IT was the policy of the Church Missionary Society from the advent of the first missionary in the country to educate and train a body of country-born clergy, who would carry on and extend the work of evangelizing the Indians in North-West Canada.
Of these, Thomas Vincent was, perhaps, the most remarkable for his fiery zeal in the cause of Christ. He was born on the first of March, 1835, at Osnaburgh, within the borders of that territory in which he was destined to labour as a missionary for many years. His father, John Vincent, was a fur-trader for the Hudson's Bay Company at Osnaburgh, and his mother, Charlotte Thomas, the daughter of a Hudson's Bay officer, was born at Moose Factory. They retired from the fur trade in 1840, and made their home in St. Paul's Parish, Middlechurch. Here Thomas attended the parish school, receiving an elementary education, and in the humble home life he received that training in manual toil and resourcefulness, which in after years made him a successful missionary in the wild wastes of the north.
The home influences surrounding young Vincent were no small factor in deciding his future. His mother was a devout and God-fearing woman, with a deep reverence for the things of God, and out of her holy admiration for the missionaries in the Red River Valley sprang the desire that one of her sons should be given to the ministry. It was in direct answer to her prayers that the call came to Thomas Vincent as he was one day working in the meadow. There and then he gave his heart to God and decided to serve Him as a missionary.
To this end he attended the Red River Academy in St. John's Parish, devoting himself heart and soul to his studies. On hearing that a catechist was wanted for Moose Factory, James' Bay, he volunteered his services to Bishop Anderson, who promptly and gladly accepted him.
Starting out from Fort Carry with the Bishop in a canoe, he travelled down the Red River to Lake Winnipeg, then up the Winnipeg River through Lake of the Woods, through Lac Seul and Lake St. Joseph and down the Albany River to James' Bay.
In the course of the long canoe journey, the Bishop and young Vincent passed many encampments of Indians, and two or three days were spent at each place, preaching the word of life, baptizing and confirming those who were ready for these holy rites.
The young recruit thus received a splendid initiation into the blessed work of evangelizing the Indians under the saintly Bishop, setting on fire that zeal for the salvation of souls which was the outstanding feature of his missionary life. On that journey he gave evidences of his fitness for the life opening out before him, in paddling all day long without feeling weary, carrying heavy loads across the portages, taking his share in the camp work and acting as interpreter for the Bishop in dealing with the Indians. From Fort Albany they took passage in a sailboat to Moose Factory, where they were warmly welcomed by the Rev. John Horden, who was in charge of the mission.
This mission had been established in 1851, by that indefatigable worker for Christ--John Horden--and the work was growing in a most encouraging manner, but it was a tremendous burden for one man. Besides the active work of a zealous missionary there was a lively literary work going on. A printing press came to Horden from England, and he was making good use of it by printing his translations of the Scripture and prayers and hymns into the Cree syllables. Here was a man doing the immortal work of giving the people a written language--lifting the natives of Hudson's Bay out of a life of illiteracy to a life of enlightenment. Thomas Vincent was taken to the village school soon after his arrival and placed in charge as teacher. The next few years were spent at Moose Factory under the able direction of Mr. Horden, who applied the rules and methods of the Church Missionary College to the work and life of the mission. The early hours of the morning were devoted to manual work about the mission station, three hours to teaching in the school, two hours after lunch to systematic study with Horden as lecturer or tutor, then a couple of hours of helping Horden in the printing room, or the study of the language, or in doing outside work about the mission, and after supper the hours were devoted to study. John A. Mackay (now Archdeacon of Saskatchewan) was also one of the students and workers at this busy mission. He had been noticed by Mr. Horden, as he worked at a carpenter's bench at Fort George, on the eastern side of Hudson's Bay, as likely material for the training school at Moose, and had been persuaded to join the little band. Thus Vincent and Mackay studied and worked side by side under the great "Apostle of the Hudson's Bay," and imbibed from him that fiery zeal and missionary spirit which made them famous among Canadian missionaries. During the summer months long journeys in different fields were taken by each worker, in the endeavour to spread the Gospel throughout the large district of Moosonee. Gradually the influences of Christianity spread from camp to camp, from post to post, and soon the cry came from certain localities, "Come over and help us."
It was in response to this cry that Thomas Vincent was sent to Fort Albany, about one hundred miles north-west of Moose.
The history of Albany goes back to the sixteenth century, when Charles Bailey, first governor of Rupert's Land, built a fort at the mouth of the Albany River in opposition to the French-Canadian traders, who were exploiting the west coast of the Bay.
The present post is situated on the south bank of an island in the Albany River, and is a centre of gravitation for all the Indians hunting and trapping in the wooded and muskeg lands round about. Hundreds of Indians came to Albany to barter their furs for goods in the Hudson's Bay store, and only a few were Christians. It was a large and open field, providing a wide scope for all the energies, enthusiasm and spirituality of a young missionary. For the next forty years this post was the headquarters of a strong and zealous missionary, who played a great part in the evangelization of the Indians in the Albany River District.
Vincent was ordained a deacon and appointed to the mission of Albany in 1860, on the occasion of the last visit of Bishop Anderson to Hudson's Bay. When he landed at Albany, he had the option of renting a house from the Hudson's Bay Company, or building one for himself. His early training in the school of toil and self-dependence on the banks of the Red River, and his experience in the mission work at Moose, had helped to develop a rugged and self-reliant man, and he decided to commence building operations. He had to go off into the virgin forest, hew timber and vigorously work the pit-saw to make lumber. By sheer hard work, indomitable courage and perseverance he succeeded in the course of time in building a very comfortable house. It afforded him shelter and privacy for the prosecution of his studies, as well as accommodation for classes of catechumens and small congregations during the severe winter. His next ambition was a church building where he could accommodate his growing congregation. After another season of chopping and sawing, enough timber and lumber was prepared for the building of a church.
The logs and boards were made into a raft and floated down to the shore at the mission site. With the help of the Indians these logs and boards were carried or pulled up the bank. Vincent surprised the Indians by shouldering a log himself and carrying it up the bank to the site of building. The young men admired and applauded the young missionary for his extraordinary strength, but the old men looked solemn and said, "Our Praying Chief must take care of his great strength for the greater work of saving souls." Vincent said many years afterward that he never forgot the timely rebuke of the old men, and that it cured him of foolishly giving exhibitions of strength when there was no need for it. Previous to this rebuke he had injured the muscles of his right hand in pushing a two-inch grooving plane, and the injury had rendered the thumb powerless. For youthful indiscretions like these he suffered in after years.
With the help of the Indians and the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, the missionary built his church which a few years later was enlarged, and it became one of the prettiest little churches in James' Bay. While devoting much of his time to building operations, Vincent was also fighting a fierce battle for the cause of Christianity, preaching Christ crucified to a benighted people, bringing many into touch with a loving Saviour. Many of the Indians were still in heathen darkness, the slaves of savage superstition, and such things as stealing, cannibalism, murder, polygamy, immorality and hardness of heart darkened the moral horizon. Then there was a dead weight of indifference on the part of the more enlightened inhabitants, which was very discouraging to the lonely missionary. It was truly a testing time for Thomas Vincent. Thank God, the soul of Vincent had been arrested years ago by the living Christ and the touch of the Divine Master had revealed the hidden gold in his character, making him a strong man and a shining light amidst the sordid surroundings of heathen darkness. Only the quickened soul can quicken, only the spirit-filled life can draw other souls unto God.
In a short time great grace fell upon the people of Albany, and the young missionary had the joy of leading many anxious enquirers to the foot of the cross, bringing them into touch with the Divine Master. The Breath of God passed through the forests and muskegs of the northern wastes, the class of catechumens grew larger, the searching after God's Word was taken up in earnest, daily professions of faith were made, and every Sunday the little church was filled with devout worshippers. About this time the Rev. John Horden came round on a tour of inspection, and .after seeing the wonderful results of a short ministry said of Vincent in his official report to the Church Missionary Society, "A better appointment could not have been made."
While Vincent was working and studying at the Moose Mission, he had won the affections of Eliza Ann--a daughter of Chief Factor Gladman of Moose Factory. Having partially solved the problem of living in the wilderness, with a fairly comfortable house ready, Vincent claimed his bride on September 11th, 1861, and thus began a happy partnership, which was made sacred by much suffering, privation and hardship, in the service of Jesus Christ among the Indians of the north.
Born and brought up among the Indians, Mrs. Vincent was a very capable wife for the zealous missionary and a great help in the study of the language and character of the Indians.
As the work of Albany now required the ministrations of a priest, the young deacon accepted Bishop Andersen's invitation to present himself for ordination. He had to leave his mission in February at the coldest time of the Arctic winter, when travelling can only be done under great hardship. Day after day Vincent, walking on snowshoes, along with the half-breed mail carriers, pulled his sleigh containing his baggage and food, camping out in the cold nights. They could not carry much food along with their baggage, and had to depend on their guns for game, which rarely came in sight at that time of the year. It was one of the most remarkable journeys made by this hardy person, covering a distance of thirteen hundred miles on snowshoes--pulling a heavy sleigh behind him, "going up for Priest's Orders!" How many men at the present time would undertake such a journey to obtain priest's authority and powers?
When Vincent arrived at Dynevor, who should meet him there but his old fellow student and friend, John A. Mackay, who had been for some time studying at St. John's. The two friends drove together to Vincent's old home at Middlechurch, recounting the experiences and blessings of the past few years.
As soon as the ordination was over Vincent returned to his work by canoe, travelling over the same route he had taken in 1855, preaching the Gospel as he went along and administering the Sacraments of the Church. Hundreds listened to the story of the love of God in sending His Son to save sinners, told in their own language by a big powerful man possessing a divine magnetism which drew the hidden goodness of their souls to the surface, making them feel that they would like to give their lives to God.
"The big praying Chief" was held in awe by many because of his physical domination and remarkable insight to the Indian nature, but they also knew that the big man could deal as gently and quietly with the broken sinner as a professional nurse with her patient, gently leading the soul to nobler issues.
In 1865, the Rev. John Horden went home to England on furlough, and Mr. Vincent was called to take charge of the mission at Moose, which meant greater responsibility and double labour, as of course he had to keep up his own work at Albany.
The work at Moose under Mr. Horden was well organized. Intense activity was its feature, and Mr. Vincent soon found that his great strength, his fearless courage, his steady perseverance, would all be needed to carry on Horden's work. He probably learned some lessons at Moose which were necessary in the development of a strong character and among them were--the out-flow of love to bring others to the Fountain of Love, Jesus Christ, and diplomacy in working among a people of mixed race. Bishop Horden was like the Apostle John--full of love, and he loved his converts into the Christian life. Vincent was like Elijah the Tishbite, coming down from his Carmel with fearful energy and shaking the ground on which sinners stood. Though quick to speak and ready to condemn, no one would show more penitence than Vincent, when he found that he had made a mistake. One can understand that the change from Horden to Vincent at the mission could not be done without a certain little disturbance in the atmosphere. The change, however, was sometimes necessary, both for Vincent and the people at Moose. In spite of the stern aspect of his religion he appreciated a joke with boyish glee, and he could relax when he was surrounded by young people.
During his leisure moments he worked at a turning lathe, making the Communion rails for his church at Albany, showing how his thoughts would dwell on Albany and its needs. Under his direction the carpenters at Moose made a reading desk and a pulpit for the same church.
Once during the winter he walked along the cold coast to visit his people at Albany, receiving severe frost bites on the road, and enduring hardships which were all forgotten on arriving at his old mission.
Faithful Indians were acting as lay-readers, endeavouring to keep up the religious interests of their fellow-Christians. The backsliders were called in and dealt with, the hardened sinner received a fresh and stirring appeal, and the faithful few were strengthened and encouraged by the inspiring addresses, quiet talks and fervent prayers of the evangelist. In June of the same year Mr. Vincent left Moose Mission to the care of the catechist while he went on a missionary journey in the Rupert's River District on the eastern side of James' Bay. This was his second journey in this region. The first was made when he was a student at the Moose Mission. He was an enthusiastic evangelist, full of fiery zeal for the cause of Christ, ever keen to be on the move in the interests of the Gospel. Restless energy and emotional preaching characterized his ministry. To be confined to the organized work of a settled parish was irksome to him. He wanted to be up and doing, moving crowds into action, or using his physical force in building churches and parsonages. So he gladly seized every opportunity of travelling for the cause of Christianity. In the district of Rupert's River the Indians were still wrapped up in their heathen superstitions and prejudices.
There was great need for a man of force and emotion to break the tyranny of sin and stir up the spiritual life of the stoical and reserved Indian. Vincent was the man for such work. He could deliver his powerful message at the meetings with stirring effect, and then he would go through the wigwams pressing home that message, often contending with the conjurers and medicine men, who used their cunning to hinder the acceptance of his message. When speaking in the Cree language he was full of force and emotion, working up his audience to a great state of feeling."
On one occasion an old heathen chief decided to make a public struggle for the faith of his forefathers. He interrupted a Christian service and challenged the "Praying Chief" to give some miraculous sign that the Christian religion was I true. The missionary could have hurled him through the open window of the building as easily as throwing a log, which would have been considered an extraordinary feat of strength, but he braced himself for a mental battle instead. It was paganism versus Christianity. The Indian was sometimes loud and insulting, but the "Big Praying Chief" was patient and firm, driving his arguments home with telling effect on the audience and pressing his man into a corner. When the Indian realized that he was a beaten man, a great look of fear came into his face, his limbs shook and he fell down in a dead faint. His crestfallen and frightened followers carried him from the room and the Christians regarded the incident as a great triumph for their cause. The same heathen chief eventually became one of the most ardent Christians in the district. On this journey Vincent travelled with the freight canoes up the Rupert River, assembling the men morning and evening for prayers, instructing them whenever the opportunity for a few words came. The various isolated posts in the interior were all reached, the gracious message of the Gospel was faithfully proclaimed and thus the seed was sown, which in years after brought forth fruit an hundred fold. The next summer Mr. Vincent took a missionary tour on the east side of Hudson's Bay. Fort George, Great Whale River and Little Whale River were visited, and the inhabitants heard again the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. At Great Whale River there was a great industry of making whale oil going on, and Indians and Eskimos from east and west were employed in the work. It was a splendid time to meet these dwellers and toilers on the bleak shores of Hudson's Bay, and many converts were added to the little Christian band.
When the Rev. John Horden returned to his mission Mr. Vincent immediately returned to his old mission at Albany. All the activities of the mission were brought into life, reaching out into distant stations on the Albany River. Bishop Machray visited the mission in 1868, and Vincent presented seventy-five candidates for confirmation. The Bishop was deeply moved with the spiritual life of the mission and was well satisfied that the work of evangelization among the Indians on the Albany was in capable hands.
For many years Vincent worked with all the physical strength of a giant; with all the spiritual force of a man of God; with undying love for his Master; with never-flagging interest in missionary work among the people he loved and knew so well. Every summer he made long journeys in his birch-bark canoe with trusted Indians, visiting posts and settlements throughput the vast regions of the Albany River District.
One of the great events of the year at these isolated places was the arrival of the missionary. Indians gathered together to await his arrival and the fur-traders planned their work so as not to interfere with the work of the missionary. As the missionary's canoe proceeded up the rivers of the country, Indians in canoes would shoot out from the banks, shake hands with the "Big Praying Chief" and follow in the wake of his canoe. A week or so would be spent at each post in the happy experience of dealing with souls, and stirring men and women into religious activity. It was the old-time apostolic conception of preaching the Gospel, and as in the days of old, great grace fell upon the poor Indians of our northern wastes.
On his return from these long journeys the summer season would be over, and winter would be near, when every resident in the country had to prepare for the winter. Vincent's gun provided much of the flesh consumed by his family, the fish-net brought in a good supply of fish, and the garden--the result of the giant's labours--supplied the vegetables.
The long winters were spent in the daily round of a pastor's duties, teaching in the school, which he had established and built himself, and in translational work. The breaking up of the ice in spring was always regarded with more or less dread, "Sometimes the islands in the river caused the ice to jam and then the water would flood the islands. Almost every spring the people at Albany were driven from their homes to stages built out of brush said trees in the shelter of the bush. It was a great inconvenience and meant much hard work and suffering for the inhabitants. In a letter to a friend written from his place of refuge at the time of a flood, the Archdeacon wrote, "I have left the ministry for the stage and I am deluged with protests."
It often happened that through the scarcity of game the improvident tribes of the north experienced "hard winters," and the tragedy of life was such that the missionary could do very little to relieve the situation. He could call starving churchgoers into his kitchen, and give them such food as the good housewife could spare, but such help was like a drop in the bucket. Often the missionaries drew on their next year's supply until it was exhausted, trusting and believing that the loving Father would provide for the future. And faith always had its reward. After many years of appeal and representation, Mr. Vincent was instrumental in getting the Government to recognize its responsibility for the natives, and supplies of food and clothing for destitute Indians were placed at Albany, to be distributed at the discretion of the missionary. This assistance from the Government became a bone of contention between Vincent and the Roman Catholic priests, the latter being under the impression that discrimination was being made between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. These frictions over material things convinced the missionary that "Government gratuities were detrimental to the independence of the Indian, and a curse to the missionary who distributed them."
One of the heart-breaking experiences of a missionary is the responsibility and care resting upon him in times of epidemical distress, when sickness and death and sorrow sweep through his beloved flock.
During Vincent's long term of service the whooping cough swept over the country twice, influenza twice, the measles once, and each time they left death and sorrow in their trail. The missionary threw himself into the front line of battle, fighting the disease, proving himself to be truly a man of God and a real minister to his people.
In 1883, Mr. Vincent was appointed Archdeacon of Moose in recognition of his many years of faithful service and wide experience in the diocese of Moosonee.
As a missionary of the Church Missionary Society he was in constant correspondence with the officials in London, forming a link between him and the splendid men at the Church Missionary House, which he greatly appreciated. He often wished that he could meet these servants of Christ and talk with them face to face. The opportunity came in 1885, when he had to go to England to put his translations of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" through the press. It was a real joy and inspiration to him to meet those numerous friends, whom he had learned to love so well through correspondence. He was well received in England; did deputation work for the Society, which also gave him the opportunity of presenting the needs of the work in Hudson's Bay. On his return from England he passed through Winnipeg; preached in his old home parish church at Middlechurch, and also in the Penitentiary at Stony Mountain, where he talked to "Big Bear," the Indian Chief who figured in the North-West Rebellion.
In 1888, he was again called to Moose Factory to superintend the activities of the lively mission in the absence of Bishop Horden. While acting as superintendent of the work in Moosonee he made a journey up the Abitibi River, getting into touch with a people who seldom saw a missionary.
He also travelled along the shores of James' Bay, renewing his acquaintance with the people he had preached to on a previous visit, reaping a plentiful harvest. The varied interests and elements in the work at Moose did not suit him and he sought to work up the real missionary features rather than the parochial.
Mrs. Vincent was for many years an invalid in the little home at Albany, and the Archdeacon often carried an anxious heart in his long journeys. It was characteristic of his sense of duty that he let nothing interfere with his plans of work, and it was also characteristic of the brave and unselfish wife that she never hinted at interrupting her husband's work. There were times when the Archdeacon left his wife so weak and ill that he did not expect to see her alive when he returned from a long journey. Natural affection, home ties, and family cares seemed to be buried in the great work of evangelization of the Indians. On December 12th, 1891, Mrs. Vincent's brave spirit left its earthly tenement, dissolving a partnership of thirty years, which had been made sacred by whole-hearted service for God. Her death did not come as a surprise to the Archdeacon, yet it delivered a blow over the heart from which he never really recovered. According to Mrs. Vincent's wishes, her body was buried in the family plot in the graveyard at Moose Factory, and it was drawn by a dog-sleigh over one hundred miles.
It was the saddest of the Archdeacon's journeys, but he said that "he felt the sting less when he saw how all his Indians rose up to comfort him."
Towards the close of the Archdeacon's term at Albany, the Jesuits, who had been working among the Indians north of Albany, became very aggressive, causing him much trouble and sorrow. When he heard of any of his people having any dealings with the enemy, he thundered at them from the pulpit, and went after them in their homes. On one occasion he openly accused a Jesuit priest of proselytizing his people. The wily Jesuit denied it. The Archdeacon said that he did not believe the priest; that he had the Indian's word for it. The indignant priest enquired, "Would you take an Indian's word before mine?" "Most certainly," said the Archdeacon. It was just like him to be outspoken, and he never learned that in this way he made bitter enemies. For the same reason he was not particularly popular among the white people in the country. He was pre-eminently the missionary to the Indians, and a life-long friend of the red man. His heart, his talents, his strength, his life, were given to the cause of the Indians, and they rewarded him with all the devotion and faithfulness of their reserved nature.
The Bishop of the diocese was known as the "Great Praying Master," but the Archdeacon was the "Big Praying Chief," and as such he is known to this day.
With his spirit broken in the loss of his wife, the embitterments of later years, together with the infirmities of approaching old age, the Archdeacon felt that it would be better to give place to a younger man, and he retired from the work in September, 1900.
His retirement was referred to in the Church Missionary Report in these words: "The Committee have highly valued Archdeacon Vincent's zealous and persevering labours to shepherd the Christian Indians on the western side of James' Bay, and they pray that in his well-earned retirement, the Master whose Gospel he has so long sought to disseminate will bring ever fresh joy to his own soul." He chose as his place of retirement a farm in Stonewall, Manitoba, where one of his sons and other relatives had made their home.
It was too late in life for him to enter into the life of the western farmer, and he did not feel quite happy at Stonewall. His heart would still go out to old faces and places in the north. It was to satisfy this hunger in his heart, that he undertook for the Government the taking of the census of the population in the regions of James' Bay in 1901. The work gave him a splendid opportunity of renewing the ties which bound him to the people. The powers of an evangelist had full exercise, and something like a revival followed in the wake of his canoe as he journeyed through the great lone land.
When Bishop Holmes took charge of the work in Moosonee he found that there was a shortage of clergy, and he immediately sent an invitation to the retired Archdeacon at Stonewall "to come and fill a vacancy for a while." The old Archdeacon lost no time in responding to the call, and after an absence of six years he returned to his old mission at Albany, the happiest of men in the mission field. In a letter written soon after his return to Albany, he said, "I realize as never before how gracious God has been to allow me to be one of the too few to carry the glorious message of salvation to precious souls."
It was apparently the working out of God's plans, in answer to the old servant's prayers, that he should come back to the scene of his life's work, and yield up his spirit on the old battlefield.
Just a few months after his return to the work he was called from his labours--January 16th, 1907--in full harness, at the age of seventy-two years, nearly fifty of which were spent in building the City of God in Moosonee. His body was taken on a dog-sleigh by loving and sorrowing Indians over one hundred miles of ice and snow and was buried by the side of his wife's grave in the old graveyard at Moose.
The heroism of this native-born missionary who endured hardships, fatigue, loneliness, prejudice, opposition, hunger and isolation, for the sake of Christ and the poor Indians--a pioneer of pioneers--is surely a chapter in our Church's history that should not soon be forgotten.
With joy and thankfulness he lived to see the development of the work--the foundations of which he had laid--five churches in the Albany River district, with two ordained clergymen doing active work in the interior, a dozen or more native teachers, and thousands of Christians with Christian literature in their hands, worshipping the true God intelligently and reverently, and serving the Lord Jesus in sincerity and truth.
Every church, congregation and converted soul in that vast region over which he travelled for many years, stand out in his crown of glory, shining like the stars of the morning. "Men may come and men may go," but the rugged and energetic evangelist, Thomas Vincent, will always stand out in the pages of our Canadian church history as one of the heroic toilers who broke the soil in the northern wastes, for the fertilizing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which transforms a wilderness into a garden of God.