Posted by: alexhickey | February 17, 2013

What is This Place We Call St. Jacques? © Alex Hickey

What is it about this place, St. Jacques, which so many of us we call home?  The answer lies within one of the first questions that falls from the lips of most of my countrymen upon meeting a visitor, ‘Where are you from?  This is often followed by,’When did you get here?’, and ‘How long are you staying?’  All three of these encapsulate our inordinate need to belong to some place and to know who shares that place with us.

My daughter was barely two years old when we left St. Jacques over two decades ago; yet, when she was required to list her home town when registering for her first University Degree, there was no question in her mind of where she was from.  Such is the case with many of us.  Though we live somewhat distant from that glorious horseshoe shaped harbour with its towering hills sheltering it from the rest of the world, we define ourselves with that treasured membership.  It’s where we belong; where our hearts beat faster, and our feet step so much more lightly as we tread the well-worn path of generations before us.

St. Jacques was home to sixteenth century fishermen from Europe who saw in their meager subsistence-living, freedom, independence, and rejection of a class system which had kept many of their forefathers in servitude.  The sheltered harbour also welcomed those still indentured as servants and domestics; entrepreneurs who saw commerce in their future; and those who sought their employ.  All told, they were our ancestors; all told, they planted the seed that has travelled centuries and today still inspires so many of us to call St. Jacques home.

Of that we are unequivocal! We are not from Belleoram though we dearly love the place; we are not from nearby English Harbour West though many of us found life partners there – we are from St. Jacques! What is it that binds us to that community where the headland of Louis’s Cove on the western side reaches towards St. Jacques Island to the east? Where Bottle Hill stands to catch the first rays of morning sun and is silhouetted by the last glow of evening as night arrives from the bottom of Fortune Bay; where Big Hill reclines on its back content to relax as the day unfolds with its belly to the sky unconcerned about what takes place in its shadow during the night; and where Winterhouse Hill with its craggy exposed cliff face, stands silent witness to those sixteenth century settlers who stayed alive in their frail wooden tilts below its protective gaze.

How is it, that today, young children refer to Burkes Cove though no Burkes have lived there for over sixty years? Or, that Dr. Fitz-Gerald, a man born in Marlborough England in 1847, is a household name, yet he died in 1939? How is it that Clinton’s Hill on the road to Burkes Cove still retains that name though no one alive today ever met a Clinton who lived in St. Jacques?  Or that the last the two last authentic mansard style houses are frequently referred to as Paddy McEvoy’s or Hazel Young’s house even though these houses have changed hands numerous times since those owners moved on to their eternal rewards?

Ask a lovely woman in Hr. Breton by the maiden name of Stoodley who moved there from St. Jacques forty-five years ago why St. Jacques is home, even though she was born in Red Cove and resettled to St. Jacques as a young child and lived there for only a few years.  Ask Bill who moved to St. Jacques from Corner Brook as an eleven year old, and left again as a teenager to attend school in St. John’s, why it is home.  Ask John now living in Toronto, whose family moved to St. Jacques from Rencontre East in the 1940’s why each of his brothers and sisters, as they dispersed throughout Canada, felt the inexorable tug of a lifeline back to this community.

Ask those born on the southerly winds that bring cooling summer breezes and those born in the wake of strong fall northeasters, why it is home.  Ask men and women who married partners from St. Jacques and settled there why this remote harbour on the north side of Fortune Bay is called home.  Ask Aunt Effie who moved there in 1957 and left again in 1968 why she so affectionately refers to my hometown as “dear St. Jacques.”   Ask George the only member of the Newfoundland Ranger Force from St. Jacques, who joined them in 1942 when he left home for the last time, where he is from and don’t be surprised by the answer.  Ask Jim, now retired from the Canadian Navy and living in Nova Scotia, where home is for him.  Ask Ruth, one of our best-known actors and award winning filmmaker, where the place is she calls home and you won’t have to wait long for an answer. Ask Fonce whose family moved from Bay du Nord in 1970 why his summer home overlooks the entrance to St. Jacques harbour.

Search the Internet for obituaries of people born in St. Jacques and see how many of the families of their departed loved ones make sure they include the piece of information that the person was born in St. Jacques – and don’t be deceived into thinking that it wasn’t the wish of the departed to have the place they thought of as home included in that final statement!

Read The Splendour of St. Jacques by Allan Evans and Memories of Outport Life by Maurice Burke to feel that sense of belonging to this place.  Listen to the opening lines of the Simani song, The Loss of the Marian, and think of the many times you’ve told someone you were from St. Jacques and they responded with, ‘Oh, the home of The Marian!’  How did that make you feel? Like home?

It is not unusual, if you spend much time in St. Jacques, to encounter someone coming home to connect with the place of their ancestors; exhibiting timid expectations upon arrival and leave a few hours or days later amid gripping hugs and tear-soaked good-byes.  You’ll hear, ‘I’ve never been here before, but I heard the stories and I had to see it at least once!’ You will also hear, ‘This may be my last time here and I simply had to come’, sometimes months and sometimes weeks before you read the funeral notice.  Like those creatures that propel themselves off the edge of cliffs into the sea, we are compelled to go back; compelled to seek out that which charges our batteries giving us courage enough to endure the time between visits.

What is this place we call St. Jacques?

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