty well organized in the East Coast, that is to say at any rate in the Peninsula of Avalon. More than one attempt had been made to establish Catholicity there. The French, who owned the county at one period, had a fine Church at Placentia. Through the fortunes of war the French were forced to withdraw. Later on George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, with a large following, fleeing from persecution in England
at Ferryland but this too came to naught and finally, to quote the words of the Journa1 of Fr. Sears: "It seems as if kind providence had reserved for the Irish Race the honor of establishing Catholicity, in East Newfoundland as that territory is the nearest point of America to Europe and consequently nearest to that Catholic Isle - Ireland." If the honor of establishing Catholicity in the eastern part of Ireland must be conceded to the sons of Ireland, the honor of implanting it in the West must be given to the sons of French Canada. And indeed as the story unfolds itself one cannot but notice the formidable difficulties which the poor Acadians had to face and which they survived which were never presented as obstacles to the settlers on the East. For one thing, the Irish settlers were to some extent followed by priest of their own race who provided the ministrations of religion for them and kept them together. In addition to this they lived among people, that is the earlier English settlers, with whom, in spite of the fact that they differed in race, they had many things in common if not in religion then in language and institutions. With the French settlers we find none of these aides. Their lot was cast amongst a people whose language and ways were totally foreign to them. Their coming was haphazard and, above all, they were for nearly fifty years without a priest. And now to return to the story as it affects Newfoundland. The offspring of the Benoit family formed alliances in most cases with Acadians from Cape Breton, in some cases with English settlers, and in this way the number who regarded themselves as children of the Church gradually increased. Before going farther it may be well to mention what were known as the Treaty of Rights. These were of far reaching consequences. Late a more extensive treatment of these Rights will be presented.
As a result of Treaties entered into between the British and French governments France claimed fishing rights on the West Coast of the island and even disputed the right of settlement on the island. Fleets of French vessels came year after year to pursue the fishery in these waters. Gradually quite a number of fishermen from the trans-Atlantic fleet preferred a permanent residence on this coast to the unpleasant vicissitudes of coming from and returning to France year by year to prosecute the fishery. I have now accounted for the origin of the first settlers of the Catholic religion in Bay St. George.
The question naturally suggests itself. What provision was made for the spiritual concerns of these people? No provision was made as far as can be discovered. Still, whatever may have been their faults, no matter to, what terrible degradation some may have fallen in their abandoned state, deprived as they were not alone of the salutary influences of religion but even of the influences of a just civil administration, to their eternal credit it must be said that they clung to the Faith of their Fathers with unparalleled pertinacity. Living six hundred miles from Quebec and separated from it by a boisterous sea they ever looked toward that queenly city as the seat of the local representative of the Church to which alone they gave allegiance (nevertheless it was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Newfoundland), and from which no motive was found strong enough to completely divorce them. The test put to the faith of the Acadians and French-Canadians resident in Newfoundland was no less severe than that which their fathers had to withstand years before in Nova Scotia, with this difference that it was more insidious and that here the unfortunate people were without their natural and trusty leaders, Catholic priests.
The total absence of organized religion. The total
absence of civil administration, which as a result of the Treaty rights could not operate as it was thought on the Western or French Shore, these two facts brought about a state of affairs truly appalling from the Christian point of view. Was it to be wondered that some, in outward practice at any rate, abandoned the Christian point of view on marriage. But it is consoling to know that in the majority of cases the Christian viewpoint dominated life and that the seeds of virtue were not wanting. Facts can easily be presented to show that many, in fact the vast majority, availed of every opportunity they found to practise their religion. The only opportunities they happened on in Newfoundland were provided whenever a priest from the Canadian government boats visiting the Lighthouses came. Many children were baptized on these occasions. But, as can be readily understood, it was only those living near the points of anchorage of these boats that could avail of these chances. The others experienced much more trouble in having this sacrament administered to their children. These faithful souls did not hesitate to go 1ong distances to receive the sacraments from time to time. Monsignor Sears tells of men whom he met and from whose lips he heard the story of almost incredible endurance in their efforts to follow the laws of the Church. For instance, he tells us the story of a man who related that his parents took him to Quebec, a distance of six hundred miles, to have him christened. Another told him that in his case he was taken to Arichat for the same purpose. These cases are only two of many; in fact such heroic deeds were the rule not the exception. In the light of these facts we can only entertain feelings of the highest admiration for these poor people who, amidst such terrible temptations to the contrary, kept the spark of faith burning, even though sometimes dimly. Peace to their ashes.
Over and above the visits of the French Chaplains I have been able to secure evidence of the visits of at least one other Priest. In the Records of the Prefecture Apostolic of St. George's compiled by the late Bishop Howley while Prefect of the West, I find some items which help to throw some light on the state of affairs I am attempting to describe. "Somewhere about the year 1820 the Rev. William Hearne paid a visit to this Shore. He came across country with some Indians and visited Sandy Point and Robinson's Head. " In a diary of Monsignor Sears the following item on the same point occurs: "He (Fr. Hearne) came all through from St. John's and came across from Notre Dame Bay through some two hundred miles of trackless forests accompanied by a single Indian." Thus this heroic man of Christ's army antedated the voyage of Cormack, who is believed to have been the first white man to walk across Newfoundland from Sea to Sea.* "They will relate how many he married and how many he baptized," facts that go to show how easy it was to win those poor forsaken sou1s back to the discipline of the Church, an under-taking as will be readily admitted which would have been far from easy had they abandoned religion and degenerated to the extent that some unthinking and uninformed people would have us believe.
In the year 1848, the Right Rev. Bishop Mullock of St. John's, accompanied by the Rev. Richard Condon, Parish Priest of Placentia, made a visitation of the coast as far as Ferrole. The Bishop found the small frame of a Church at Codroy River. At Sandy Point, the principal settlement of Bay St. George, he marked out the sight for a Church and told the people to prepare
* Fr. Hearne was Parish Priest of Placentia Bay which change included Fortune Bay with the whole west including Anticosti.
for the reception of a priest whom he would endeavor to secure for them. It is thought that the number of Catholics on the Coast at the time was roughly, two thousand.
Transcribed by Bill Crant, Elmsdale, NS Canada, by permission of St. George's Diocese, St. George's, Newfoundland
Page Revised: February - 2003 (Don Tate)
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