Efforts afoot to honour Simon Gibbons

Andrew Wagstaff
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Lorraine Maskill (left) and Mary Colpitts stand in the general area of where they would like to see an honourary inukshuk placed in memory of Simon Gibbons, who built St. John’s Anglican Church in Diligent River among many other achievements. Andrew Wagstaff - The Citizen

DILIGENT RIVER – As the St. John Anglican Church here comes back to life, a plan is underway within the community to honour one of its pioneers.

A group led by Mary Colpitts and Lorraine (Salter) Maskill is working towards having an inukshuk in memory of Simon Gibbons placed on or near the church property, in honour of Canada’s “first Eskimo priest” who built the Diligent River church and several others.

Maskill got the idea after reading the book Simon Gibbons: Eskimo Priest by the late Rev. Leonard Hatfield of Port Greville, former Bishop of Nova Scotia.

“I thought, Simon Gibbons played such a large part in this community, and made such a contribution, it was almost like he was one of the founding fathers,” she said. “I put him in the same category as the United Empire Loyalists, because they made such a huge contribution to this community.”

Born in Red Bay, N.L., Gibbons was sent to a St. John’s orphanage after the death of both of his parents when he was six. Eventual raised in the household of Bishop Field of Newfoundland, he later studied for the priesthood at King’s College in Windsor. He began his ministry as a traveling missionary in Victoria County, Cape Breton in 1877.

He later came to Parrsboro, where he ministered at St. George’s Anglican Church, and had churches built in the outlying communities of Moose River, West Bay and Diligent River, which will celebrate its 120th anniversary in May. It was the first church he built in this area.

What is most exceptional is how he was able to build the churches, according to Maskill, who said he travelled abroad to seek donations of materials.

“When it was decided to build a church, he would get all his Eskimo clothing, skins, footwear, etc. and he would go to England,” she said. “He even met Queen Victoria. In his garb, he knew he was going to draw crowds, and it was the rich elite people that donated everything you can think of.”

For example, the Diligent River church features a stained glass window was donated from a church in England, while various furnishings were donated from people he met with on a trip to New Jersey.

An inukshuk would be an appropriate way to honour the man and the exceptional things he did for the community, she said.

“It’s just a recognition of who he was, and a plain statement saying he was there,” she said. “I think it’s the simplest way we can honour him. He was a really down-to-earth man, exceptional in so many ways, and he deserves to be honoured.”

Years ago, community members talked of having the church declared a heritage property, according to Colpitts, who said it was decided to designate another of Gibbons’ churches instead. An inukshuk would be an appropriate monument, she said.

“Inukshuks were not actually an Inuit idea, but were the ideas of missionaries to give the Inuit direction,” she explained. “What they mean depends on how their arms are. The ones with arms pointing out mean ‘we were here,’ and that’s the one we would like to have.”

While they have yet to determine a price, they have already managed to raise $200 in funds through donations, and plan to sell tickets on a refinished chair in the near future. It is hoped to have it in place to be unveiled for the church’s anniversary service in May of 2011.

As for the actual location of the inukshuk, that detail has yet to be decided. The first choice for Colpitts and Maskill would be to see it placed in the church yard in front of the building, but that permission has not yet been granted. If that option fails to pan out, Maskill has agreed to allow it to be place on her property next to the church.

“It’s just to let people know he was here and he built this church,” she said.

Organizations: Anglican Church, Diligent River church, United Empire Loyalists

Geographic location: Canada, Port Greville, Nova Scotia England Red Bay Newfoundland King Victoria County Cape Breton Parrsboro Moose River West Bay New Jersey

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