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PIONEER HISTORY OF ST. GEORGE'S DIOCESE

CHAPTER IX

MONSIGNOR SEARS' "REPORT OF THE STATE OF
MISSION" 1876

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On his arrival as has already been said, he was the only priest in the vast territory which we say covered a sea coast on the coast of 500 miles, but if the inlets and deep bays in the very heads of which some of his flock lived be taken into account, the distance which he would be required to cover to take it all in could be something like 700 miles.

In a report of the Mission, read before Pope Leo XIII in 1881, he said: "On my arrival I was startled by the wretched condition of the Mission." Well indeed he might be. There was only one Church building, that of Sandy Point, which deserved the name of a Church. "Of missionary residences there were none except a poor hut," and as for schools "The people had never even thought of such things."

As to the difficulties in the material order which made his spiritual work tedious, we shall quote from his Report of the Mission drawn up in the year 1876:

"It often happens that the Evangelizers of a people have to complain of the obstacles which the rulers of a county, or the peculiar political features which characterize it may cast in the way of diffusion of Christian truth or religious practices; but in this region we have to complain of the absence of all such. Not that the power of the sword or the sanction of the civil officer are necessary for the administration

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of religion. But, as religion and civilization are inseparable in their mission of elevating the human family the former cannot be got into efficient operation without the concurrence of a civil or political organization, or at least forming for itself such an organization.

"In the event of the diffusion of Christianity among the most barbarous tribes, the missionary could avail himself of the system of government that already existed among themselves, and by making this the basis of a future system, he could thus introduce the germ of a future civil organization.

"But take the adventurous members of various civilized communities and place them without an, order, any authoritative influence, and you can at once infer the consequences. It would require that a person be in direct contact with this state of society, or rather absence of society, to understand its working. For the sake of illustration let us imagine Boston, New York or Paris left without civil authority, without police constables, or anyone to enforce the law. What confusion would ensue. Again, more to our purpose, let us imagine California in the state of confusion in which we read it had been before the heterogeneous mass that formed its population was reduced to order by the influence of the United States authority, and it will be easily seen holy beneficial the co-operation of a civil polity is in aiding religion in its work of civilizing man and preserving him in that state that his Creator destined for him.

"The irreligious may scoff at the minister of religion, sometimes when grave questions invoking principles are at stake, interfering and endeavoring as he should, to direct the popular mind in the proper channel. It is true that when a question of a mere political nature agitates the public mind, it is more dignified in the minister of religion to stand aloof.

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But in a place like this where the absence of all civil order so impedes the material prosperity of the people as to arrest their moral and religious improvement, it will not be wondered at if the individual in spiritual charge raise his voice against the continuance of such a state any longer. Here we have a country abounding in natural resources calculated to support a large and thriving population comfortably, a good climate, good soil, minerals as valuable as they are diverse and fisheries unequaled in any part of the world; and here such a country geographically situated in the centre of the civilized world on the main track between Europe and America. in this latter half of the 19th Century is left a howling wilderness, and all through the apathy and neglect of those whom Providence has placed in a position in which it should be their conscientious duty to see the material interests of the people promoted. From this it may be easily inferred what difficulties stand in the way of reducing the community of such a place to order, and what obstacles stand in the way of diffusing Christian truth among them.

"The difficulties accruing from this absence of all order is intensified by our topographical position. Our greatest drawback being the want of roads and other means of communications.

"To describe the annoyance and inconvenience arising from this defect would require more space than was intended for this whole report. To be brief, just imagine three thousand souls dispersed in detached portions over some eight or nine hundred miles of sea-coast (it will take that distance when we compute the various indentures of our bays over which the messenger of the Gospel must pass). It may be that about one-half of the whole line of coast is not habitable, still this uninhabitable space must be passed

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MOST REV. NEIL McNEIL, D.D.
First Bishop of St. George's, (1895 - 1910)

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over in visiting the whole, therefore the other half would give a population of about seven persons to the mile, It is easy to conceive what obstructions this isolation casts in the way of administering to the spiritual wants, and the hardship to the missionary in undertaking such journeys, journeys which for him will never end, and no road but the trackless forest, the sea-beaten landwash, or the still more unpleasant alternative of going either in an open boat or a cranky fishing skiff along this whole coast. But if this journeying were regular there would be some mitigation of the evil; instead of this, sick calls and other incidents call him so often from one place to another that the most difficult places will have to be passed and re-passed, he is often so bewildered that he knows not what to do. None but the kind Providence, which has so long protected him, can know what he is exposed to. To perceive this one should know something of the topography of the place.

"Many suggest that whereas there are no roads, and that all journeying must be done by water, it would be better to procure a neat vessel or yacht, but here again difficulties present themselves. Even did the limited resources of the place admit of such a luxury, the striking peculiarities of this portion of the Newfoundland coast render it impracticable, there being several hundred miles of our coast without a harbor, and our seas at the conflux of the Atlantic and Gulf of St. Lawrence are so boisterous that the greater portion of the coast where the people inhabit is unapproachable by a vessel, The only alternative is to go in an open boat. With this mode of travelling a person can proceed well, but it has man, inconveniences, in the heat of the summer there is no means of protection from the scorching rays of the sun which are intensified by the smooth glittering surface of the

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water. But woe betide the poor traveller when a storm sets in. He cannot set out to sea in his open boat, if he is passing by that portion of the coast which is bordered by a line of cliffs which project from sixty to a hundred feet perpendicular from the sea, his dangers are certainly appalling. On either side of Bay St. George there is a distance of some thirty miles in which there are three or four coves some eight or ten miles apart in which to take shelter. Into one of these they must direct to the shore and haul up their boat lest it may be dashed by the surf. In this inhospitable place they must remain until the storm abates. There is no alternative, there is nothing but the unapproachable cliff in rear and the heavy surf in front. There the poor travellers must content themselves with whatever means of tenting they have with them, which is often confined to the sails of the boat. Out of this place there is no means of egress until the storm is over-let that be long or short. It has been known that a priest was detained in such a locality for four days. If he is happy enough when the storm comes on to be passing by the habitable portion of the district of course he makes for the shore and proceeds on foot to the place of destination, getting some of the inhabitants to aid in carrying his luggage on their backs, as no horses or beasts of burden can be employed owing to the absence of roads.

"Another topographical difficulty is found in attending the district of the Codroys, inasmuch as, that the rivers are barred, and one is in danger in approaching them if there is any roll in the sea. I have known the missionary to be detained several days in succession in one of those rivers, although the weather was fine enough to proceed on his journey if he could get out of the harbor, but could not on account of the heavy roll on the bar outside.

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"These, together with the great length of the territory render it almost impossible for priests to visit each place except on rare occasions especially, in winter. In that season of the year when navigation is closed, there is no way of getting from one locality to another except over the mountains, a distance of forty or fifty miles This journey must be performed on snow shoes. I have once undertaken such a journey. On the 21st of March I left the Highland settlement at 6 o'clock A.M. Our way laid first through dense forests in ascending the Cape Anguille mountains. This took us till near 9 o'clock the ascent being over seven miles. The snow was from five to six feet deep, but as there were several able young men in the company, they beat the path pretty well so that I had no difficulty in getting along with the lighter sort of snow shoes. This I would need as I as never accustomed to walk on them before that winter. On arriving at the summit we found that the snow, which had been retained on the mountain top by the shrubbery, was rendered as hard and as slippery as the most solid ice by the heavy winds of such an altitude, about 1,500 feet.

"The culmen of the mountain was an undulating plane yielding only a few shrubbery now filled and overtopped with snow. The passage this way was very dangerous, in the event of a storm. There was no shrub or land-mark to point out the way and no place to take shelter in. As we advanced a little some loose clouds obscured the sun and snow began to drift. Some of the guides, who seemed to anticipate danger when there was none imminent, took alarm and began to run. Of course the alarm soon spread, the result was that all had to run as fast as it was possible. There, of course, I was at a disadvantage as I could not keep up with those athletic men, still worse, the Esquimaux

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boots worn to suit the snow shoes were as slippery as the ice itself, and no chance even to take time to provide a remedy. In this stampede we had to run nine miles. About eleven we reached the opposite slope so that we found the first danger was over. Another hours walk brought us into a dense forest. Here we halted to prepare some refreshments. A fire being made, the repast prepared and partaken of, we were soon on our journey again. Two hours brought us on the Great Codroy River. This was some twenty miles above salt water. There I could see why it was called the Great River. It was here wide enough for twelve teams of horses to go abreast and that width extended, of course, to the mouth and so level was it and clear of rapids that it was all frozen over and formed a fine winter road the whole distance. The land on both sides is formed of a rich alluvial soil, a soil capable of yielding the best grasses for years with-out the aid of manure. Having found ourselves on the broad river we found our dangers over, still we had some twenty-four miles to travel before getting to the first house. We had to get there before taking any rest or else take the alternative of remaining under a tent such as could be formed with a few boughs of evergreens on the deep snow, all night. This I feared doing as I dreaded the consequences of taking a cold as I had perspired freely in our stampede run over the mountain summit. At six, which was sundown at that season, we halted. The men pitched up a small tent composed of green boughs. A fire being made we partook of some supper and thought of taking a little repose which was much wanted, but so uncomfortable was it that it was thought better to leave and resume our journey: depend on it, it required some effort after being from sunrise to sundown on foot. But there was no alternative so on we trudged hour after hour on the

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broad river till midnight and an hour after when luckily, a horse was sent from the settlement to meet me. It was certainly an acceptable boon for I was nearly exhausted; but the suffering from cold for an hour which it required to get to the settlement was the most intense I ever endured as I was in such a heat from walking. But I must refrain for were I to give an account of all that the poor missionary has to encounter in these region; it would fill volumes. The greatest obstacle after all to the spiritual as well as to the material advancement of this region is that each locality is so completely isolated and separated from the neighbouring one that there is scarcely an intercommunication between them."

 

 

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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