To my old parishioners
A poetic tribute
Today the American, Robert Traill Spence Lowell (1816-91), is remembered as the author of the first novel ever to be based on firsthand experience of Newfoundland life. New Priest in Conception Bay, published in 1858, revolves around the unexplained disappearance of the young girl, Lucy Barbury.
Perhaps less well known is Lowell’s poetry. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Lowell trained for ministry in the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1842, he was admitted for ordination.
That fall, Lowell met Aubrey George Spencer (1785-1872), Newfoundland’s first Church of England Bishop, later following him to Bermuda. Lowell was deaconed in December and priested in March 1843. He served as domestic chaplain to Bishop Spencer and school inspector. Lowell requested to be transferred to Bay Roberts, Newfoundland.
Arriving on the island in May 1843, he became the third resident minister of St. Matthew’s. His responsibilities also included the spiritual oversight of the Anglicans in the Conception Bay community of Spaniard’s Bay and New Harbour, Trinity Bay.
Except for a three-month stint in the States in 1845, when he married Mary Ann ( known as Marianna) Duane of Duanesburg, New York, Lowell lived in Newfoundland until July 1847. The Lowells had three daughters and four sons. Their first child was born in Bay Roberts in 1847.
In February 1848, not long after leaving Newfoundland, Lowell wrote a poetic tribute to his old parishioners. An excerpt follows:
The parish priest that hath his charge Beside the stormy sea, Where howling tempests stalk at large,
And many an iceberg, as a barge, Moores where the shallows be; Where winter’s sky, with sudden gust, Is traversed to and fro, And storm clouds, broken up as dust, Fill earth all deep with snow. Hath much to speak of hardy men That face the wild sea gale, And loving hearts made dreary, when The waiting eyes must fail, That from the cliffs their far search strain To see, slow toiling home again, The long familiar sail That shall not come; for it is tost
Like drifting weed above the lost,
Who down and down, through soundless deep,
Have found a pathway, sheer and steep,
And at the foot shall lie and sleep, While long the hamlet’s tale Lingers upon their unknown fate,
And, night by night, the fire burns late In one sad, silent cot, Where wife and children spread their hands
And cower above the wasting brands,
And the poor house dog understands, Why they that went come not.... Such are full-frequent things with those That dwell beside the sea: Whose sails feel every wind that blows, If fair or foul it be. Dear patient fishermen! for you Whom late I lived among, My heart, that loved you, yearns anew, And often pass before my view The forms of old and young. For love of you this tale I tell Of things now long agone; And as the dark and heavy swell Of memory heaves on, With wrecks of loved ones builded well As if to life for aye, Ye may shed tears like those which fell From him that wrote this lay, And who again now says farewell!
As he will always pray.