The Bare­need Canon

The Compass - - PORTHTE -

‘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 bur­

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