I was awakened at 7:30 AM by the sound of the telephone ringing. Glancing out the window I could see that it was a gloriously sunny day. Unfortunately, a 'sunny day' was not in store for Bell Island.
I had graduated from the United Church of Canada School of Theology in June of 1971. The biggest question during that final year - to where would we eleven new ordinands be posted? Usually, a first Pastoral charge was somewhere in rural B.C. Or somewhere in the Prairie Provinces. Not that year, though - four of us were sent to Newfoundland and I was posted to the Bell Island/Portugal Cove Pastoral Charge less than 10 miles from St John's.
Bell Island had been the site ot the largest underwater iron mine in the world. It had closed a couple of years before when the quality ore had petered out. That was near the end of Joey Smallwood's tenure as Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. The loss of the iron mines was a serious blow to the Provincial economy and some compensation for the displaced miners and their families was important. To solve this problem Joey offered each family on Bell Island $300 if they abandoned their homes and moved elsewhere. Already a number of people had moved to the towns of Galt, Preston and Hespeler (later those towns were amalgamated and are now a part of the City of Cambridge which is northwest of Toronto). As there were profitable factories in that area, a move there appealed to many of the Islanders.
The caller on the telephone introduced herself as Mrs. Peddie. She had an urgent message for the family of a Peddie boy who had been seriously injured in a traffic accident near Guelph, Ontario the evening before. Mrs. Peddie had telephoned the Rector of the Anglican Church but had been informed that he was off of the island on business. Mrs. Morgan, mother of the Rector, suggested that I be called instead.
I had never heard of the Peddies and had no idea as to where they lived in that sprawling community. However, through my pastoral work, I had met a young man, Wayne Purchase, through visiting his late mother while she was a patient in the community hospital. When Mrs. Purchase died and Wayne was alone in the house. I had invited him to move into the manse where I lived. He worked at the local Post Office and knew practically everybody in the old mining community.
I woke Wayne and told him the news. He knew John Peddie so he was shocked. As my car was in a garage for repairs he offered me the use of his. He would ride with me to the Peddie house so I would know where it was located and then I would drive him to the Post Office and return.
Because of the nature of my visit I had changed into my clerical attire. After dropping Wayne at his work I returned to the Peddie house. It was obvious that the main entry to the home was by the back door so I walked around there and knocked. The door was opened by a middle-aged man who reeled back into the kitchen at the sight of me.
Out of nowhere a woman rushed past me and into the corridor that led from the kitchen to the rest of the house where she enveloped Mrs. Peddie into her arms and exclaimed, "There there, Mary, God wants Johnny more than you do!" That is the worst bit of theology that I have heard ever!!!
In the meantime Mr. Peddie sat at the kitchen table so I sat opposite him. He was very distressed and he nervously nudged the telephone towards me. I asked if he would like me to make a telephone call? Yes - to his brother who lived in Galt, Ontario. I placed the call and there I learned that the auto accident had been major and that there were others who were hurt - including the son (Chesley Eveleigh) of the woman who looked after my housekeeping.
While this was going on Mrs. Peddie, her young daughter, and the neighbor woman were keening in the corridor while another son, Robert. was nervously pacing around. When I rose to leave Robert asked if he could accompany me. Robert was 15 or 16 years old (Johnny was 19) and he just had to get away from the grief.
Mrs. Eveleigh came to my house to clean on Thursdays and always took my laundry home with her. I would go over on Saturday to retrieve it. It was 9:30 in the morning when Robert and I arrived there. An older brother of Ches' opened the door and, when he saw me, naturally he thought that I was there to collect my laundry. I had to tell him "No" - but that his brother, Ches, had been in a bad car accident during the evening before. The rest of the family were still in bed - however they could hear my voice and, before their brother could get to them, they began keening. The older brother then placed a call to a family member in Galt.
Robert remained with me all day as I drove here and there and everywhere on errands. During that time we learned that there had been five people in that car - the young woman who owned the vehicle (she had just purchased it and was taking the boys for a spin up the 401 Freeway) - Johnnie and Ches beside her and two more Bell Island boys in the back seat. As she was tooling along the highway she came upon a transport truck which was parked on the shoulder of the road. She slammed right into it killing herself, Ches and Johnnie and injuring the two guys riding in the back seat. One of those boys got off fairly lightly - he only suffered a broken leg and was able to make it home for the funerals.
A member of my congregation was Dr. Smith one of the two physicians on the Island. He had a private pilot's license. Naturally, the news of the accident spread everywhere almost immediately so the good Doctor telephoned me offering to take me up for a ride in his plane. Unfortunately, I had so much to attend to that I had to decline.
St Patrick's Day was on the Friday and the Catholic congregation - the largest of the four religious communities on the Island - held a St Patrick's Day party on the Saturday evening. It was the time of Spring Breakup so the ground was soft and muddy. The Catholics had a goodly supply of collapsible chairs and, knowing that we would have overflowing crowds, they voluntarily walked over with the chairs when their event ended. A member of my congregation was a teacher at the Trades School. He remained up all of Saturday night with a wet mop cleansing the floor of the muddy footprints - an example of the residents of a small community coming together in the face of difficulty.
Bell Island was connected to the rest of Newfoundland by a ferry that crossed "The Tickle" to Portugal Cove. The final ferry left "The Cove" at 11:15 PM. However, after returning from Bell Island, the ferry crew waited at the slip in the Cove until the hearses arrived from the airport - the flight had been delayed. The ferry crew took the hearses across to the Island so that the bodies could be delivered to the two churches. Yet another example of a small community pulling together in the face of tragedy.
Being more liberal in my thinking than my Newfoundland neighbors, I was hoping for a joint funeral but both families vetoed that suggestion. Instead, we held the service for Ches Eveleigh in the United Church at 1:00 PM on Monday, took the casket to the United Church cemetery and then went to the Anglican Church and cemetery for the services for John Peddie. Those lads had been life long buddies but they could not be buried together!
To complicate matters even further, a Provincial Election had been called and, on the Monday, my journal notes that I had to play host to some of the ruling Conservative Cabinet ministers. When it came to the funeral for Ches, I looked down from the pulpit and saw each of the candidates from the three major parties seated to my right, center and to my left. No matter what the circumstance, politicking must go on.
As soon as the burial in the United Church cemetery had been completed, everybody - including myself - rushed to the Anglican Church to repeat the process.
The events of March 18 to 21, 1972 will linger in my memory forever.