Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Bell Island

As I will mention again in a later blog, Bell Island was the site of the largest underwater iron mine in the world. The mine had operated from the early days of settlement until it was closed - because of poorer quality ore - in the 1960s.

It - Bell Island - was the only place in eastern North America that was subjected to an attack during world War II. The older residents could remember that Sunday morning in 1944/45 when they were shaken out of their beds by loud BOOMS. One or more German submarines had sneaked into Conception Bay and torpedoed at least one boat tied up there to load iron ore. The iron mine was very important then as it was a main source of iron ore to be converted into steel and then manufactured into military machines. The ruins from that attack were still visible.

At the time of the mine closing the population had been between 10,000 and 15,000 people but, with no work for many of them, about half of them had moved away. Joey Smallwood (the only "Living Father of Confederation") offered those who wished to leave $300 per family. Before that others had moved to the Ontario towns of Galt, Hespeler and Preston northwest of Toronto (now part of the City of Cambridge) where there were jobs available. To many Bell Islanders, $300 was a lot of money - but it did not go far in Ontario!

The Town of Wabana still existed on the Island and I could see where many buildings had been abandoned and/or torn down. Also, where there had been - in all probability - a municipal government at one time, there wasn't any while I was there.

There were four religious communities on the Island - the largest was the Roman Catholic Church (more than 50% of the residents were of Irish origin), followed by the Anglicans, the United Church and the smallest were the Salvation Army folk. There were two undertakers there - the busiest was the Catholic one while the other - a Salvation Army man - looked after the needs of the Protestants.

In the core of the island there were still a few stores including a reasonably sized supermarket (the owners of that establishment were a part of my 'flock'). There was a dry goods store as well although most of the residents went over to St John's to shop for clothing, appliances and the like. There was one bank branch, a Post Office, and a garage.

There were two fairly new government buildings - a cottage hospital and, as a sop from the Provincial government when the mine closed, a Trades School. There were a public and a Catholic elementary school but those going on through high school had to go into St John's for their education.

When I caught the ferry over to the island for the first time I met Willis Jarvis at the ferry - one of the stalwarts of the United Church . Soon I would meet "Uncle George" Normore, the King family (three generations) the Tuckers and others.

The system that was already in place was that the two churches - one on Bell Island and the other in Portugal Cove - alternated as to the time of the weekly Sunday service. A morning service every other week with an evening service on the alternate Sundays.

As I lived alone - and never really liked to cook - I was invited to various homes for meals - although, in Portugal Cove, it was often to the same house - that of another King family. That household consisted of the husband (who was the Treasurer of the Pastoral Charge), his wife and her sister. The women rarely came to church but, on Sunday mornings. would be at home cooking 'Dinner' (what the midday meal was always called). There was a standing joke among them - they knew that I detest cooked turnip - a common staple there - so, when I appeared, invariably I would hear, "The Reverend is here - put on the turnips!"

On Bell Island one fairly large house was occupied by two women - Mrs. Rose and Miss Minnie Rose. They were sisters-in-law and they seemed to detest each other. When I was there for a meal I would see Miss Minnie with her cutlery and plates - and Mrs. Rose with hers (as well as separate condiment shakers). They were amusing and each of them tried to feed me the food that I loved to eat which led to some interesting dishes. For instance, I love roast beef and beef-based gravy. Both of them would make gravy and, usually, with onions in it. I have nothing against onions, per se, except that they tend to give me indigestion. Upon learning this - and the fact that I do like garlic - they began serving me 'garlic gravy'! They were two sweet ladies.

Just up the lane from the house where I lived - "the Manse" - lived the Clerk of Session of that congregation. Art was a single younger man who lived with his widowed mother - and he was quite effeminate. I was warned not to be seen with him too much or people 'may talk'! Although I am Gay too, he was not 'my type' so the worriers really had nothing to worry about.

Just after I arrived some of the elderly and infirm began dieing with alarming regularity so I received the nickname "the burying minister". Often the call came in the evening and I had no idea which way to go to find the home of the deceased so I had to rely upon Art. While I conducted only one funeral in Portugal Cove. I cannot recall the number on Bell Island and, thanks to Art (the Clerk of Session), I was able to find them all.

A few stand out in my memory (one of them is the subject of the next blog "St Patrick's Day Weekend 1972"). Another was 'amusing' in a way - an elderly woman and former Bell Island resident - had passed away at the nursing home in which she was living in St John's. She had three daughters - one lived on Bell Island (I had not met her), another in St John's and the third in Ontario. All three of them were present at the funeral and, during my address, one of them left her seat, ran to the casket, threw herself on top of it, and yelled "Mommy! Don't leave me! Don't go!" After the funeral I was told that she was the daughter who lived the closest to her mother - but never had visited.

Another was the funeral for a little boy who had died of leukemia. He lived with his family in a mean little house where the simple coffin was resting on a bier in the living room. I will never forget the sight of him lying there with his eye sockets covered by gauze pads.

As everything else on that Island was segregated, so were the cemeteries. The United Church burial ground was a fenced off plot at the point where the road from the ferry slip reached the top of the hill.

Across the road from the cemetery was a convenience store which was owned by a family who, nominally, were United Church of Canada folk. At one funeral the cortege had arrived at the cemetery and the casket was about to be lowered into the open grave when the boy (from the family who owned that store) arrived to watch. He was clad in grubby clothes. As the pall bearers were lowering the casket, it tilted and the 'family spray' slipped off of the top and down into the hole. The undertaker grabbed the boy by the scruff of his neck ordering "Get down there and get those flowers!". I never saw a kid move so fast in my life. He successfully retrieved the spray but I never saw him at another interment service.

I made it a habit at noon every day - when I was on the Island - to go to the hospital to visit. I called upon each patient in there - seldom were there many - visiting a little longer with some than with others.

That was how I met Mrs. Purchase - an Anglican lady. Over the time that I visited with her I came to like her and, at her request, to visit her at her home as well. When she passed on I attended her funeral. Through this I met her adopted son, Wayne, a young man in his early 20s. After his Mom died he was all alone in that house and, as I was all alone in mine, I invited him to move into the Manse with me. That proved to be beneficial for me as well as for him. He was born and raised on the Island, he worked in the local Post Office - and he seemed to know everybody. You will find him mentioned in the next blog.

There were a number of families with the surname 'Penny'. One was a United Church family and the husband was one of the first funerals at which I officiated. Mrs. Penny was in ill health herself and was hospitalized a number of times. During one of her stays the woman in the next bed was Mrs. Fitzgerald. I would stand between the beds while visiting and, when I was about to leave, I would take each hand in mine and say a brief prayer.

One afternoon I was on the ferry returning to the island when one of the other passengers was Father Lahey, the priest at the Catholic church. We spoke and he told me this with amusement. He also visited the hospital every day - but at supper time. He told me that he usually paused in the doorway of each room, greeted everybody in there, made the Sign of the Cross and then moved on.

One day Mrs. Fitzgerald brought him up short by exclaiming, "Father Lahey, you know that I am a good Catholic?" He nodded and then she continued, "How come it is that Reverend Lacasse says a prayer with me while you do no more than stand in the doorway, make the Sign of the Cross, and move on?" I was embarrassed but Father Lahey laughed.

When Mrs. Fitzgerald passed on I made a point to attend her funeral Mass and then the reception afterward at the family home.

In Newfoundland at that time, the only way Provincial Statistics were updated was from the forms which each clergy person was obliged to complete every month. Most important - that was how babies were registered. Therefore, I was called upon to baptize a number of children. Naturally I had to wear my collar and robes. The babe seemed to be always dressed in some antique baptismal gown made of slippery material. What I was forced to wear was made of slippery material too so, for me, taking those infants in my arms in order to baptize them was rather nerve wracking. I did not drop any one of them!

I was called upon to marry a few couples as well. The most memorable one was the one that I wished that I did not have to be the officiant.

A young man from elsewhere left his 'betrothed' at home to come to the Trades School on Bell Island. There he met a local girl, their hormones got the better of them, and she was pregnant. I honestly felt that their marriage was doomed to failure but, with the father of the bride standing there - figuratively - with the legendary shotgun, I felt that I had no option. I hate that memory!

If you look at a map of Newfoundland, you will see Bell Island sitting towards the bottom end of Conception Bay. The view from the front of my home was of the bay and, at a certain time each year, I could see a magnificent iceberg grounded on the north head of the bay. Beautiful but cold!

Sometimes being able to cross on the ferry or back was dicey (high winds or 'slob ice'). The latter is the 'cousin' of the iceberg - pans of ice from up north that had drifted into the bay and became clogged along the shore. Rarely was it really cold enough for the Bay to freeze over on its own.

In the spring of 1973 I was to go to Halifax for a study week. On the day that I was to fly out from St John's the usual route for the ferry to cross was blocked. Fortunately for me, boats were able to cross to the southern shore of Conception Bay from where I was able to get a lift to the airport.

At the end of two years I was happy to leave - yet I do have some very fond memories of having had the opportunity to live in that unusual part of Canada.

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