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An Apostle of the North
Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas, D.D.

By H.A. Cody, B.A.

London: Seeley, 1908.

Chapter XIV. Bishop of Mackenzie River Diocese (1884-1891)

"In Truth for mail enfolden,
Virtue for corselet pure,
And Love for breastband golden,
The soldier shall endure."

THE long-desired change at last took place, for while the Bishop was writing his letters by the camp-fires of the Indians a definite step was taken by the Provincial Synod of the province of Rupert's Land, and a new diocese was carved out of the southern part of the old. This included the Peace River district, and retained the name of Athabasca.

Here, then, were two dioceses--one the Mackenzie River, stretching from the 60th parallel of north latitude to the Arctic circle, and westward beyond the great mountains, bleak and desolate; the other nearer civilization, and only half as large, but with great prospects before it. Which would the veteran take? The one that promised greater ease? No; that was never his plan. Leaving Athabasca in charge of Bishop Young, who had been consecrated on October 18, 1884, for that special field, he set his face steadfastly towards the frozen North, as far as possible from the restraints of civilization. Great was the Bishop's satisfaction at the division thus made, for he would be able to accomplish more definite work, and carry on his beloved translations.

But just as soon as one care was removed, others came of a most distressing nature, from unexpected quarters. His appeals for men to man the vacant stations of the Tukudh Mission had not been in vain, and in 1881 the Rev. V. C. Sim, a man of great earnestness, came forward, and was placed among the Indians at Rampart House. Splendid work was done by this new recruit, who spared not himself in ministering to his dusky flock, for whom he gave his life. He was incessantly on the move on river and land, following the example of his Bishop. On one occasion he visited some Indians along a branch of the Porcupine River, and camped on the bank. The medicine-man pitched his tent near by, and proved most hostile. For three days Mr. Sim was busy baptizing the Indians who came to him. At night, tired out, he tried to sleep, but in vain, as the medicine-man made night hideous with his noise and the beating of a drum. The missionary became exhausted, and, having given away nearly all his food to needy Indians, was on the point of starvation when he returned to Rampart House in the fall. Even then he could not rest, for he was kept busy during the fall and winter nursing sick Indians. When these recovered he was completely worn out, and his health gave way.

A messenger was sent to the Rev. T. H. Canham, on Peel River, 230 miles away, who hurried at once to Mr. Sim's assistance. For a time the latter seemed to rally, and longed for his letters, which were expected by the annual mail. Mr. Canham, with noble self-sacrifice, made the journey to Peel River, and upon his return, bringing the mail, he found a great change had taken place in the sick man's condition. So weak was he that he could not hear his letters read, and the fond messages from loved ones never reached his ears. Day by day he sank lower, and, lying there in that far-away station, dying at his post of duty, he repeated over and over again those beautiful words of Psalm xlvi.: "The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."

"On May 11, 1885," writes Mr. Canham, "his spirit passed to the presence of his Saviour, whom he had so faithfully served. He was laid to rest in the Indian graveyard--a quiet, secluded spot on the top of a high hill. A neat rail and head-board were made, and placed by an Indian around the grave."

And there in the wilderness fell the brave soldier in the great cause among the Indians whom he loved so dearly. Some time before his death he had made a touching appeal to the Church Missionary Society for assistance, which resulted in the sending of the Rev. G. C. Wallis to fill the post, who reached Rampart House, after much difficulty, in the fall of 1886.

The death of Mr. Sim was a severe blow to the Bishop, who at that time was doing the work of several men at Slave Lake. Though he wrote little about the sad event, the following extract from a letter sent to Mrs. Bompas shortly afterwards describes somewhat the state of his mind:

"The passing changes of the present shadowy existence are, we know, soon to give place to the noontide blaze of heavenly glory. Your own life and health, like that of myself and all, are precarious and uncertain, but we can do little more than remain in an attitude of penitence and supplication at the Saviour's feet, seeking to be sanctified to His will."

The year of Mr. Sim's death saw the outbreak of the great North-West Rebellion. This was an uprising of the half-breed element along the banks of the Saskatchewan River in 1885. It was brought about through several causes, such as the advance of civilization, the threatened famine due to the rapid disappearance of the buffalo, the "fear that their lands, of which they had received no patents or title-deeds, would be snatched away by speculators," and the dissatisfaction "with the Government's method of surveying the land, which interfered with the old French plan of having all the farms fronting upon the river."

Led by Louis Riel, himself a half-breed (the leader of the Red River rebellion in 1869), and joined by the Cree Indians of Saskatchewan, they spread terror over the country, committing at the same time a number of unwarrantable murders. The North-West Mounted Police, of whom there were only 500 at hand, bravely held them in check until General Middleton, Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Militia, arrived from Eastern Canada with a force of 4,400 men. After several sharp encounters at Fish Creek, Batoche, and Cut Knife Creek, the rebels were defeated and the rebellion brought to a close. Riel was found guilty of treason, and sentenced to death.

This rebellion had the effect of drawing the attention of people in Eastern Canada to the richness of the North-West, increasing the number of mounted police for the protection of settlers scattered throughout the country, and of obtaining a stronger Government. [For a fuller account of this rebellion see "The Story of the Canadian People," by David M. Duncan, p. 368. Published by Morang and Co., Toronto.]

Though the disaffection did not extend to the Indians of the Mackenzie River Diocese, yet the mission-stations suffered severely, as some of the Hudson Bay Company's posts were in the disturbed districts, and at these places mission supplies had been stored, ready to be forwarded during the summer. These stores were broken into by the rebel Indians, and a large amount of the property stolen. Mrs. Bompas, writing of this, says:

"Think what the want of flour, tea, and sugar must be; of warm clothing; of fish-nets, and twine to make them; of soap and candles; of tobacco; and, worst of all, of powder and shot, without which it is impossible for the Indian hunters to bring us our supplies of moose, deer, or wild goat's meat! A number, too, of our charity bales are gone; and, indeed, knowing as I do the treasures that these bales contain in warm clothing, and other kind and thoughtful gifts for our Indians, and often for the missionaries themselves, it does make one's heart ache to think of what the loss of them will be."

Not only did the rebellion cut off the mission supplies, but it was a sore hindrance to Mrs. Bompas, who was returning from England with recruits for the work in the far North. Several times they essayed to go forward, but in vain, and for a whole year were forced to remain in Winnipeg. This little band consisted of (besides Mrs. Bompas) Miss French, on her way to join her betrothed, the Rev. T. H. Canham, at Peel River; Mr. and Mrs. Grarton, lately married; and Mr. J. W. Ellington, on his first and only journey to the North. At Winnipeg the sad news reached them of Mr. Sim's death, and of this Mrs. Bompas wrote to The Net:

"Mr. Sim, one of our most gallant workers in the far North--the most simple, earnest-minded man--has been honoured by the call to lay down his life in his Master's service. . . . One thinks of the little church he has helped to build, with no one to hold service there; of the gathering of the Indians next spring at the different places where he was wont to meet them; but there is none now to teach and pray with them, to hold solemn service among them, and lead them in the hymns they love so well. There will be infants brought for holy baptism, and sick members to be doctored, but none to minister to them."

In August, 1886, the Bishop summoned his clergy 'to Fort Simpson to attend the first Synod of the Mackenzie Kiver Diocese. He had more men at his disposal now than when he held his Synod ten years before. Daily services'were conducted in three languages in St. David's Church, for Indians and whites. A proposal was made to found a diocesan Indian school, and the Rev. W. Spendlove was appointed to organize it. The latter was also made registrar of the diocese, and elected delegate to attend the Provincial Synod in Winnipeg in 1887. A motion for the division of the Mackenzie River Diocese was also made, and a petition sent to the Church Missionary Society for more men.

Some of the results of this meeting were: the formation of the new diocese of Selkirk (Yukon) in 1891, the Canadian Church brought into closer contact with this northern diocese, and the sending out of Mr. John Hawksley by the Church Missionary Society.

On Sunday, August 29, an ordination service was held by the Bishop, when two candidates, John W. Ellington and David N. Kirkby, were admitted to the diaconate. This ordination was of unusual interest, owing to the fact that these two men were sons of missionaries, were of the same age, and had attended school together for about eight years in England. They had separated for another period of eight years, and, without any previous planning, had met in the lonely North, to be ordained to the sacred ministry. Fort Simpson was the birthplace of one of the candidates, David Kirkby, and the church in which the ordination took place had been built twenty years before by his father, the Rev. W. W. Kirkby, that noble pioneer missionary who welcomed Mr. Bompas on Christmas Day, 1865.

The candidates were presented to the Bishop by the Rev. W. Spendlove, who also preached on that occasion. In the afternoon the Bishop gave an address on the duties of the Christian ministry.

At the time of the Synod there was a scarcity of food, the beginning of the great famine, and all were placed on short allowance. One day the dinner consisted of barley and a few potatoes, but it is said that the Bishop was equal to the occasion, justifying the scanty fare by repeating Proverbs xv. 17: "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith."

The winter that followed the meeting of the clergy was a terrible one. The famine increased. Game was scarce, few moose were to be obtained, the rabbits all died, and the fish nearly all left the river. The Indians asserted that the scarcity of the finny "prey" was caused by the propeller of the new steamer Wrigley, which first churned the head waters of the great river the preceding fall, but was unable to reach the northern posts owing to the ice--hence the lack of supplies. But any excuse would serve the Indians, as on a previous occasion when fish was scarce (so Mrs. Bompas tells us) the natives said it was due to the white women bathing in the river. Such a radical change as cleanliness was evidently as much disliked by the fish as by the Indians.

Through the weary days of famine sad reports reached the Bishop of Indians dying for lack of food.

"Forty starving Indians," so he wrote, "are said to have been eating each other on Peace River, and 200 dead there of measles, and a like number at Isle k la Crosse."

"We have been living for some days," says Mrs. Bompas, "on flour and barley soup, and potatoes twice a day. We are four in family, and William gives us all the giant's share, and takes so little himself. One hopes and prays for help. One hears terrible accounts of the Indians all about, all starving, no rabbits or anything for them to fall back upon. Here many of them hunt for rotten potatoes thrown away last fall. Oh, it is truly heartrending!"

At length so serious became the trouble that the Bishop, to lessen the number at the fort, left for Fort Wrigley. Thus the winter and spring passed, and not until the steamer arrived with supplies did the famine cease. On this steamer Mrs. Bompas left for England, and never again did she visit the Mackenzie River Diocese. The Indians and all missed her very much, and kept asking continually when she would return.

"I tell the Indians and every one else," wrote the Bishop to Mrs. Bompas, "that I have sent you home against your will. I told them yesterday that Christ died for them long ago, and that was enough. There was no occasion for you to die for them as well, however willing you might be."

In 1887 the Bishop was cheered by the arrival of Mr. John Hawksley from England, sent out by the Church Missionary Society. He was placed at first on the Liard River, where the Bishop had for some time wished to open up regular mission-work. He accompanied Mr. Hawksley to his new field of labour, and spent some time travelling and assisting the young recruit. As an example of the Bishop's love for the Indians, Mr. Hawksley relates that one cold night in September, while sleeping near a camp of Indians, the Bishop was much concerned over one poor old man who was suffering from a severe cough. In the night he arose quietly, and, taking his best and warmest blanket, placed it carefully over the coughing Indian, and then, returning, wrapped himself up in his one thin remaining blanket and slept till morning.

For some time the Bishop thought of going to Manitoba on a short visit, and pathetically he wrote: "My feet now refuse to perform their exercise, and it is perhaps time for me to cease to be a missionary. There is a text for everything, and the one in which I have been driven to find comfort in the past three weeks is, 'Neither delighteth He in any man's legs.' I am rather thinking to change my name and travel incog, when I come outside, to avoid being pestered by reporters and interviewers. Perhaps it would be a good plan to change the Bompas into 'Bon-point' or 'Bon-rien.'"

Much of his time during his last years on the Mackenzie River was taken up with translation work and the writing of his books, an account of which is given in another chapter. Occasionally we catch glimpses of him on a special day, such as Christmas or his birthday, when presents were given and received. Sometimes the Hudson Bay Company's officers would present him with a "prettily worded paper of good wishes."

The arrival of the mail-packet was always a great event in the quiet life at the fort, when letters months old were received. They generally came twice a year, by boat in summer and by dog-team in winter, when the journey was made from post to post by some trusty courier. As a rule, the letters were much soiled and worn from frequent handling at the various posts, and at times the Bishop complained of the thinness of the envelopes, which was not conducive to secrecy.

An amusing incident happened on one occasion, when the courier was hurrying forward with the mail. In some manner he broke through the ice, and dogs, man, and letters were thoroughly soaked. It was a cold day, so, heading for the shore, the Indian made a good fire, dried his clothes, and then gazed sadly upon the wet letters. At length a thought occurred to him, and, taking the soiled epistles out of the envelopes he stacked them around the fire, near enough to dry, but not to burn. When this was completed to his satisfaction, he began to replace them. But, alas! though well versed in woodland lore, he had never acquired the gentle art of reading, so that the letters were replaced helter-skelter. Into envelopes addressed to the Bishop went important missives meant only for the Company's officers, or the tender sighings of some fair maiden for a Northern lover, while the Bishop's letters were disposed of in a similar manner. Thinking he had accomplished a very clever feat, the courier pushed on his way, and, reaching the fort, was much astonished at the exclamations and excitement of all. Not until the whole matter was explained by the puzzled courier was its humorous side seen, and then a good laugh ensued.

From beyond the great mountains again came sad news, which gave the Bishop much concern. Before it came from Rampart House, on the Porcupine River; this time from the Yukon, where a new mission had been started. Owing to the touching and stirring appeal of poor Sim, Mr. T. Fowell Buxton, of Easneye, Ware, gave the sum of £100, and the Church Missionary Society sent out a young man, J. W. Ellington. He was stationed by the Bishop at the confluence o£ the Yukon and Forty Mile Rivers, after his ordination, already mentioned in this chapter; and for some time the place was known as "Buxton," but afterwards it took the name of Forty Mile, which had been familiar to the miners.

Here Mr. Ellington laboured earnestly and to the best of his ability, but his position was a hard one. The miners delighted in playing practical jokes of a most serious nature upon the young missionary, and made life so hard for him that mind and body completely gave way, and in this sad condition he was taken back to England. [Mr. Ellington died at Northampton on May 23, 1902. His father, who died in 1878, served eighteen years as a Church Missionary Society missionary in the Telugu country, South India. His mother, after her husband's death, became a missionary of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society.]

And once again the Indians were without a teacher along the Yukon. Most anxious was the Bishop concerning them, and he longed, as he said, "to steal away quietly to the Youcon," and proposed Archdeacon Reeve to succeed him on the Mackenzie River.

"I fear," he wrote in 1890, "to ask anyone to take my place in Mackenzie River these starving times, and I fear I may have to stay myself. But I write to the Church Missionary Society asking them again to accept my resignation, and send a successor, unless they can relieve me of half the diocese. ... I feel a presentiment that Archdeacon Reeve will at last come up next year and set me free, that I may go across the mountains or to heaven."

He had no inclination to leave the country, and when it was suggested that he should go to Manitoba he wrote: "I find the needle points west rather than east, and north rather than south."

When urged to return to England, he wrote: "To life in England and to my relations there I feel so long dead and buried that I cannot think a short visit home, as if from the grave, would be of much use. If over fifteen years ago when I was at home I felt like Samuel's ghost, how should I feel now?"

On January 31, 1890, we find him at Fort Norman, living in the church, with a large stove, and eating more flour, so he tells us, than he had done for twenty-five years. To the loneliness of his position here the Bishop never once referred, but the following words of the Rev. W. Spendlove, ten years later, give a vivid picture of the place:

"We reside in the northern confines of British territory, on the Arctic slopes of this continent, not far from the Arctic circle and Great Bear Lake, amid wild mountainous scenery. Either the wild fury of the storm rages, or dead calm with intense cold prevails, interchanged with bright sun and cheery ice and snow landscape for eight months of the year. Ice-blocked and snow-bound, dense forest covers the banks of the Mackenzie River, and beyond a trackless desert of beautiful perfectly dry snow. Distance, 8,000 miles from England; upwards of 1,500 miles beyond the outer limit of Canadian frontier border of civilization; and our nearest missionary brother fifteen days' journey. Cut off from white people; shut up among Red Indian savages. Oh, what vast solitudes! What extreme loneliness! The effort to procure sufficient food and fuel for these regions is no easy task. Other conditions of life are most disadvantageous. Nothing in Nature to smile upon us for eight months. No sight or sound of civilization. No European Christian to mingle with, or fellow-worker to shake the hand, join in mutual sympathetic intercourse, and say, 'Go on, brother; I believe in you and your work.'"

Such is the grim picture given of that lonely Northern post; and how much more isolated it must have been ten years before! Yet we see the Bishop alone in the log church, deeply engaged in his beloved translations, and poring with delight over the Syriac Testament and Lexicon which Mrs. Bompas had sent out from England. Listen to these words of courage and trust penned in the midst of such dreary surroundings:

"It is only this winter that I find life worth living, and I think God has paid me handsomely for twenty-five years' mission service in Mackenzie River. I have found the winter days very short and dark, and have been cheered by a sense of God's presence. 'When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be light unto me.'"

"During the past two weeks my mind has been entirely diverted from these inward cogitations to the outward world by a large arrival of letters and newspapers, after I had been utterly in the dark regarding the outer world for six months. It is as though a veil were suddenly drawn over the inward and spiritual world, and the veil as suddenly drawn back from the outward world that had been concealed from me."

Mrs. Bompas tells us that the Bishop was a very self-contained man. "During the years when he was itinerating among the Indians and Eskimos he had lived so much alone in tent or cabin that he had learnt to be wholly independent of external aid. Moreover, he had trained himself to endure hardness as a good soldier of the Cross. His diet was at all times abstemious, almost severely so. To the last he never allowed himself milk or cream in tea or coffee. He was a fairly good cook and bread-maker, and loved to produce a dish good and savoury for his friends, although eschewing all such dainties himself."

Truly his wants were few.

"An iron cup, plate, or knife," writes Mr. Spendlove, "with one or two kettles, form his culinary equipment. A hole in the snow, a corner of a boat, wigwam, or log hut, provided space, 6 feet by 2 feet, for sleeping accommodation. Imagine him seated on a box in a 12-foot room, without furniture, and there cooking, teaching, studying, early and late, always at work, never at ease, never known to take a holiday."

On August 5, 1891, we find him still at Fort Norman, and in a letter to Mrs. Bompas, who was in England, he wrote:

"I am now engaged in packing up, with the view, if God will, of shortly and finally leaving Mackenzie River for the far west. Mr. Hawksley was ordained to deacon's Orders here last Sunday."

And thus the Bishop's work on the Mackenzie River closed. Twenty-six years had he laboured faithfully among the natives of that land, and, instead of seeking rest, he resolutely set his face to new work, the account of which must be reserved for future chapters.

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