The Bareneed Canon
‘Which Bareneed native had his picture taken by the well-known Armenian-Canadian photographer, Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)? Was honoured as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire? Has both a school and road in Flower’s Cove named in his honour?
The answer to all three questions is one and the same: John Thomas Richards (1875-1958). According to E. Rex Kearley, Richards, who served as the Anglican priest in the Flower’s Cove Mission from 1904 to 1945, has “become legend in the part of Newfoundland that he served for so long.”
Irving Letto, who grew up in L’Anse au Clair, in Coastal Labrador, attended the Canon J.T. Richards Memorial School, Flower’s Cove, in 1960-61. After 16 years teaching, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and worked in several parishes in Atlantic Canada, including Bay Roberts.
In 1971, Letto took upon himself a research project revolving around Richards’ life and work. The fruit of his labours is the book, “Sealskin Boots and a Printing Press: Piecing Together the Life of Canon J.T. Richards,” which he self-published late last year.
“My interest in Canon Richards began very early,” Letto says, “because I grew up with people who thought he had been God’s gift to them. He was their beloved pastor, priest and friend — yes, someone they honoured as a Saint with a capital ‘S’ although, not being Roman Catholic, they never thought of having him canonized.”
Following a visit with Richards’ wife, Dora, in 1971, Letto realized “he was an important historical figure in the development of Northern Newfoundland and Labrador.” Letto “wanted to delve more deeply into his personality and work.”
A strong bond of friendship existed between Richards and Wilfred T. Grenfell (1865-1940). Indeed, in 1989, Letto published Richards’ own book. Letto explains: “I’ve never found (a book) that presents such a personal and firsthand description of the man as I found in Richards’ ‘Snapshots of Grenfell’ and ‘Grenfell’s Monologue on the Ice Pan.’
They present, I think, a significant perspective from which to understand the person and work of Wilfred Grenfell.” Letto released a revised edition of Richards’ book last year.
Richards was a well-known and respected individual. Letto is convinced his “memory needs to be preserved.” Further, it’s important that Richards’ involvement in what Letto calls “the spiritual, social, cultural and educational development of the people in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador … be preserved for future generations.”
Richards was a writer of both prose and poetry.
One poem concerns a man who died on a vessel returning from the Labrador: “No more the sterile rocks of Labrador / Shall know his presence as thou hast of yore. / No more his loved ones shall their loved one see; / No more! No more on earth!! Oh can it be!!!”
In “Skipper Dick’s Feast,” which won honourable mention in the O’Leary Newfoundland Poetry Award in 1950, Richards pays tribute to fishers: “’Tis a novel work, ’tis a manly work / ’Tis a work that makes men bold, / This work on the ocean wave, / Gives life to the lads in the salt-sea air, / Long life to the fisher brave.”
Richards’ most biographical poem is “Home,” in which he reflects on his Bareneed hearth: “Dear home! Cradle of youth! Greeting! / Long have I yearned to tread thy quaintly shore; / And here thou art, gem of all lands to me, / Sparkling thy lake, charming thy bright blue sea. / Faults sure thou hast, for what, / By human creature touched, has not? / Yet in thy fairest guise, I see thee now, / Thy balmy air detracts from sorrow’s brow.”
Letto wants readers of his Richards biography to, “first of all, know Canon Richards and how important a figure he is in the history of Northern Newfoundland and Labrador.” Second, he believes Richards’ “poetry, too, is an important contribution to the literature of early 20th century poetry and needs to be known.” Finally, he hopes “the people of Northern Newfoundland and Labrador, especially, will gain a greater appreciation of the history and the work of Canon Richards and Dr. Grenfell.”
Letto’s triad of wishes are admirably fulfilled in “Sealskin Boots and a Printing Press.” He has indeed pieced together the life of a Bareneed boy who did well for himself, leaving an enduring legacy for a new generation.
Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org