Newfoundland Revisited: A Changed Life on the Rock

The view of Conche from the rectory overlooking the bay

Among steep cliffs on the eastern shore of the Great Northern Peninsula (GNP) of Newfoundland are fishing villages with long histories. It’s been many years since I last visited ‘the Rock’. Bishop Bart van Rojien asked if I could help with Easter celebrations in his Diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador. I would be assisting Fr. George Mullappilly, MF, who administers the northern portion of the GNP where there are many fishing villages.

I’d spent so much time in the Diocese of Whitehorse and I needed to get back to other areas. This was an opportunity to do just that and I willingly obliged. The bishop wanted me in the Conche area, a place I’d never heard of and struggled to find on a map. Conche has quite a history.

The area was mentioned on a map from 1613, based on Champlain’s 1612 voyage. Later, in 1702 Conche harbored a battle of British warships and French fishing boats. France lost territorial claim to Newfoundland after 1713, but retained seasonal fishing rights along the ‘French Shore’, including the communities of Conche, Croque, Grandois and Main Brook. Irish and English settlers safeguarded French possessions during the returns to France, although fishing rights were lost in 1904. In developing as a community, Conche established a school around 1860, with a schoolhouse built in 1883 and a continual education program by 1890.

First Catholic church building in Conche

More recently, a salt-fish plant opened in the 1960s and was later converted to frozen processing in 1970. By 1980 approximately 1,810,000 kg of cod was being caught by traps, longlines, gillnets and trawlers. The economy of Conche was based on cod until the moratorium in 1992. Until then, Conche was a place to be with over 500 inhabitants, 120 students in school and a thriving fish plant. Then everything stopped and the population dropped to 146. Today it’s mainly a retirement community.

After a 4-hour drive from Deer Lake, where I overnighted with Fr. Anthony Ahn, I descended from the Long Range Mountains into the seaside village of Conche. I stopped for tea with the Bromleys, being greeted with typical Newfoundland hospitality. Gerry Bromley told me that he grew up here when men built their own boats from local trees, fished by hand after rowing to inshore schools of fish, and hunted anything they could find. They traded cod and salmon for food and goods with the fish plant. There’s a fierce determination here to survive. There are only 3 crabbing boats left in operation and a seasonal packing plant, with workers coming from other villages.

I asked Gerry if he was happy growing up here. “Yes, yes,” he said. “And we had lots of friends, but never thought about isolation. I mean, we were just what you knew, and you didn’t know anything else. And as children we didn’t have phones so we were down the pond skating. The boys playing hockey or played ball. We were never in the house. I was busy in church when there was mass or stations in the school.”

Did the priests treat them well? “Well? We hardly knew what the priests were doing. The priests were on the school board. They were in charge. We had 4 or 5 grades in one classroom.”

Gertie chimed in, “Yeah, there’s a lot of history, Father, not good history. We were scared. I suppose there was drilled into us that we had to be at church. There was no road up top, like where you drove. Was nobody lived up there. There was the steeple cross there, and dare you pass that cross without stopping and blessing yourself. So, we’re going into the church lots of times. It’s a remote time. My mother’s sister was a nun, so that didn’t help. I was more afraid of her. If we went to church, where were you this morning she’d ask. Yeah, the priest would come to school mostly for confessions, but not to talk. I mean, we never really had much relations. Some of the priests were kind of strict. If we wanted the hall for a dance, we had to come and ask him, because it was all under the Roman Catholic Church and everything.”

“The priest was in charge, you see Father,” Gerry added. “He sent me away by boat, this was about 1964, and for a year of study after high school. And then I came here and taught for a while. Had 40 students up there, from grades 1 to 8. I tapped in for 3 or 4 years here, went back ‘til, I think it was ’70. I actually went back to university. And then I ended up here I think 1975. I mean, education was everything. Well, if you went away and you failed, you weren’t coming back. We’d be too scared to. Life was hard and you had to contribute. You see, we didn’t get any road here until 1969. We were isolated. We lived off the land. If there was an animal to trap that you could get money for it, then it was caught. If it was something that you could eat you killed it. We had nothing else.” 

All that’s changed now with fewer priests and fewer people going to church. The day of dominant clergy has passed in Newfoundland with the abuse scandals and the loss of Catholic schools. It’s a very different situation now from what the Bromleys described.

What I found was a lay-lead faith community because Fr. George has too large an area to cover and can’t be here every week. His thick Hindi accent is hard to understand, but how do you change that in a mature man? Imagine being from tropical India and living in northern Newfoundland. Could 2 places be more different? Gertie’s friend, Loretta Lewis said, “People shouldn’t complain. He’s trying his best. They couldn’t understand when the priest said Mass in Latin. Why should they complain now?”

Gertie and Loretta had everything organized for the Triduum celebrations. All I had to do was show up. They basically run things here, with help from others, though Gertie said that Loretta is in charge. Loretta has always been doing something around the church even in earlier days, when the priests did almost everything. Fr. Mullappilly would be lost without these women.

Gertie Bromley (right) and Loretta Lewis in the rectory
Gertie Bromley (right) and Loretta Lewis in the rectory

Loretta said, “I was born to do this. My faith has grown a lot but I wasn’t always – I mean involved and my love of the Lord. There was a Charismatic Conference, which I didn’t think much of, but I went anyways with Bessie. I experienced the healing power of Jesus and I was no longer spiritually blind if you know what I mean. We grew up with a lot of religion. People had a fear of God and there were things that happened in these small communities that were never reported. There was evil around. I used to not say much but now I have a boldness and I speak out and I act. That’s why I help with the priests who come here. You see, I can’t not do these things around the church here and people expect me to do it – me and Gertie you see ‘cause we do it together. I talk to the Lord every day and I feel a peace when I’m doing this sort of work.”

Catholics have suffered in many ways in Newfoundland, with stories that don’t need to be retold. It’s amazing that anyone is still going to Mass.

But they do go and there’s a small group who are involved. Gertie and Loretta help to make it all happen when Fr. George comes on his rounds. We need more people in our missions across the country who have the helping spirit of these ladies. Otherwise, the faith founders and churches become empty. I’ve certainly seen it happen elsewhere.

Two hours north of Conche is St. Anthony, a regional centre with a population of over 2,000.  Like Conche, it has an interesting history. Jacques Cartier came across the settlement in 1534, reporting that it was named St. Anthony Haven. French and Basque fishermen used its harbour as a seasonal fishing station in the early 1600s. L’Anse aux Meadows, dating back 1,000 years, is close by and is the only undisputed site of pre-Columbian, trans-oceanic contact of Europeans with the Americas outside of Greenland, with a possible connection to Leif Erikson. There is also evidence of an Indigenous occupation dating back 6,000 years.

Agnes Patel lives there.  She is involved with the St. Francis Xavier group of churches in the St. Anthony area at the top of the Peninsula. She said Fr. George has a large area to cover, dividing his time in 2-week allotments between the hubs of St. Anthony and Conche. St. Anthony includes St. Lunaire-Griquet and Goose Cove, while Conche has Englee, Roddicton and Croque. The assignment keeps him hopping. Agnes also appreciates him because, “If he wasn’t here maybe there wouldn’t be Mass. People don’t appreciate what they have. They like him as a person but crab about not being able to understand the way he speaks.” She spoke with pride, as did Gertie and Loretta, about her church. Agnes’ aunt, Sr. Marie Reine, was instrumental in raising funds for the St. Anthony church. Sr. Reine worked in the infirmary of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, which is why the church is not called St. Anthony’s.

New Sacred Heart Church and rectory in Conche

Agnes said a recent grant from CMIC made it possible to renovate the kitchen in the priest’s house at St. Francis Xavier. The cabinets were repainted, drawers installed and a microwave with exhaust fan installed. The Goose Cove parish hall washrooms were gutted and pine paneling replaced gyprock. Water was leaking into the basement and was fixed. A wheelchair ramp was built at St. Monica’s Church in St. Lunaire-Griquet.  “The generosity of CMIC donors made these necessary renovations possible,” she said thankfully.

On Holy Saturday, as I was resting my sore back, Fr. Mullappilly called to see how I was doing. Agnes was with him and I spoke with them both. He was so happy that I came to help. I apologized to Agnes for not being able to come up to see her. She said, “That’s ok Father. You stay there and take care of yourself. The girls ‘ll look after you. They’re happy they’re getting Easter Mass.” Her comments made me smile. Such good people here and faith-filled, trying to keep their churches alive in a difficult situation. Poor Fr. George, struggling to do the best he can and not being fully appreciated for what he’s doing. God bless him, along with Gertie, Loretta, Agnes and the others who keep things going.  What will happen when they are gone? Faith life has certainly changed here from former days.