Project Canterbury

The Magdalen Islands

From The Colonial Church Chronicle, and Missionary Journal, Vol. IV (November, 1850), pages 185-191.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2007


THE Bishop of QUEBEC has for the first time visited these islands. Their situation is in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about 120 miles from the shore of Gaspé. The Canadian Ecclesiastical Gazette contains the following interesting account of the visitation:--

[186] "It was not till 1847 that the Bishop was made aware of any claim existing in these islands, (in which there are computed to be about two thousand French Acadian Roman Catholics,) upon the care of the Church of England. The inhabitants are in the habit of regarding themselves as connected rather with Nova Scotia, Prince Edward's Island, or Newfoundland, (of which last colony they formerly constituted a dependency,) than with Canada; and the still very small body of Protestants among them, having grown out of yet smaller beginnings, appear to have become habituated to the idea of being too insignificant and inconsiderable to apply at a distance for the provisions of the Christian ministry. The late Mr. E. Bowen, however, having been obliged, in his capacity of District Judge in the county of Gaspé, to pass over to the islands, in the year above-mentioned, in order to hold an annual Circuit Court, had occasion to learn the fact that a good number of Protestant families were settled upon the islands, and having been always alive to the spiritual interest of his fellow-creatures, he made the Bishop acquainted with the particulars. It was accordingly arranged that upon the next visit of the Judge, in 1848, he should be accompanied by the Rev. R. Short, one of the Missionaries in the county of Gaspé, who volunteered for the service. In the execution, however, of this arrangement, the labours of Mr. Short were interrupted, and left incomplete in consequence of the unfortunate illness of the Judge, (terminating some time afterwards in his death,) which broke out at the islands; and when they returned to Gaspé, the only portion of the Protestant inhabitants who had been visited were the settlers upon Entry Island.

The ministrations of Mr. Short were thankfully received by these islanders; they presented to him nineteen subjects for baptism, and they expressed, in a body, their desire to have the ministry of the Church of England planted among them. But before putting matters actually in train for such an object, the Bishop, having occasion to visit the Missions in Gaspé, determined to take the opportunity of proceeding also to the Magdalen Islands, and ascertaining by personal inspection, the wants and the dispositions of all the Protestant settlers who are there to be found. It had been originally his Lordship's intention to avail himself of the facility of crossing from Gaspé, afforded by the visit of the present Judge (De Blois), who very kindly and considerately waited for him as long as he could venture to do in consistency with the object of securing his arrival in time for the opening of the Circuit Court. Circumstances unavoidably delayed the departure of the Bishop from Quebec; and he found the means of engaging a passage in a brigantine bound for Halifax, the master of which undertook to land him at the islands. In this vessel he accordingly embarked on the 25th of June, carrying with him a supply of Bibles, Prayer-books, and tracts, voted for the purpose by the Diocesan Committee at Quebec, of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; and, having touched at Cape Cove in Gaspé, where the vessel left a small portion of her cargo, (120 or 130 miles from the islands,) he was landed, with the intermediate help of a little fishing-schooner from the Acadian settlements of Cape Breton, with which he fell in, and in which he passed the previous night, at S. W. point in the Magdalen Islands, with the singular rock full in view called the Corps Mort, or Dead Man's Island, at four o'clock in the morning of the 4th of July.

The Bishop, who upon this occasion travelled alone, was a total stranger to the place and to the people, and there was no habitation in sight. There were, however, the signs of human labour, in some roughly prepared means of curing cod, upon a diminutive scale, on the beach, and the men who had landed him, in a flat, out of the fishing-craft, [186/187] proceeded back through a tract of low scrubby woods, to a French settlement, to procure a conveyance. At the end of an hour and a half, they emerged again with a little rudely constructed cart, which just sufficed for the baggage. The Bishop got the best information which he could from one or two people who came with the cart, and, after a good deal of perplexity, decided to take the road to House Harbour, distant about sixteen miles, the residence of Mr. Munsey, who is a merchant, filling the part of agent for the proprietor of the islands, and a justice of the peace. The islands of this singular group are, with two or three exceptions, connected with each other by very long irregular strips of sand beach, enclosing a number of large lagoons. Along one of these beaches the Bishop now proceeded on foot for about ten miles, and then mounting a little eminence, came to a small kind of village, inhabited by French Acadians, called, from its sheltered harbour, 1'Etang du Nord, and containing a wooden Roman Catholic Church, served by the same priest who serves another at House Harbour. Here the Bishop, having dried himself a little over the stove, (for it had rained hard the whole morning,) procured some breakfast and a light cart, which was considerably in advance of the other in civilization, for conveying himself for the remainder of the distance, and be met accidentally with the younger brother of Mr. Munsey, who was good enough to accompany him to that gentleman's house. Mr. Munsey was absent in another part of the islands, but his Lordship received every attention and kindness from Mrs. M. and her family; and the size of the family, with the addition of several relatives who were summer visitors, rendering it impossible to accommodate him in the house, which is of rather small dimensions, lodgings were procured for him close by with a particularly clean and decent though humble family, belonging to the French population.

It is not necessary to enter into a detail of all the delays and disappointments arising from baffling winds and other circumstances, by which the plans and movements of the Bishop were affected, during the eleven days which he spent upon the islands. On Saturday the 6th of July, being still at House Harbour, he assembled such of the few Protestants who could attend, and performed Divine Service at 9 A.M., and preached to them, in Mr. Munsey's house. The congregation consisted of seventeen or eighteen persons, children included; and some of them came from a distance of several miles. The voice of the minister of God was as strange as it was welcome to their ears. The next day, being Sunday, the Bishop had allotted to Entry Island, but as he could not get away, he held service again at Mr. Munsey's, who was still prevented from returning home; and, in the afternoon, having gone to baptize a child a mile or two off, and finding a dozen persons assembled in the house, he gave them a familiar exposition of Scripture, with an abridgment from the Church Prayers. The time for the return of the Judge (who was at Amherst Harbour) to Gaspé was now drawing near; and upon his vessel the Bishop had relied for proceeding to that coast--but, on Monday morning, 8th of July, being still without intelligence, either from Mr. Munsey or the Judge, he procured a fishing-boat and proceeded to Grosse Isle (distant perhaps twenty-five miles from House Harbour), which is inhabited exclusively by Protestants, numbering ten families in a range of about three miles. The arrangement for his conveyance was effected, with much exertion, by a worthy and active Swede in the employ of Mr Munsey, who deserves to be mentioned on account of the interest and zeal which he manifested throughout on the Bishop's behalf--feelings in part perhaps attributable to his finding himself upon a kindred bosom in the arms of the Church of England,--his own mother Church, besides holding the same great essential truths of salvation, being episcopal, and harmonizing with [187/188] the Anglican usages in the adoption of a liturgical worship, the observance of festivals, the practice of baptizing with sponsors, &c.; and he himself having been confirmed by the Archbishop of Upsal. The Grosse Isle settlers consist principally of a little band of Colonists of twenty-two years' standing, from Nova Scotia, with their children and grandchildren. His Lordship slept at one of their little tenements, which was centrally situated, consisting only of one room; and means having been taken to circulate the information, a congregation of more than fifty persons met him in the house at seven o'clock the next morning, Tuesday, 9th July. Some of the men were absent on the fishing stations upon the coast of Labrador. Seven young children were presented for baptism, but the Bishop expressly reserved for the hands of the resident Missionary whom he hopes to establish, those who were old enough to be subjects for instruction and examination before the reception of the rite; and in some few other instances, the absence of the father presented an obstacle in the mind of the other parent. Most cordially did the poor people welcome the Minister of God who came among them--the first who had ever been even seen upon the spot; [(1) Footnote: Except a Roman Catholic Priest, who passed through to bury a number of bodies washed ashore, and persons who died after landing from an emigrant ship, full of fever, which was wrecked close by, at East Cape.] but their views were necessarily, in some points, obscure, and their habits very unformed in religion; and no attempt was made to precipitate matters, nor to press them to any step for which their minds were unprepared. Some of the families here have carried their children to the Romish priest at House Harbour for baptism, rather than leave them without it; (and other Protestants in the islands have had recourse to the priest at Amherst Harbour in the same way.) Tracts and Prayer-books were distributed after the sermon, together with a very few Bibles--for it was a happy circumstance that here, as in the other Protestant families of the island, a house could hardly be found without the Word of God; and it was satisfactory that, among the Bibles which were given, there were some which replaced copies apparently worn out by constant use. But church and school were things unknown; and the poor hostess of the Bishop, referring to these two wants, said to his Lordship, 'Our children are just like brutes.'

Upon reaching House Harbour again, towards the evening of Tuesday, the Bishop was greeted by Mr. Munsey, who had returned home during his absence, but was also met by the intelligence conveyed in an extremely civil note from himself, that Judge De Blois had been obliged to return to Gaspé. Later in the evening, the Bishop baptized Mr. Munsey's youngest child.

The Bishop had now to take his chance for an opportunity of getting across to Gaspé, and to turn the intervening time to the best account in the islands. It was not till Thursday, 11th July, that it was practicable to sail from House Harbour to Entry Island, the only location of Protestants remaining unvisited, and the most considerable of all. It comprehends eleven families. There are no Roman Catholics upon this island, which is strictly such (being entirely surrounded by water), and lies about six miles from any other land. Mr. Munsey, to whose attentions, as well as to those of his family, the Bishop was indebted in many ways, proceeded with him, and they were kindly accommodated with the boat of the Collector, Mr. Belleau, resident at Amherst Harbour, which happened to be at House Harbour at the time. Service was held in the largest house upon the island, which stands upon an excellent farm. Between forty and fifty people were present. The service had been appointed for seven; but the [188/189] milking of cows, and other necessary matters, made the people late: and as, in addition to the service and the sermon, there were baptisms to be performed, and women to be churched, and Bibles, Prayer-books, and tracts to he distributed, and there was a great deal to be said to the people after all was over, about the parts to be respectively taken by the Church and by themselves, in establishing provision for their religious wants, it was eleven before the assembly broke up. It was therefore past midnight when the Bishop, having returned to sleep at another house where his quarters were established, heard through the wooden partition of his little bed-room a child whom the people of the house had taken with them to the service, saying his prayers, and answering some plain catechetical questions before retiring to rest--a pleasing example, to show that domestic religion was carefully cultivated in this family, in spite of all the disadvantages under which they had laboured.

On Friday, the 12th July, the Bishop, accompanied still by Mr. Munsey, went over to Amherst Harbour, about nine miles from Entry Harbour, expecting to meet with a particular opportunity of sailing thence, almost immediately, for Gaspé. Some difficulty occurred in this arrangement, but a schooner, belonging to Mr. Munsey himself, and commanded by one of his sons, opportunely arriving, his Lordship chartered it for Cape Cove; and while awaiting its departure was provided, by the exertions of Mr. Munsey, with board and lodging in another particularly neat and respectable, although frugal and simple family, belonging to the French population. There is here another Roman Catholic church, built of wood, with a resident priest. On Sunday morning, the 14th, his Lordship sailed over to Entry Island, and again assembled the people, both morning and afternoon, for Divine Service. The congregation was larger than on the week-day. Some additional baptisms were performed. At this place, as before, at Grosse Isle, the Bishop reserved the cases of some subjects for baptism who were adolescent, or verging upon adolescence. In the evening, the wind being fair for his departure, he went on board again, Having first parted with his hearers, with many mutual expressions of kindness; and, with reference to the provision for his voyage, he might well say, 'I have all and abound--I am full;' for although Mr. Munsey laid in his sea-stock, some of the women absolutely insisted upon contributing loaves, home-made cheese, &c.; and the respectable farmer at whose house the services were held, could hardly be prevented--although he avowed, himself, a scruple on account of the Sunday, which he could only overcome for a special occasion--from killing a lamb to add to the store.

This visit of his Lordship to the islands may be liable to appear, perhaps, rather as falling within the province of a travelling Missionary, than as exhibiting what is proper to the episcopal office; but, it will be borne in mind, that he was desirous of enabling himself to make a report, from personal observation, to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, before applying to them to do their part in the establishment of a Mission upon the spot; and also of receiving the personal assurances of the people respecting their disposition to unite and lend their aid in the arrangements for introducing amongst them the ministry of the Church. The Bishop, as has already been intimated in the instance of Grosse Isle, took care not to entangle them in any hasty engagement, nor to take advantage of the impressions made while they were freshly warmed by the peculiar circumstances of his visit; nor did he, on the other hard, say anything to compromise the distinctive claims and character of the Church; but he pointed out to them at the same time, without reserve, that, belonging, as they did, by the original names which they severally carried in religion, to four or five different denominations, the Church of England included, it was [189/190] manifestly impossible that such a little band, so perfectly cast off from the rest of the world, could enjoy the benefit of the ministry at all, if each party were to require it under the name which might still loosely attach to them, and that they must either unite under some one name, or do nothing, and remain as they were. They all, however, gave in their deliberate and thankfully expressed adhesion to the Church, and received very gladly her Prayer-book, together with tracts, which (among many others of a different description) were explanatory of her system, usages, and worship. Sponsors stood forward for all the children who were to be baptized, after a full statement of the obligations which they contracted. In every place where the service was performed, the people all knelt in prayer, and if any were able, united in singing. There did appear to be among them, although there have not been wanting some painful evidences, here and there, of the natural effect of their unprovided condition in religion, a pervading sense of their spiritual wants; and there is encouragement to hope that there are cases where the feeling amounts to a 'hunger and thirst after righteousness.' The number of Protestant souls on the islands, children included, is 173. The men are, almost without exception, engaged in fishing, and at the same time in the cultivation of the portions of land which they occupy. Their domestic arrangements and appliances are upon a very limited scale, and of a very simple and primitive description, and they are, generally, poor. The hand-mill is in use among them for the grain which they raise for their own consumption, or they send it to the mills in Prince Edward's Island, or at Pictou, in Nova Scotia. A mill, however, is now in course of erection upon Entry Island, and another is talked of at Grosse Isle. There is no town--scarcely anything which can be called a village--upon the islands; post-office or tavern are things unknown; public conveyances of any kind upon the spot, or means of stated communication with places abroad, are wholly out of the question. The proprietor of the whole group of Islands is Captain Coffin, R.N., resident in Europe, to whom they were bequeathed by his uncle, the late Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin, the grantee of the crown. Mr. Munsey, the agent, seems to be much interested for the religious as well as the temporal welfare of the inhabitants, and has instructions of a liberal character from his principal, who, it appears, does not desire to look to the property as a source of revenue, and wishes to expend upon public improvements within the islands whatever he may receive from them. Unfortunately, however, an opposition to the claims of the proprietor has arisen among the French, who constitute the great body of the population, being in the proportion of more than ten to one; and they have, under the influence, it may be presumed, of bad advice, refused to come into his terms of accommodation or composition. The litigation consequent upon this resistance has furnished (for crimes cognisable by human law appear to be never heard of among the people) the entire business of the Circuit Court, and very much drained the resources of the litigants upon the spot; diminishing, of course, at the same time, the value of the property (which, as yet, is believed to make no return to its owner), and obstructing the prosperity of the islands.

A scientific and statistical account of these islands was published by Lieut. Baddeley, R.E., in the form of a pamphlet, with a map prefixed, among the papers of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, in 1839.

The Missionary whom it is hoped to send down next year to fix his residence among the islanders, must divide his labours as equally as possible between the eleven families of Entry Island and the ten at Grosse Isle; affording, also, some proportion of his ministrations to the fewer and more scattered Protestants of House Harbour and its vicinity. A small [190/191] church or chapel must be built at once upon each of the two islands just mentioned, which are upwards of thirty miles apart; and it will indeed be a grateful sight when, according to present hope, it shall please God, that these structures, very humble though they may be, shall rise among the habitations to indicate blessing, and to sanctify the character of the settlement;--a grateful sight when the islanders and their children shall at last be seen statedly gathering together to worship Him with the holy worship of the Church; to hear declared to them 'the unsearchable riches of Christ;' to be taught 'to walk with God' all the day long; and to partake in his ordinances dispensed to them by the authorized servant of the sanctuary. They long for the day themselves; and will do their part towards the erection of the churches, (as they will also for school-houses, which it is hoped to supply with teachers,) by collecting and preparing materials, for which they depend chiefly upon wrecks (so unhappily frequent are they upon their shores) and drift timber, the growth of the islands being nothing but small kinds of fir, with an occasional intermixture of birch, and there being no stone which is adapted for the purposes of building. The good Church Societies in England will afford, through the hands of the Bishop, some aid in the work: the Diocesan Church Society will, it may be anticipated, make such a grant as the multiplying calls upon it will permit; and possibly these statements here made may, by the Divine blessing, meet here or there some eye which will look with kindness and compassion upon the wants of the remote and obscure little flocks, the 'few sheep in the wilderness,' so long left in destitution, for whom a hope is now lit up, and may thus prompt a donation, either in money, or in a seasonable present of some of the decent appendages which are 'for the work of the service in the house of the Lord,'--a set of Church-service books, a plain set of communion-plate, a covering for the holy table, a pede-cloth, a font, or a bell. It would be a pleasing token of Christian sympathy, and, given for the love of Christ, would carry an acceptable savour up to heaven: perhaps it would be associated with the beginnings of a more important future than now appears to those who would think that too much has been made of the wants and interests of this scanty handful of fishermen. Happy, indeed, will be the reward reserved for the servant of the Church of Christ, whose efforts are here recorded, to put things in train for the relief of those wants and the advancement of those interests, if he shall be graciously enabled, with the necessary adaptations, and so far as may be permitted to men of modern days, to appropriate to the case the words of the Prophet,--

'The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house: his hands shall also finish it: and thou shalt know that the Lord of Hosts hath sent me unto you. For who hath despised the day of small things?'"

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