The Late Rev. Joseph A. Gilfillan
By Anson Rogers Graves.
From The Living Church, December 13, 1913, p. 225
ON the 18th of November there passed from earth one of the most saintly men this age of ours has produced. Mr. Gilfillan was a man of such humility and self-abnegation that few people now living know how he labored and suffered for what he considered his duty. In early life he gave up a business career and prospects of a fortune to devote himself to the ministry of the Church. While holding a large and interesting parish in Duluth, he was asked by Bishop Whipple to devote his life to work among the Ojibway Indians of northern Minnesota. A sentence of death would probably have been as welcome to him as this request, which he took as a call from God. In response to it he buried himself in the woods of Minnesota for the next twenty-five years, and no mediaeval missionary in the forests of Germany ever lived a more devoted and self-sacrificing life. He learned thoroughly the Ojibway language, which, he said, was far more difficult than Hebrew.
It was my privilege in the autumn of 1890 to visit officially, at the request of Bishop Gilbert, seven of his Indian missions. To do this we traveled three hundred miles in a buckboard and Indian canoes through the dense forests, and confirmed about thirty Indians, whom he and his catechists had prepared. I asked him how he made the rounds of these stations in the dead of winter when the trails were blocked with snow and the rivers frozen. He replied that he traveled on horseback, and when overtaken by a storm at night, he would tie his horse to a tree and lie down in his buffalo coat and trousers on the ground. Often in the morning he would find himself completely buried in snow. I asked him what he thought of during his lonely rides through the forests. He said ho would repeat to himself, according to the Prayer Book, all he could recall of Morning Prayer and then such chapters from the Bible as he could remember.
In middle life he inherited a fortune from an uncle, but that made no difference with his simple life and sacrificing labors, except it enabled him to do more for the poorer Indians and for his work among them. After he was worn out in mind and body, he retired to the city of Washington. He then learned to speak the Yiddish tongue and spent much of his time in talking with Jews, trying to persuade them to love and accept Christ as their Saviour. When I called on him about two weeks before his death, I found him suffering severely with what he thought might bo cancer of the stomach, though his doctor would not tell him. And so, in intense suffering, passed away one whom I had honored and loved for many years, and who had walked with God. I never looked upon my own labors in the far West, which wore me out in twenty-one years, as anything to be compared with the life work of Mr. Gilfillan. For him we do not need to pray that his soul may rest in peace.