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THE APPOINTMENT OF THE FIRST RESIDENT PRIEST
Following the course of events which covers a period of nearly one hundred years that is since the romantic if nearly tragic journey of Henri L'Official, which resulted in his being cast ashore on the wild coast of Newfoundland and his settling there with his wife, we now come to a point, as the visit of Bishop Mullock and his subsequent actions on behalf of Bay St. George indicate, when we discover some semblance, we may say semblance only, of organized religion on the Western Shore. He arrived at Sandy Point on the 27th day of August, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Mary, 1848. With his assistant priest he heard many confessions and administered the sacrament of Baptism and Matrimony to many. He promised the people in answer to their urgent requests to do everything in his power to secure a priest who would live among them under his jurisdiction. During the next year however, much to the disappointment of the people, no priest made his appearance to stay with them. A priest from St. Pierre put in at Sandy Point on his way to Prince Edward Island; he merely heard confessions but did not say Mass. No doubt during this time Bishop Mullock was scouring Ireland and Canada in an endeavor to secure a priest for this out of the way place and if he failed again and again it can easily be accounted for by the fact that he had already a large number of subjects to provide for nearer home and that even for those labors the work of securing priests was far from easy.
It was not till the year 1850 that a priest did come with the intention of taking up residence somewhere on the Coast and it is not at all unlikely as I think that it was through the exertions of Bishop Mullock as his promise to the people would indicate, that this man came. From the Records compiled by Bishop Howley and already referred to I extract the following which bears on the subject under discussion: "On the 7th September, 1850 Revd. Alexis Belanger, a priest formerly of Quebec and also of the Diocese of Charlottetown, P.E.I., arrived at Sandy Point from Labrador. He had been stationed at the Magdalen Islands since 1839." I have been able to verify this date as I have in my possesession a little prayer-book on the fly-leaf of which I find in the handwriting of Fr. Belanger the following inserption: "A. A. Belanger, Ptre. Miss. des Isles de la Magdelein. 1839." Bishop Howley then goes on to quote as he says from the Diary of Bishop Mullock: "On the 28th February 1850, wrote to Fr. Belanger giving faculties to settle in Bay of Islands and work there, as many of the Magdalen Islanders are about forming a settlement there." Where Fr. Belanger was or when he received that letter Bishop Howley was not able to discover. "But he came from Blanc Hablon on board a schooner . . . trading out of St. Pierre for Romaine. It would appear that Fr. Belanger had not received Bishop Mullock's letter before leaving the Magdalens as on the 19th August, 1850, he received into the Church at Blanc Sablon Cote de Labrador, Diocese de Terre Neuve, Sophie Demarais, wife of Louis Beaudoin, en vertue du pouoir que j'ai recu de Monseigneur P. F. Turgeon, Eveque de Sidymn et Adm. du Diocese de Quebec'." It is quite evident, however, that he either got it or another letter of the same purport at Sandy Point on his arrival if he did not get it on the way thither, for on the very day after his arrival at this place
he baptized a child and with this, the first entry, we find the following: "Nous pretre Missionaire de la Baie St. George.'' The first marriage regristered is dated September 20th, 1850, and he dispences with the banns, "En vertu des pouvoirs a nous accordes par Mgr. l'Eveque de Terre Neuve.''
In another entry of a marriage dated 23rd January, 1851, he. for the first time, mentions the Bishops name -Mgr. John Mullock. In the register of burials, .July 12, 1851, he signs himself for the first time. "Vic. Gen."
In the year 1852 Bishop Mullock again visited the West. He was accompanied on this occasion by Fr. John Vereker. He found Fr. Belanger residing in a small log house in which His Lordship said Mass. The Church which he had been instrumental in starting four years before he found well underway. He sympathized with the undertaking on this occasion to the extent of £60.0.0.
It is a matter of keen regret that so little can be discovered to through light on the labors of this heroic man whose lonely life spent in the service of the few settlers in Bay St. George must have been full of inconveniences more easily imagined than described. He gave the most of his time and attention to the settlement in which he resided. He visited the outlying places, Bay of Islands and Codroy a few times but as far as can be seen he did nothing to seek outside help for the missions. From the year 1854 onwards his visits to Codroy were more frequent than before that date. He visited Bay of Islands for the first time in 1863 and again in 1868. "He was well received by the poor people according to their means especially by a Mr. Petipas, a merchant who gave him the hospitality of his house for his own use whilst he used an adjacent store for a chapel but in other parts of the Bay this poor missionary had to take up his abode in a small fishing hut
on the shore. In this he spent several days, the poor people coming from different places to see him. So exhausted was he from labor that he was often known to be obliged to give up several times before he could get though the ceremonies of baptizing a few children. This was the condition in which he was when he had to undertake the voyage homewards some one hundred miles pent up in the uncomfortable cabin of an old schooner used in the fish trade. Thus did that energetic missionary sacrifice his life in the vineyard of his Divine Master. He only lived some four or five days after his return. We may piously hope that he is now enjoying the reward that such sacrifice merits. The hardships of ill-accommodation was not from any want of goodwill on the part of the poor people who did the best they could, but there was no means of doing any better in the place''-Journal of Monsignor Sears. Speaking of the spiritual fruits of his visit the same Journal tells us: "It was astonishing what work the missionary had to do, especially on this last visit as the parish register which he left amply testifies. So many baptisms so many marriages to bless, so many to be instructed who wished to become united with our holy Church...."
On September 7, 1868, four days after his return to Sandy Point Fr. Belanger, alone, died, worn out by labor. After his death the horror stricken people seeing no possibility of securing a priest for the obsequies took the singular resolution of taking, his remains to Quebec a distance of six hundred miles. His precordia are buried at Sandy Point while his body was buried under the stately Church of St. Roch, below Quebec his native Parish.
In the preceding I have done all I could with the sparse material at my disposal to give a connected account of the beginnings of the Catholic Church in Bay St. George. I have not committed anything to
writing that could be regarded as speculation. I have tried to follow as closely as I know how the role of Narrator whose duty is to give facts.
The life work of the man who above others that came before him left an impress on the West will claim our attention now. Some idea of the nature of the place has given. His journals will yield further information as we proceed. He found indeed many faithful souls but he found also many obstacles which to a smaller mind would seem insuperable and which would have strained to breaking point a faith less robust than that of Thomas Sears.
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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