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CLOSING YEARS-1884-DEATH-PUBLIC TRIBUTES TO
During the year 1884 Monsignor Sears began to show signs of failing health, as the anxious inquiries of many of his correspondents indicate. Nevertheless, although he was made conscious of this by signs that could not be mistaken, he kept on at his work, assuring his friends that his illness was of a passing nature and that he hoped it would disappear under proper medical treatment and a short respite from his labors. He was, in the meantime, trying to prevail on one of his great clerical friends in St. John's to consent to take charge of his beloved Prefecture in the event of his own death or forced retirement. The wonder indeed is not that his health began to fail but that it was able to withstand so long the ordeal to which it had been subjected. When in Nova Scotia, sixteen years before, he was rewarded as one whose constitution was none too good and one of the great arguments urged against his coming to Newfoundland was that his constitution could never be expected to bear with the difficulties of the French Shore Mission. His sudden rise to health seemed to Dr. Howley as being something akin to the miraculous, as we have already noted, after his coming to Newfoundland. In his humility he himself attributed it to the salubrity of the climate of the country. We can hardly doubt but that it was by a Providence of God that he was enabled to endure so much and so many trials. Trials of body and trials of mind.
The long six dreary years during which he labored alone must have exacted their toll and now the great warrior was beginning to sound the retreat or rather was forced to listen to its notes and to answer them not because his own courage was failing but because his physical strength was no longer capable of continuing the struggle.
During the years of his missionary labors he had had many escapes from death. which he always attributed to the Providence of Almighty God. Trudging through the trackless forests and over wind-swept barrens deep with snow or across the turbulent sea in small crafts he was often faced With death on his errands of mercy. "More especially," as he tells us himself in one of his diaries, "when having left Bay of Islands on the 27th November, 1872, for St. George's on board an American vessel; during, that night they encountered a heavy storm and the vessel. having been overladen with a cargo of fish nearly level with the water, the seas passed and repassed over her, letting down a quantity of water into the cabin where the poor missionary was alone from Monday night till Wednesday noon, when the storm abated a little, without a soul to reach him as much as a cup of water. The next day it was his pleasing duty to come on deck and pilot them into Port-au-Port, the only harbor they could make to leave him at. Here they waited a day to repair, as best they could, the rudder gear which had given way the first night of the storm. This had increased their danger manifold. Having left the missionary there, within thirty miles of his destination, they set off to sea and must have perished that very night as it came on a most violent storm and they were never heard of since."
This must have been only one of many such experiences with the sea and winds during his sixteen years of missionary work in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and
Atlantic sea-board. He was loath to mention them, however, and never did so except as illustrating the difficulties under which the entire population labored and never for the sake of drawing forth personal sympathy. Travelling around a coast practically without any harbors in fishing schooners when they could be had and very often in small punts and even dories is at the best of times a hardshipping experience, but when the storm rages and the craft, if it be a large one, for safety, has to run to sea or before the wind one has to take the chance of landing not at the wished for port but at the first available one, which may be miles away, or wait indefinitely for the proper weather and wind to get there. On the other hand, if one meets with a calm a few miles may take several hours to negotiate. It is no unusual experience in calm weather or in the case where the wind is 'head' to expend a whole day and night going a distance that in more favorable conditions could be accomplished in a few hours. The sea is a tyrant who may not be defied, at least with a sail-boat.
Bishop Spencer, at one time Anglican Bishop of Newfoundland, thus gives that he considered to be the essential characteristics of a missionary in Newfoundland and indicates to an extent in doing so what such a one has to put up with in the performance of his duties. It is absolutely clear of any exaggeration, as anyone who has to do with a sea-mission and who is forced to do all his travelling on the sea, in this country will admit:
"He must have strength of constitution to support him under a climate as rigorous as that of Iceland, a stomach insensible to the attacks of sea-sickness, pedestrian powers beyond those of an Irish gossoon, and an ability to rest occasionally on the bed of a fisherman or the hard boards of the wood-man's tilt. With these
physical capabilities he must combine a patient temper and energetic spirit a facility to adapt his speech to the lowest grade of intellect . . . together with the discretion and charity which will induce him to live, as far as may be possible, at peace with all men."
In another letter to a clerical friend. Monsignor Sears recounts another very narrow escape from death in the performance of his duties. He was obliged to take these frequent risky journeys because of the utter absence of other and safer means of making his trips from place to place in visiting his people. On the 27th October he found himself on the north side of Bay St. George and was about leaving to go home in an old and heavily laden vessel till by the merest accident he was detained. Had he ventured out on that particular day he would surely have been lost. It was on that memorable day and in that storm that the Rev. Mr. Legallais, Anglican minister at Channel, was lost on his way from Isle-a-mort to Port-au-Basque.
On another occasion he was detained by business, and being unable to take passage, the boat he was to have gone in went out without him, he adds: "that boat was overtaken by a fierce westerly gale which beats right in on a coast of perpendicular cliffs nearly thirty mile, in extent and the only account got of the boat as yet is that one of her sails and some of the articles which the poor fellows had with them came ashore, and there scarcely can be doubt but that they are all lost."
It was a great personal trial, of course, in spite of his courageous spirit to have to face experiences of this kind. No man comes back from face to face encounters with death without a scar of some kind on his body or nerves. From actual experience then he knew the difficulties of the whole population, and he looked around for
means to cheat the sea of at least part of the annual harvest of lives. To mitigate dangers to navigation he proposed that a canal should be cut through the narrow isthmus that separates Bay St. George from Port-au-Port Bay. This would obviate the long trip round Cape St. George and provide a good and safe harbor as it was thought at Port-au-Port. In pursuance of this he compiled a list of the names of vessels that had been lost off Cape St. George and which would in all probability act have been lost had such a canal been available. Again during a journey over the Anguille mountains in the dead of winter, he was all but lost. The next winter the Government, at his suggestion, had the place made safer for travellers by erecting finger posts along the open country to mark the track and small tilts here and there which afforded shelter to those who needed rest and refreshment on the way.
In addition to all these he experienced a trial in another form, which as well as preventing him from going forward with his building programme in the Prefecture by draining his financial resources, destroyed many valuable treasures collected during many years. His beloved books, he tells us himself, he particularly missed, though he lost through this accident practically everything he possessed in the world, as well as many papers and manuscripts which would have been of great value to the historian of the West Coast. I will quote from a letter of his to the Council of the Propagation of the Faith, his never-failing friend in the dark hours.
After ten or twelve years of incessant struggles he had completed a house capable of accommodating severa1 priests who might wish for a reunion with the Prefect and among themselves from time to time, as he says, as a respite from the severe strain of their world and isolation. It was furnished comfortably, not indeed splendidly, but simply and substantially. In it he had
'une belle bibliotheque des divres que j'avais apportes avec moi en venant ici." He then continues, and I translate: "While away on a distant mission of the Prefecture a fire broke out in the kitchen, enveloped the whole building and reduced it in a short while to ashes. So rapidly did the fire spread and in the absence of men nothing was saved except a few important papers and a few books from his private study. "We can picture his grief when he heard this sad news and then on his return when he saw the fruits of so much labor and sacrifice on his own part and on the part of his people a mass of charred wood and dust. Sad must have been that home-coming for the poor Prefect, but in spite of it all he finishes the letter above quoted with these brave words: " Tout ce que nons pouvons dire est 'Fiat voluntas Tua' ". On his arrival at Grand River after the accident he bore himself bravely and his natural grief was somewhat relieved by a deputation of his faithful people of the valley who resolved, as they said under leadership, to begin again and immediately to erect a suitable house for their well loved Pastor. They bid him call on them for whatever was necessary and whatever they could reasonably, give for this object. As a result of this conflagration he had to betake himself to the old Glebe House, in spite of the fact that his health vas in a precarious state, and that what had formerly been the residence of the priest had for several years done service as a barn and stable.
".... by this accident I am more likened to Him Who hath not whereon to lay His head; and now like Him who chose to be born in a stable, I am forced to take up my abode in a barn - the old Glebe House- which was used as a stable those six years back.... I must stay near the church.... I must take courage and not lose the merit of this trial," so he wrote to his friend,
Dr. Michael Howley, who had written him to offer his sympathy and to encourage him by telling him that his friends in St. John's would not fail him in his hour of trial.
The generous sympathy, so well expressed and so quickly carried into action, must have been as balm to his crushed heart and part of their address on this occasion, if for no other reason than that of preserving a testimony of their devotion to their Pastor, deserves to be quoted here: "Then, dear Monsignor Sears, we beg to assure you of the depth of our sorrow, and of the genuineness of our sympathy and for a proof of our attestations, we ask you, Monsignor, to call on us in whatever way you think proper to assist in constructing, in the first instance, a dwelling in some way suitable for a Prelate of Holy Church and his distinguished visitors; and then a temple, so far as it lies in our ability, worthy of the great Lord who died to redeem us.
In spite of protestations of his friends and the conviction he himself must have had by this time of his failing health, the Spring of 1885 found him still engaged in his usual round of missionary work. He passed from place to place in his own parish to give all the opportunity of satisfying the Easter Precept as if everything were well with him, though fatigue overtook him at the least exertion. He then made a confirmation tour immediately after Easter of Bay of Islands and of a great part of Bay St. George. In the month of June we find him going on visitation to Ramea and Burgeo, travelling sometimes in open boats in rather chilly weather, suffering from a rather serious chest complaint. Towards the end of this month he was forced to admit that it was necessary for him to rest for a little while at least and to place himself under the care of a doctor.
For this purpose he decided to visit Boston and the Poland Springs. In the month of July, Monsignor Sears went over to Sydney. He had been invited to the celebration of the Episcopal jubilee of Bishops McIntyre, Rogers and McSweeney at Charlottetown. So weak was he at the time he arrived at North Sydney that he feared he should give up the idea of attending, the functions. He attended however, at the celebration on August 15th. He appears in a group of those who attended the celebration. His face is marked deeply with lines of care and suffering, far different from the beaming countenance of a few years before. Incessant labor, deprivations, disappointments have written their tale, though, too, we may detect that undaunted though serene spirit which in the first made him decide without a moment's hesitation to take upon him the care of the wilderness and for sixteen years kept him ever willing to face difficulties with unfailing courage.
But even during these weary days his heart was with his own flock though he seems to have a presentiment that, try as he would, he should never meet any of them again in this world, and that the day was approaching when some one else would have to lead the fight for the Church in the West Coast.
His letters to Fr. Palmer, who was then at Grand River, are full of anxious inquiries as to how things even the most homely little things, are going on at home. He is most anxious to impress on the good priest, in most of his letters, the necessity of paying particular attention to the teaching of the catechism to the children and to adults who might need attention in this matter. "I see the priests round here take great pains to teach catechism on Sundays. "Characteristically enough he sends the same priest a present of a new saddle which he thinks "will be more comfortable than the other old
one," he is "glad to hear that Dan (his own horse) need no longer work on the farm," but will for the future enjoy the dignified position as a carriage horse. He finishes the last letter, written entirely by his own hand: "I hope God will strengthen you to fulfill the heavy duties now devolving on you. I cannot say how far I might go before returning.
"God bless you,
"THOMAS SEARS, P. Ap."
On September a, 1885, he writes to Fr. Palmer, this time from the mineral springs, South Poland, Maine, U.S.A. He says in the letter that he had arrived there only the day before. Pathetically enough, this letter opens and continues to the end of the first paragraph in his own handwriting, but then he is evidently forced by loss of strength to use the services of another to write the remainder. He was rapidly sinking, but still expresses the hope of recovering, though he says that dropsy has manifested itself in-his limbs. The latest letter that I have discovered is one written to his sister, Miss Honora, and is dated Carney Hospital, South Boston, October a, 1885. To write it he had to employ the services of another, but it is full of inquiries as to conditions in the Prefecture and in the parish in particular. How the health of Fr. Palmer is bearing up under the strenuous work. How the neighbors are getting on. In spite of everything it is cheerful though he makes no allusion and for the first time we notice the absences as - to returning home. Nothing more characteristic of the man who had sacrificed all earthly comforts Without a thought and without conditions if only he might bring a little bit of light into
others' lives and bring the abandoned nearer to God through his precious ministry, could be written or dictated. Self with Thomas Sears was last even at the time when the best become with approaching death more than usually exacting.
Convinced at last that he was beyond hope of recovery he wanted, as it were, to show one final act of devotion to his beloved Prefecture, and set out for home. His wish was to leave his bones amongst the people whom he had served for so many years. God saw fit to deny both him and them this privilege, and God knows best. Even so his memory must ever abide with us while grass grows and water runs.
He was overtaken by the hand of death at Stellarton, Nova Scotia, and brought to the Presbytery (26th October) of the Rev. McDonald, where he peacefully expired at 3 a.m. on Saturday, 7th November, 1885, after he had received every possible care and attention from Fr. McDonald and the Sisters of Charity. A Requiem Mass was celebrated at Stellarton Church by the Pastor, assisted by the Rev. J. Shaw of New Glasgow and the Rev. R. McDonald of Pictou. On the Monday following his death, November 9, the remains were conveyed to Antigonish by train and thence to Lochaber, where his relatives resided. On Tuesday morning, the 10th November, Solemn Requiem Mass was celebrated in Lochaber Church by Rev. R. McDonald of Pictou. The preacher of the panegyric on that day was Archbishop O'Brien of Halifax. There were also in attendance, His Lordship Bishop Cameron, Rt. Rev. Msgr. Power, Rev. Hugh Gillis, Rev. W. B. McDonald, Rev. J. A. Fraser.
The grief when the sadness reached Newfoundland was universal. Crowds attended the requiem services held at the Cathedral in St. John's, which were presided over by His Lordship Bishop Power. The public press
of all shades of opinion, religious and political, paid glowing tributes to the late Prelate while offering their sympathy to the Church which had lost one whom they were unanimous in describing as "one of the great men whose names adorn the annals of our country."
In conclusion, I shall allow one who was intimately connected with the work of the Prefecture for some years and who besides, was in constant communication with Monsignor Sears during these years, give his opinion on the dead Prefect. It is from a masterly appreciation uttered by Fr. Phippard in announcing the news of the passing of the Prefect to the congregation at Sandy Point. It is a contemporary verdict and briefly epitomizes what has been said already:
"A great and holy man has passed to his reward, our superior, our spiritual head, thus ending a life of wonderful activity and of a most surprising zeal that never wearied of doing good. And yet, in the midst of that activity, preserving a spirit of contemplation and uncommon sanctity. The busiest day of his life he did not omit his meditation. From it he drew that faith, so rich and simple, in which we all know he was thoroughly grounded and which one could not help but admire. This faith begot the fervent devotion for which he was so remarkable. Thus as a priest and in his private life, Monsignor Sears was well worthy of our highest regard. As a priest he never lost his early piety, he was an angel of the sanctuary. Rarely will you find the life of Mary and Martha so admirably combined. He is gone from us now and it is not because one is wont to praise the dead that I extol his holiness as a priest. I have said it of him time and again, and this very summer it was my pleasure to hear some fifty clergymen of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia pronounce the same verdict of him: 'He is a very holy man.'
Travelling on sea, I am witness to the regular devotional routine of the man, even there I never knew him to omit his meditation, the saying of his beads, or the recitation of his office. In vain did I often remonstrate with him to supply that office with lighter prayers as he could do. Well,' he said, 'I always try to fulfill that obligation.'
' How onerous that duty must have been to him few can imagine. So kind a heart had he that it seemed impossible that he could injure anyone. In that large buoyant heart he held all his friends and people.... Purity of purpose accompanied his very action and the good man from the treasure of his heart brought forth only good."
The speaker then continues to recall the neglected state of the Coast and the prevalent belief that nothing good could come from the West of former days and proceeds thus:
"With the assurance of the hidden wealth firmly fixed in his mind, Monsignor Sears urged on the laying out of roads, the introduction, encouraged immigration and agriculture, sought specimens of the mineral kingdom, drew plans for chapels, streets and orphanages and selected sites for future churches. As a result of his enthusiasm and energy we have obtained that civilization we enjoy today . . . we have reason, therefore, to lament that which was sacrificed for our interests. Monsignor Sears has been the noblest benefactor of your Western Coast. He came to you when no other could be found to risk his life on your then inhospitable shore. He consumed his strength in your service and if today you count any improvements, justice demands that you associate with them this imperishable name.
" St. Jacques
" Corpus Christi, 1925. "
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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