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MONSIGNOR THOMAS SEARS, ROAD BUILDER IN
As we have already seen, from his famous letter to Bishop Mullock in '68, Fr. Sears immediately on his arrival noticed the total absence of roads in Bay of Islands. As time went on and as he gained more knowledge he discovered that the same lamentable lack of means of inter-communication was universal. In the words of an old Scotchman at Grand River, the only road makers known of before his arrival were the cattle making tracks to the pasture lands. He expressed his opinion as to the desirability of road building as a civilizing and reassuring influence on the lives of the people. Probably he did not know at the time of the Historical and Legal and other obstacles he was to encounter in his road building scheme, which from the first, took hold of him.
He was firmly convinced, however, of the necessity of roads, and with him to be convinced of the desirability of an, thing, was to be in action to secure it. His scheme was be reduced to two propositions:
Plain roads to connect the different settlements one with another and the East with the West. These would, as he afterwards pointed out, infuse new life into the Colony and confederate it. Bye roads to connect outlying settlements not easily reached by the main road with it.
The cross country road he deemed a matter of national importance. In the meantime he worked
hard in spite of many- rebuffs to secure the advantage of local roads connecting scattered communities in the same place.
Fr. Sears had scarcely heard of the decision of the Local Government to allow political representation to the West than he began to use this opportunity as the means to further advancement. He had at one time, as I gather from a little memorandum of his likened the position of the West Coast to that of a mute boy in a family, asking pointedly enough what would be thought of a father who would set himself to neglect the mute because he could not plead for himself. But now that this mute had regained his power of speech he was urged to use it in season and out of season. Political was not the end. The end was the development of the latest resources of the West. the amelioration of the people who looked at him as their only trustworthy guide. As his private notes make clear that he would much prefer to leave such leadership to others and that it was only the pitiable state of the people that compelled him to under-take this distasteful warfare on their behalf. That he had questioned himself on the matter is abundantly proved. He aimed at the political representation of the West as the step towards entitlement to participation in the public expenditure for Education, Railways, Steamships. He used his new weapon with creditable dexterity and judgment.
It must not be thought, however, that he expected the Government and the local representative to do everything by themselves. Nothing of the kind. Doles for the able-bodied he regarded as a most dangerous instrument for political corruption, on the one hand, and as the most degrading agency, on the other, that could operate amongst the people. None of that for
him. He would have told his people to spurn such aid and himself fought against such a degradation. He would have preferred to leave the people in a state of disfranchisement which could not deprive them of self-respect than lead them to the possession of citizens' rights and pauperism.
It is of interest here to note the following incident as it seems to find place in this connection. In the year 1880 destitution was prevalent in the Bay of Islands section. In the midst of what threatened to be at first a serious calamity for many, we see him turning the people to beseech Almighty God to avert calamity. He ordered special prayers and other observances for the occasion. At the same time the people of Codroy, who were more favorably situated than their fellows at Bay of Islands as far as worldly wealth was concerned, he organized into a kind of relief committee. With this object in view he opened a subscription list at Codroy. The first collection was, I find, taken up at St. Anne's Church on Sunday, February 29,1880, and amounted in cash to $135.00. This, considering the time and place, may be considered very generous, and at any rate, shows that the spirit of Christianity was not absent. In addition to this sum in cash, I find that, at the same time, large contributions were made in kind, potatoes, meat, wool, etc. Looking over the list it appears that every adult gave to this collection, even the widow's mite was not absent. To my mind this list, which I have before me is his well-known handwriting, speaks volumes not only for the good people themselves but for the spiritual sagacity and influence of the Pastor.
But to return from this pleasant digression we note that while working with a will to help the people and striving by every means in his power to have their demands ventilated in the House of Assembly and
kept continuously before the public, he also taught them and insisted on their learning the lesson that they should also help themselves and each other. His was to educate the people, not to nurse them.
Another means by which he gained two good ends at the one time was by asking for free labor, not alone for the erection of churches and schools and presbyteries, but even for public works such as road-building. His activities in this sphere were successful and won for himself, his people and the fruits of their activities this notable enconium on the floor of the House of Assembly:
"We have marked instances of the superiority of the road labor in that part of the country (Codroy Valley ) as compared with the other portions. I have no hesitation in saying that that superiority and management is due entirely to the controlling genius of one who has proved himself the guardian angel, as it were, of that part of the country since he has gone there. I refer to Monsignor Sears. So heartily are the people there alive to the development of their large agriculture resources, that they have come forward manfully and subjected themselves to statute labor in order to open up new roads and keep the others in repair This is a condition of affairs not realized in any other district of the Colony." Mr. Boone in the House of Assembly. April 19, 1884). What wonders may not a good man accomplish? These words were made use of in the course of the debate of the voting of the money necessary for building a road from Codroy to Channel. It was contended, on the one hand, that Codroy being frequently unapproachable by sea needed an outlet at Port aux-Basque and that in the public interest the farm produce of the locality should be within as easy reach as possible of the City. Mgsr. Sears also pointed out the importance of the
road to the people of, for instance Channel, as it would make it more easy for them to get their wood supply. Those who opposed the vote were few, they opposed it without much spirit, their arguments were purely of a sectional nature, not worth noticing. The Receiver General of the time boldly stated in the course of his speech that they had sufficient evidence from the past that whatever was undertaken in the road building line in Grand River should be brought to a successful issue. He considered the petition of the people irresistible. Petitions and arguments for this road had been sponsored and formulated for this road for years by Monsignor Sears.
As I mentioned above, he looked towards a road system that would, as it were, be National system. He would not stop short at merely local roads. Speaking of such a road system, he once said: "Till this is done there will never be life in the Colonial existence of the Island." He compared the life it then enjoyed to that of a sponge "not being traversed by either bone or vein or sinew, the animation is an inactive one, so it is and will be with Newfoundland till the distant parts are connected by roads and other means of inter-communication." So he wrote in 1870. Again he says: "What a noble enterprise. . . . after having made some arrangement to connect Port-aux-Basque, Bay St. George and Bay of Islands, would then have a line of road run all across to Bonavista, connecting all the other Bays and harbors intervening by means of bye-roads Then would they merit to have their names inscribed in the archives of this country."
As early as 1869 he was in communication with the then Postmaster General with reference to the mail service or rather the total absence of mail service on the West Coast. At the time of writing he resided at Bay St. George. He points out to the Postal Depart-
ment in St. John's that his letter to them would have to go via Halifax. The route and means were these: he gave the letter to some sailor or chance passenger going to Halifax who on arriving at that Canadian Port re-mailed it to St. John's. Nfld. The same procedure, as he pointed, would be necessary to send a letter even to Channel, which place was only about eighty miles overland from Bay St. George. He advocated the appointment of a mail courier system between Port-aux-Basque, a convenience which was subsequently granted to the people. This was the first concession I believe which he was instrumental in securing for the Western Shore.
Gradually the face of the country, at least in the Grand River section. Was literally being changed. On his coming there were no roads of any kind. When he died every important part of the fertile Valley, "The Garden of Newfoundland," was penetrated with carriage roads. Though he accomplished much in his lifetime, he always said that he considered that what was then done was only the beginning, and he often took the old men of the place with him alone the new roads which then seemed very rough, and standing on the brow of that hill which opens on one of the most glorious pastoral scenes that one could wish to rest the eyes on, where the Grand River widens into a lake at the foot of the Anguille mountains, studded with innumerable verdant islands, he used to say to his dubious listeners: "God left that Pass in the mountain for the train to go through." As we have seen, he did not merely dream dreams, he took very practical means to bring them true, as is illustrated by his introduction of Statute Labor for Road Building. Under the circumstances of the time he felt justified in undertaking the responsibility of administering all public funds for road-building and as we saw
above, the Government was quite convinced that under his administration a fair day's work was always assured for a fair day's pay. When road boards were about being established along the Coast, as elsewhere, on the elective system, the unanimous opinion at The Rivers was that Mgsr. Sears should, if he were pleased to do so, continue as usual to constitute the "Board." The people understood the advantage to be gained from this, in comparison with places that already had elected Road Boards that had more progress, for one mile of road elsewhere they had three for the same money. Furthermore, as they said, the good priest never deducted from the grant the commission that was allowed by the law, preferring to allow every cent to go to actual construction work.
Before leaving these secular pursuits, if they may indeed be called so, it will be necessary to give Mgr. Sears' views on the Agricultural possibilities of Newfoundland as they are closely linked up with his views on the Road and communication system of the country. Fortunately, his views on this matter are easily found, for he has left us in two lengthy essays and a few lectures his matured convictions on the possibilities of agriculture on a large scale in Newfoundland and the steps which, in his opinion, should be taken towards realizing it.
It is well to advert here that Newfoundland was from the beginning of its history regarded as being mainly, if not merely, suitable as a fishing station. A harbor of refuge some would have considered it for the fishing fleet on the Grand Bankss. Color, I grant, might have been given to this theory by reason of the barrens that comprised a great part of the East as well as by the reason of the bold outline of the coast line as a whole here and there it is true in that section even, fertile spots of land were to be found but not
enough to convince those whose knowledge of the country was confined to the Eastern fringe, to seriously entertained the idea that Newfoundland had an Agricultural future worth considering. This tradition held the field for many years and I doubt that even yet, after so much debate on the question, whether it has met the fate it logically deserves. The men who first by putting forward the results of their investigations which had been conducted according to scientific principles, attempted to break down this tradition were met with mingled doubt and scorn. Thus it was that Mgsr. Sears and those who held the same views on the matter as he did, after having done away to some extent with the difficulties following on the French Rights, were now faced with the incredulity of statesmen when he stated that the West Coast could easily support a half million of a population of farmers and their families.
Relying on the facts given in the reports of such men as Alexander Murray and James Howley, whose honesty and technical ability to form a judgment on the matter may not be questioned, he put forward the amazing proposition mentioned above and as if archly intending to surprise even more his already surprised listeners, he added that the progress and even the existence of Newfoundland depended on the utilization of her "earthly" as distinguished from her "watery" resources. Furthermore, he advised the introduction into the West of a race of farmers.
As to his views on agriculture in general, we may gain some idea what it was from a little quotation which was frequently on his lips and crops up over and over again in different forms in his writings: "Agriculture is the foundation of National prosperity and one of the noblest as well as one of the pleasantest
Third Bishop of St. George's, (1920 - 1941)
and most profitable pursuits in which a man can engage."
It is very easy to understand, I think, how a man subscribing to the sentiments of this belief would devote a great deal of his attention to putting the profitable pursuit of farming within the reach of his people. He had often with regret and perplexity noted the migratory inclinations of purely fishing communities, their tendency, as he put it, to follow the fish, and the consequent difficulties for the man in spiritual charge to supply what was needed in the way of schools and churches. But in the case of a people living mainly on the land he knew that different and improved conditions in this matter would prevail. He foresaw the coming into existence of large and comfortable communities enjoying the benefits that come to the "Laird 'o the soil." He saw how much easier it would be for such people to enjoy the consolations and benefits of religion and education than knots of people who were indeed "of no fixed residence." Hence his Agriculture scheme. In bringing this scheme before the Government of the time and in trying to bring public sentiment on his side he, first of all, fortified himself with facts mainly of a highly technical nature and statistics which bewildered those who entered the field against his project armed only with verbosity, some private aim and the traditional prejudice to which reference has been made above. These facts and statistics he gained from two important sources, viz., the findings of such men as Alexander Murray and James Howley and his own observations. With the value of the former I have already dealt and for the latter he had ample opportunity in the course of his missionary journeys which made him familiar with almost every feature of the country from Port-aux-Basque to Bay
of Islands. He knew his west coast as thoroughly as ever any man could know it. However, knowing his limitations and keenly alive to the fact that his conclusions would not wield the same influence and call for the same unquestioned acceptance among those he addressed as those of professional men in their own field, he kept in constant contact with Mr. Howley while that man was investigating and surveying on the West Coast. No little detail for his grand argument was overlooked. In conversations and by letters, some of them written from the wilderness by the light of the camp fires, Mr. Howley told him of golden vales of the West. The valuable timber lands, the fertile soil? the indications of valuable mineral and other deposits which he met with, all were spoken of.
And lastly, as his letters show, he was, in spite of the many calls on his time and energy, a deep student of agricultural and kindred economic problems elsewhere. Thus armed he entered the lists against those who loudly proclaimed: "For Newfoundland, one industry and that the fishery." Asking the question as to what accounted for the absence of agriculture in Newfoundland, he goes on to say in a splendid letter: "Is it the fault of our climate? No, our climate is much milder than that of Lower Canada. Is it the fault of the race that has peopled our land? It cannot be for we are blessed with that same happy blending of Celt and Saxon which has caused the great Continent of North America to surpass all former nations in its strides towards wealth. Is it the absence of fertile soil?" This question he answers by quoting from scientific authorities to show that not alone has Newfoundland fertile soil but that she has it in abundance. The next step in his argument is to ask why this land is not utilized and then to suggest means which appear to him calculated
to make these lands an important asset of the Country.
Briefly these are:
1. Pass a suitable Statute labor law.
2. Introduce immigrants, from agricultural communities of note who will share with the older inhabitants the lands opened up and in return will introduce the most up-to-date farming principles.
3. Build a road from Port-aux-Basque to Notre Dame Bay.
4. As a means; towards securing such immigrants and with view to making their lot as agreeable and profitable as in Cape Breton, connect Port-aux-Basque by steamer with Sydney.
He expressed the Opinion that if Nova Scotians once saw Newfoundland under the new conditions which these improvements would bring about the immigration would settle itself most comfortable for the Newfoundland Government. His articles led to lengthy letters, pro and con. in the local papers of the time. One writer, Mr. Harvey, was disgusted to note that the old fallacy regarding the sterility of the soil of Newfoundland, which one hoped was dead and buried, has again cropping up. Dr. Howley and other distinguished Newfoundlanders in St. John's, competent to express opinions on the matter, boldly espoused the views of Monsignor Sears who, as he said himself, "from the calm retreats of the West, where the wants of the whole country can easily be scanned, took the liberty, though not a politician, to make a few suggestions."
In the meantime he was doing a little on his own account with a view to bringing in suitable settlers. One Admiral, C. G. Fane was so enthused by a con-
versation of Monsignor's on the fertility of the soil of the West that he paid a lengthy visit to Codroy Valley, which culminated in that gentleman seeking for a large grant of land. Again he got into communication with Angus, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, whose letter written from Oban promises to put before prospective emigrants from Uist the opportunities and welcome waiting them in Grand River. To show that this thing was, as it were, never long absent from his mind, I find the following little jotting made in a small diary while on his way to St. John's: "All day off Cape Le Hune-fog bound-try get doctors from Ireland." And again I find references, some very direct, among letters addressed to him that go to show that he was trying to influence Sydney shippers to bridge Cabot Strait with a steamer by pointing out to them the possibilities of an extensive trade with West Newfoundland.
Such then in brief were Monsignor's activities in the moment which led to a beginning in the opening up of the Western portion of the Island. That his activities were considered of paramount importance in this movement and did a great deal towards giving a good deal of the success which it attained, I have abundant contemporary evidence from letters written him at this time by distinguished men. One letter I quote, which for many reasons may be taken as reflecting the convictions of many, will be enough here. The writer, remarking that quite recently he had happened on a letter which Monsignor Sears wrote him from Bay Islands in 1868 which spoke in such glowing terms of the future of the West, goes on to say: "It must be a gratification to you to see steamer and telegraph established in what seemed to you then a 'no man's land,' and no man can steal from you, my dear Monsignor, the credit of being the immediate means of conferring
those great benefits on the people of that part of Newfoundland. You are bound up in the history of the country, and the future Macaulay will dwell with pleasure on the labors of the humble priest for the amelioration of the condition of the people and the merited dignity conferred by the Church on her industrious and self-sacrificing disciple." (Scanlon).
We shall now contemplate Monsignor Sears in another sphere, one which, on the whole, must have been more congenial to him, for in it he met with a most surprising support from his people who, though many of them were poor and I am sure none of them opulent, never fail to answer his appeals for labor and money in his construction of presbyteries, schools and churches.
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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