As a newly ordained priest in the north of England, Henry Gordon read What Life Means to Me by Wilfred Grenfell, and he wrote, “Ever since the Gospel of its author has been my inspiration and joy.” (recorded in, and here quoted from, the journal “Among the Deep-Sea Fishers,” April, 1921). On August 17, 1915 he arrived at Cartwright on the SS Sagona to be the incumbent of the Mission of Sandwich Bay for the next ten years. He very quickly got to know the lay of the land and proved to be a capable navigator of the Mission’s new boat called St. Helen after his old parish in Lancashire. His journals provide a window into the life of one dedicated frontline worker during a pandemic over a hundred years ago.
From a report in The Evening Telegram on 2 September 1918, we know that he was in St. John’s in 1918 drumming up support for an ambitious ministry project that is memorialized in the school that bears his name today—Henry Gordon Academy, Cartwright. Encouraged by the support he had received from “several of St. John’s keenest laymen,” most likely parishioners of St. Thomas’ Church, he returned to his Mission of Sandwich Bay.
His journal records that the SS Sagona arrived in Cartwright on October the 20th bringing besides the supplies for the winter, a pile of newspapers and personal letters that was always a delight. On this occasion the news was not good. “Our newspapers relate of a serious epidemic which is raging in Newfoundland and other parts of the world. One hopes that it will not reach down here, but the fact that some of the steamer’s crew are down with it looks ominous.”
Nevertheless, he set out to visit several communities, and when the St. Helen arrived back in Cartwright on October 30th, he wrote, “Not a soul to be seen anywhere, and a strange, unusual silence. Going along the path to the Parsonage we met one of the Company’s (Hudson Bay Company) men staggering like a drunken man, and from him learned that the whole settlement was prostrated with sickness. It had struck the community like a cyclone two days after the Mail-boat had arrived. …Whole households lay inanimate all over their kitchen floors, unable to even feed themselves or look after the fire. … One seemed utterly incapable of dealing with the situation, the only thing one could do was to see that no one perished for want of food and firing.”
On November 2nd he reported that he himself was “feeling rotten, head like a bladder full of wind,” but the next day he “got up, took a dose of brandy, and buried Howard Fequet at 1:30, then when back to bed again.”
On the 4th he wrote, “Can’t remember very clearly what happened on these two days. Felt very sick. I knew Mr. Parsons came up to ask me about burying somebody or other. I thought it was myself at the time.” His journal continues describing visiting the sick, chopping wood for their fires, making coffins and burying the dead. His letter to Bishop White on February 18th, three months later, paints a grave picture of the price of a pandemic:
“I expect that you will have heard already of the terrible times which we have experienced down here since last fall. I almost hate to write any more about the subject as the memory is almost too powerful. Suffice it to say that I had to live amid dead and dying for over a month, digging graves, tying up bodies and looking after little orphans. Out of a total population of 320 in Sandwich Bay we lost 69. One could relate many stories that would astonish the outside world but thank God all is now over and it is best to forget it.
I am afraid that I suffered rather more than I was aware of especially in my nervous system which seems all out of shape. I have been able to get through my visitation and am physically fairly fit, but I simply dread the thought of another winter down here without a change and a rest.”