Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Eulogy: Sir Wilfred Grenfell

By Jesse Halsey

I have told you something about the Shore, something about the people, and a little about the Mission, now I want to put the emphasis where it belongs—on The Man. He it was who made the Mission, helped the people, and put the shore ‘on the map’—our Chief, THE Doctor, Sir Wilfred!

He was a tall, well set up man with a body always under an athlete’s discipline. He would go over the steamer’s rail of a summer morning as we cruised the shore, swim a few minutes ice floating around, a dozen icebergs in site, and climb back. All the boys who sailed with him were supposed to follow. It was fearful, but he enjoyed it. (I think it had something to do with his heart trouble—he said not.)

He had a furrowed face, suntanned, sea battered and open, topped by graying hair worn pompadour. This accentuated his already high forehead; sea blue eyes, clear and steady, set in deep sockets with heavy eyebrows, a good sized nose, a mouth always on the verge of a smile with a well-trimmed but fair-sized grizzled mustache; a sinewy neck well set on square shoulders. My description won’t help you much to visualize; never mind, what he did tells more about him, and the way he did it tells even more of the manner of man he was.

The son of an English Rectory (Charles Kingsley was his uncle), a low churchman, he had small use for doctrinaire religion; he despised narrowness, and convention. He never smoked—except during Lent. I remember one Good Friday he was at our house (in St. Anthony). Parson Gardiner was staying with us—he was the Church of England archdeacon who came once a year. Gardiner was utterly miserable, nervous as a cat, because he couldn’t smoke (Good Friday—that would soon be over). Grenfell was almost as bad wishing for Easter, too—that he might quit his self-imposed penance!

While young Grenfell, having finished Oxford, was interning in a London hospital under Sir Frederick Treves, he was converted in a Moody meeting. He loved to tell the story, there was no piousity about it—just real experience. I once heard him tell it to a thousand teachers; they paid him a thousand dollars and seemed well satisfied. I might repeat it here as I wrote it for an Eastern paper at the time of his death.
I have been converted, I hope you have.” I heard him say it to two thousand teachers at one time (and he was paid a thousand dollars to say it—and what followed.) He said it naturally and simply, meaning just what he said. His life came to focus at a certain time, and he was always trying to lead others to make decisions—the decision: to follow Christ.

That was Grenfell, in essence.

It started in a Moody meeting, his “Adventure,” as he called it. While a medical student, he went to that meeting, not to hear Moody, but to see a celebrated cricket player who was there. Mr. Moody side-tracked a long-winded prayer by saying to Mr. Sankey, “Let’s sing while the brother concludes his prayer.” Grenfell and his friends who were about to leave were arrested by that remark and remained—to pray.

He was converted, not from an evil life to one of righteousness, but, as he said, “from one of dallying to one of direction.” I found my compass that night.”

Internship over, Grenfell went out to the fishing fleet in the North Sea as a medical missionary. (Those sturdy fellows that are this minute hauling their catches from under the very noses of German submarines.)

Then, seeking the most needy place in the British Empire, he went to Labrador and worked as a doctor from the deck of a schooner. The next year, he built a tiny dispensary on the northern tip of Newfoundland. In summer, by boat, some sail, some steam, some diesel—a long succession of them laying their weary bones on the rocks; in winter (long and cold—Admiral Peary told me the meanest he knew), by dog team and sledge (komaticks, they say “down there”), in season, out of season, going, going, going—a modern St. Luke.

Dr. Grenfell had a good technical skill in his profession—an indispensable sine qua non to a doctor, but that equipment would have been relatively useless without that focusing decision, “conversion.” Which was more important, the education or the decision? Both were indispensable for his job. That was the thesis of his lecture—and of his life.

Tuberculosis was rampant on The Shore. Prophylaxis was just becoming a great word in medicine in those days. To cure was his mission as a doctor—and to prevent disease. Food, more of it in quantity and variety, was needed to fight the ravages of tuberculosis. Food was frightfully expensive, the people always in debt and the prices dictated by a strong combine of traders in the capital city.

So we see the missionary entering a trade war in order to fight, not traders, but disease. His Christ-impulse set him forward, his technical skill demanding. He spent his private fortune in his co-operatives, but he broke the truck system on the Shore and brought down the price of flour and made other things possible besides break and tea, and tea and bread, for fishermen’s tables.

Liquor debauched the sailors. In a long hard fight, in which the missionary became magistrate, he at last made The Shore as dry as an empty jug.

There have been industrial missions in many places, and preaching missions, and medical missions, and other kinds of missions, but Grenfell’s Labrador Mission combined them all, as probably no other single mission has ever done. And all this to “help people to help themselves.” “What would Christ do with this situation if He were here?” That was his criterion.

He had fights on his hands. Christ was a good fighter, so Grenfell thought. Fights with politicians and merchants. The people themselves often opposed him (as in the reindeer experiment, and that they might supplant the husky dog which made other livestock impossible.)

Once, I listed forty odd activities that the Chief had initiated. Some come back to me now: the hospitals (of course), orphanages, loom-rooms, lumber mill, sash and door factory, pottery, ship railway, “co-op stores, schools, agriculture (in a country where every month, save a possible August, has frosts), tanning of seal skin, and so forth, many times over. All these and many others—some successful, some abortive—all devised by a Christian missionary as his honest endeavor to follow Christ to Labrador!

Sir Wilfred (my ancestors fought under one of his ancestors in the Straits of Dover against the Armada, some twelve generations ago), was a brave knight, slaying the dragons of disease, and poverty, and ignorance where he met them. He was a humble follower of The Way, a faithful disciple and at times a flaming apostle. He loved adventure and would risk almost anything. Life to him was itself an adventure—an Adventure with Christ. As I have heard him say to crowds at Harvard and to individuals (student and fisherman alike) on the deck of his little vessel. He believed it and lived it. He has now gone on to another Adventure—with Christ.

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