Project Canterbury

The Life of John Travers Lewis, D.D.
First Archbishop of Ontario

By His Wife

London: Skeffington and Son, no date.

Chapter I. Birth and Boyhood

On June 20th, 1825, there were great rejoicings at Garry Gloyne Castle, co. Cork, Ireland, in the parish of Blarney, on the birth of a son and heir to the estate, Colonel Travers being childless. [To-day two sisters, the Misses Pyne, live in the same "Old Cottage," a property in their family for generations. These ladies have a recollection of seeing the Bishop of Ontario, their nephew, when he visited Ireland after the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.] His wife and the mother of the child were sisters, both beauties of the season, who married almost from the schoolroom, in their teens. The child was carefully nursed, and within three days privately baptised John Travers Lewis by the rector of Blarney--a place familiar for its stone, which is supposed to make lips that have once touched it for ever eloquent.

Colonel Travers was a man who lived up to his ideas of a hunting squire. He was sole proprietor of large estates, and very hospitably disposed. At that time the estates were of considerable extent and value, and that the heir should be bom in the Castle itself, in one part of which his mother was living, was a matter of wide rejoicing, and was commemorated by a ball, which gave great pleasure in the county

[22] When the boy was about six years old his uncle bethought him of the usual festivities which were due to a boy, heir to vast estates, and he gave a banquet which was attended by two generals whom he wished specially to welcome, the one having sold out his commission in the Army in order that he might spend the rest of his days near the other, who was a friend of his boyhood.

There were no vacant seats at the table, which was of solid Spanish mahogany and could seat thirty-six. When the repast was over the boy was brought down, placed at the centre of the table, and made to repeat a declaration that he would be faithful and true in all his dealings with those who depended upon him, when he became the owner of the estate. He was applauded by all present, and someone exclaimed: "May I live to come to your funeral." Having finished his part, the boy, half dazed, ran back to his nurse. The company then settled down to their small talk, eulogising the boy and congratulating Colonel Travers.

The two generals sat opposite each other at the table, and after the boy had left began differing on some matter. The contention eventually grew so severe as to excite the attention of Colonel Travers, who called out: "Come, gentlemen, gentlemen. I cannot allow this at my table. Step into the hall, where you will find good pistols, choose your seconds, and out on to the lawn and settle the difference." They rose, followed by the greater part of the company, eager to see who would win. After choosing a place near [22/23] Henry II's Tower, the seconds measured the paces and gave the word. Shots were heard, then a heart-searching moan, which those near shuddered to interpret, was followed by a thud, and one of the brave generals, who had met death in many forms, lay prostrate before them, a heavy price to pay for a few thoughtless words previously spoken by the other general, who was only just prevented from turning the pistol on himself. The result can be imagined, a sad ending to what was intended to be a welcome and introduction to the heir of the estates. The body was taken in silence to the Castle, and the day ended in a sorrow for which no words could be found.

The father of John Travers had long felt that the hospitality of the Castle was no fit place for his children, and he was now determined to leave with his family of eight, four girls and four boys, for a home of their own under different auspices, also to carry out his intention of taking Holy Orders. This decision did not meet with the approval of Colonel Travers, but it was carried out, and John Lewis was eventually ordained to the Curacy of St. Anne's, Shandon.

The boys attended the Hamblin and Porter School at Cork. Here the master, in trying to teach the scholars the way to spell different words with the same meaning, would rap the boy's hand with a cane if he made a mistake, and John Travers Lewis in after life always said this had been the means of keeping his memory on the alert.

On October 29th, 1833, when he was going to school, his father drew him on his knee, pressed him lovingly [23/24] to him and blessed him, saying, "Never belong to a secret society."

"What is a secret society, Father? "

"I will tell you later," he replied, and blessed the boy again, who then ran off to school.

Later that day his father went to the Workhouse to administer the Holy Communion to a dying woman. The black plague, or famine fever, was very prevalent in Cork at that time. The good man so faithfully carried out his duty to the dying that he himself was stricken before he had scarcely returned to his own home. The boy, John Travers, returning from school for his dinner, saw a very ugly conveyance at the door and wondered what it could be. Scarcely had he arrived, when he was taken into the next room where his father lay in a hastily made coffin, which they were only waiting to close until his son had recognised him.

There stood the boy, upon whose head the father's ands had so lately been pressed in blessing, unconscious of what had happened, and if he ventured a remark, or asked a question, he was hushed into an ominous silence and reminded of his mother, who, for fear of infection, had been taken from the room. The brief ceremony was disposed of in the few words demanded by law; "Dost thou recognise thy father?" Appalled by the dreaded unknown as to what had happened, and not allowed to question, he responded to the strange man who interrogated him: "It is my father." No other witness was required. The moment he had said the words click went the lid on the coffin and it was rushed out of the house.

[25] He was not allowed to follow the sad funeral procession, which made the children speechless, and the boy was warned for his mother's sake not to shed a tear, but to be a man and comfort her. He was somewhat helped by being told that his father had been laid as near to the church as they dare. The boy went and wept by the grave until the grass was wet.

His father passed away without a will; therefore, legally, he could claim one-third of his father's estate, as well as being the sole heir to the estate of Garry Gloyne. He was made a ward in Chancery, a fact which he never questioned. This position roused Colonel Travers' anger, and he warned the boy that if he were ever as foolish as his father, he would never be his heir.

Meanwhile, every possible effort was made by his uncle to undermine the boy's faith in the change of his father's life from the gaieties of the Castle to the more sober life of the Church. The boy realised that there must have been a power behind his father's action. He could not ask his mother about it, and his uncle spoke of his father as a fool, and warned him not to follow in his steps, so he could only ponder the matter in his heart; but the beauty of his father's life and its power, which later illumined for the boy the tragedy of his sudden death, impressed him that there was a mystery in the change from the frivolous life of the Castle to the solemnity of the Church. What was the Power, and where was it to be found?

His uncle arranged that a gold coin should be placed on the boy's plate every morning, so that he [25/26] should learn the power of wealth. The boy would play with it until tired, give it away sometimes to his nurse, again distribute it on his way to school, when the recipients would overwhelm him with gratitude. Then he began to save until he had a large amount, when he was determined to visit all the churches in order to find out for himself what had drawn his father to such a changed life.

One morning, when staying at the Castle, he and his uncle were walking through a potato field, when John drew his uncle's attention to the withering of the flower on a potato, usually so striking and abundant. "Look how it withers when touched," he said, going from field to field. "What is the meaning of this?" They were puzzled, and his uncle became alarmed. Something had happened in the night. The Angel of Death had swept over the land, leaving his mark of blight. The potato crop, which was the chief food of the people, was destroyed. There was no daily paper, post, or telegraph in those days to tell how widespread this trouble was no messenger to send for help and to tell the tale of hunger and want. The boy had to represent his uncle as chairman of a relief fund opened for the distressed, but the starving families could only return the money, saying: "Your Reverence, there is nothing to buy--give us food," a pitiable cry when Death, in its most tragic form, was a daily horror. He felt the impotence of wealth when his father died. Gold could not save him, nor could it stop this ceaseless crying for food. England had nothing to send but money, and there was nothing to buy. America sent ships laden [26/27] with corn, which the hunger-stricken people did not understand how to cook, and, to add to the horrors of the situation, it was said more died from famine fever than from the potato failure.

His mother and family put themselves on board the first ship for Canada and sailed for Quebec. His uncle, travelling with his usual retinue, left for London. As it was an expedition which entailed a from ten days' to three weeks' journey, his last interview was usually with his lawyers. John Travers Lewis was therefore left standing between the living and the dead, alone with his Maker. His recollections of the terrible scenes would fill volumes. By the mercy of a loving Father he learnt lessons which were to bear fruit in after years.

Project Canterbury