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Pioneer Church Work in British Columbia
Being a Memoir of the Episcopate of Acton Windeyer Sillitoe, D.D., D.C.L.
First Bishop of New Westminster.

By the Rev. Herbert H. Gowen, F.R.G.S.

London: Mowbray, 1899.

Chapter XXVII.


THE tolling of the cathedral bell early on that Sunday morning informed the outside world that the first Bishop of New Westminster had completed his labours on earth. Within the See House loving hands dressed the dead Bishop in his robes, and gathered around the private altar to find comfort in the Communion of Saints realized through Communion with Christ in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

All day the bereaved parishioners and citizens came to have one last look at him whose loving presence they had lost.

The body lay thus in simple state till it was borne by the priests of the diocese to the cathedral, after Evensong on the Tuesday. At the gate of the cathedral grounds the little procession was met by the Archdeacon of Columbia, who, with the impressiveness which came from knowing himself a dying man (he did not survive the Bishop long), recited the opening sentences of the Burial Service.

The body was then laid in the chancel immediately before the altar, and a watch service, which, like the other arrangements for the funeral, had been long before provided for by the Bishop himself, was commenced by the Archdeacon, and kept up all through the night and following morning.

At 7.30 a.m. there was a plain celebration of the Holy Communion, and at nine o'clock a full Choral Celebration exactly like those at which the Bishop had so often officiated and had taught his people to love. With eyes closed to shut out the sight of the flower-laden coffin, it was difficult to believe the Bishop was not there in the living flesh. Indeed, the choir he had trained with so much enthusiastic self-sacrifice must have felt him present. The celebrant was the Bishop of Columbia, Dr. Perrin, and a very large number of people, both clergy and laity, communicated.

Immediately after the celebration, about 11.30, the Burial Service was resumed by Bishop Perrin, and with deep feeling the psalms chanted and the two hymns sung. The hymns were, "The Saints of God! their conflict past" and "For all the Saints who from their labours rest." Then, many being moved to tears, the body, borne by the clergy, was carried for the last time from the church, while the strains of the "Dead March" pealed forth from the organ.

The funeral cortege was, perhaps, the largest the city of New Westminster ever beheld. The body was carried by relays of bearers, representing the three city parishes of Holy Trinity, S. Barnabas', and S. Mary's, Sapperton, and the churches of Vancouver. The choir, members of the Women's Auxiliary and other parochial organizations followed. Then came delegations from the Westminster Bar, the Grand Lodge of Freemasons (of which the Bishop had been an influential member), the City Council, and other public bodies. Finally came the mourners and a long line of private carriages containing friends of the deceased Bishop.

When the grave was reached, it was found to be already almost covered with floral offerings of all kinds, tokens of respect laid by many hands, while at the head of the grave there shone in the sun a large cross twelve feet in height, made entirely of golden blossoms of the broom.

The service at the grave was said by Bishop Barker of Colorado, U.S.A., and at the close the hymn "Now the labourer's task is o'er" was impressively sung by the choir. The filling in of the grave was done by the clergy, each one present taking a turn, and then the newly raised mound was covered with the beautiful flowers brought from the church.

So the tired body was left in peace while the thoughts of the bereaved ones went out in thankfulness to God for a noble life worthily ended, and a noble labour worthily rewarded.

But "dead, he yet speaketh;" and the diocese, under the new ruler given her by God, will go forward inspired and heartened by the memory of him who was called upon to lay the foundations.

Men of all types and schools of thought were ready to bear testimony to the value of the work he had done.

On the Sunday following the Bishop's death, the Rector of Christ Church, Vancouver, in the course of his sermon, thus summed up the loss the diocese had sustained:--

"I cannot let this opportunity pass without saying at least one feeble word as to the loss which this diocese has sustained in the death of Bishop Sillitoe. Called to preside over it at a time when it was little more than a vast and virgin forest, like a wise master-builder he laid its foundations broad and deep--foundations., that are likely to stand the test of time. For years he toiled in this laborious field with a zeal and devotion and self-denial that are beyond all praise. And he toiled to the very last. It is scarcely more than a month since he was in our midst administering to our candidates the rite of Confirmation. It is not too much to say that he died in harness--even to say that he died a martyr to his deep sense of duty. No one, I am sure, could know Bishop Sillitoe intimately without being charmed by his genial and friendly manner, and without being impressed by his zeal, earnestness, and manliness. Such qualities--the gifts of the Eternal Spirit--are not likely soon to die or to be forgotten. Through them, though dead, he yet speaketh, and will speak for many years to all who knew him. . . ."

And one who knew the Bishop still more intimately, the Rev. H. Edwardes, of Lytton, has written a testimony which I cannot forbear quoting--

"Speaking for myself," he writes, "it is difficult to know what to say. But throughout the 'Upper Country' the Bishop was appreciated very highly indeed for his manly qualities and his indefatigable travel and work. Every man on the road--hotel-keepers, farmers, teamsters, roadmen--knew him and respected him as a friend and as a man. It was the same on the railway, few men being so familiarly known, and withal so respected as the Bishop throughout the rough days of construction.

"How well I remember when I first met him at the old S. Paul's Mission House in the depths of the Fraser Canon in 1884, and the kind brotherly manner in which he bade me welcome, and made me feel that he was not only my Bishop, but my brother.

"And how patiently and laboriously he took his part in our Indian work whenever he could visit us there or at Lytton! We generally had a large number of Indians ready for him to baptize and confirm, and administer discipline to--oh! such a dense, stupid, apparently brainless crowd--and hour after hour the Bishop would patiently teach and catechize them when my own little stock of patience had run dry hours before, and my temper had grown rusty. I remember one night, as he was deep in such a class of catechumens, a lamp in the kitchen adjoining burst, and in a moment the room was in flames, which were making their way through the roof of cedar shakes. There was immediately a scene of excitement and confusion, no one quite knowing what to do until the Bishop's common sense came to the rescue, and he set us to throw earth over the flames. He was very soon back at his teaching and examining, as though nothing had happened.

"No man was so popular up the Cariboo Road and amongst the Cariboo people as the Bishop. He and Mrs. Sillitoe were always welcome guests, and everywhere made themselves at home with the people they visited. Very rough times they often had on the road, sometimes driving in great danger through raging forest fires, and sometimes unharnessing the horses, and themselves lifting the well-known buckboard over fallen trees. In all kinds of places the Bishop was ready to hold service for the benefit of any handful of men he came across, in bar-rooms, stores, hotels, stations, on the roadside, in railway camps and cars, anywhere where his message would be received. Often he carried a concertina, and would himself accompany the Canticles and hymns at these impromptu services. . . . May I say in conclusion that I know no man I loved more truly, no man more generously forgiving and more ready to forget also.

"It was that which made one love him so, I think. His manly courage, his ready sympathy, his delightful unselfishness, his keen sense of humour, his quiet dignity, combined with higher qualities still, made up a splendid character. We have not only lost our Bishop, but our friend. British Columbia has been fortunate in the possession of a Bishop of such powers and character as Bishop Sillitoe, and so say hardheaded business and working men of all creeds wherever I go in my travels in British Columbia. . . . God grant him eternal rest and peace."

Of other and similar personal testimony from both Indians and whites, from both cultured and unlearned, there is no lack.

One writes to Mrs. Sillitoe--

"It may seem selfish to obtrude my own thoughts and feelings at such a time, and yet I feel that you will care to know that I can never cease to thank God for the Bishop. His wise and loving direction at a time when my mind was most unsettled regarding religious questions has without doubt saved my life from shipwreck, and it is to him I owe my present happiness in God's service."

And another--

"Our dear Bishop was always considerate for the views and perhaps the prejudices of others. I can never forget the kindness and courtesy with which he always received me, even when asking him to do things with which he could not agree. ... It may surprise you to know that he was the only clergyman to whom I ever went for consolation when in trouble."

And another--

"As one who has received from Bishop Sillitoe much spiritual assistance, much for which there must be always very deep thankfulness, I can assure you that I must always bear a very grateful remembrance of him."

Once again--

"No one knows, dear Mrs. Sillitoe, what he has been to us, how lovingly he has led us on to higher things."

And for the Church at large no words can more fitly sum up the Bishop's character and work than the following passage from the address of the Bishop of Nova Scotia to his synod:--

"A man of solid learning and many gifts, he never spared himself in any way if he might do or say something which would further the work committed to his trust, the establishing and extending of the Church in the newly created diocese, including all the southern half of the mainland of British Columbia, and containing an area of one hundred and eighty-six thousand square miles, a territory about eight times the size of this diocese. Is it any wonder that fourteen years and a half of such work, in such a field, should have quite sufficed to cut short, before its time, a life full of great blessing, and to arrest a career which contained the elements of greatness? Another warm heart has ceased to beat; another encouraging presence has been withdrawn; another cheering voice has been hushed; another workman's task is ended; another leader of God's host is fallen. 'They shall enter into peace; they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness.'"

There are many aspects of the Bishop's life which this imperfect memoir has not touched. If it were a record of the Bishop's life, rather than the story of a Bishop's work, these pages would be incomplete without separate chapters telling of Bishop Sillitoe's work as musician, his work as Mason, his work as citizen. So full of charm as a host was he, that we should have had to tell of that unfailing humour which made his table a feast of mirth, and his home the attraction of so many varied types of men.

But these things live in the memory of many, and are not to be reproduced in any written word.

So we bring to an end this chronicle of an Episcopate characterized by unceasing toil, if not by romantic adventure, and fruitful to all time in the lesson of duty heroically done in face of obstacles innumerable.

With such a Bishop's grave amongst us the diocese can never be poor. As we gaze upon it under the shadow of the mighty trees of the Western forest it speaks to us of the continuity of a cause which marches on victoriously, though every standard-bearer fall in the fight. We know that while God has given rest to His servants, their work is not done, nor can their graves be cold.

"Cold graves, we say? It shall be testified
That living men, who burn in heart and brain,
Without the dead were colder. If we tried
To sink the past beneath our feet, be sure
The future would not stand.
Who dared build temples without tombs in sight?
Or live without some good man's benison?
Or seek truth, hope for good, and strive for right,
If looking up, he saw not in the sun
Some angel of the Martyrs all day long
Standing and waiting?"

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