The church of St. Peters in Upper Gullies is the visible product of life and work that we cannot see with our eyes. The story behind this church is the story of men and women whose spiritual life inspired them to create a place that, according to the Rev’d Hugh Facey in the 1919 annual church meeting minutes, was “the beautifulest church in the island.” The work undertaken over many years to establish this church required creativity and the outpouring of the self and it both reflected and defined life in the surrounding community. Before St. Peter’s Church was built, the congregation was called “All Saints’ Congregation, Hopewell.” They met for worship in what was simply called “Hopewell Church,” beside the same site now occupied by St. Peter’s.
In the early 19th century, Church of England congregations in the outports were served by visiting clergy from St. John’s who regarded them as missions. Records indicate that Thomas Martin Wood was made a deacon by Bishop Inglis in September of 1832, and was subsequently appointed to the charge of St. John’s outports. These “outports” included Topsail and other communities on the south side of Conception Bay. At that time Hopewell was included in the mission of Topsail.
Hopewell continued to be served by visiting clergy until 1846, when the Rev’d Benjamin Fleet began to live and work in Foxtrap. Fleet was one of the first missionaries sent to Newfoundland by the school society of Samuel Codner, an English fish merchant who had taken it upon himself to help educate the island’s poor children. Fleet arrived in Newfoundland in 1824 to organize a new system of education along the lines of English schooling at the time, and he taught in St. John’s and in Trinity. He also served as lay reader and catechist, and in 1842 was ordained priest by Bishop Spencer. He became the resident priest in Foxtrap after serving four years in Burin.
During these early years, the clergy had no parsonage, but boarded with local families. For part of his tenure in Foxtrap, Rev’d Fleet boarded with a Butler family on Lodge Road, opposite All Saints’ Church, near the site where a rectory was planned to be built. In fact, the rectory that was eventually built there burned down in 1909, destroying the contents of the home along with a number of church records. The Upper Gullies Foxtrap Mission would eventually hold teas and house-to-house collections to assist in the rebuilding of the parsonage at the same time that funds were being raised to complete the building of St. Peter’s Church.
It was during Benjamin Fleet’s tenure that Foxtrap built their first chapel. Fleet is said to have instructed the men to sit on one side of the Nave and the women to sit on the other. According to records, Fleet was considered a very dedicated priest as well as a fascinating character. Evidently, he habitually wore long old boots. On one occasion he brought them to a cobbler in St. John’s to be tapped. The boots’ age and condition inspired the cobbler to attach a note bearing this message:
“To the Reverend Benjamin Fleet,
Here’s a pair of brogues to be put on your feet.
The cobbler being clumsy and the boots being very odd
If you don’t wear them out they’ll be good for a trod”.
Rev’d Fleet served the Topsail area until his death in 1876. He was buried in the cemetery of the church at Hopewell. His tombstone can be found near a spruce tree at the west gate of St. Peter’s Church. The surviving records of births, confirmations, marriages and deaths for the church at Hopewell, which date back to 1876, bear the signature of this first resident priest. He was succeeded by another English missionary, the Rev’d Edward Colley.
This article is based on information researched, appropriately referenced and presented to the parish by a committee of the church for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the church in 1905.