Posted by: alexhickey | November 9, 2021

A Good St. Jacques Man

Maurice Burke was a special friend. Special for the passion we shared for St. Jacques, special for the respect and admiration he held for ordinary people who in his view did extraordinary things. We spent endless hours in conversation, mainly me asking questions, mining his rich repertoire of memories and experiences related to our hometown. In short, he inspired me to never let go of the threads a small town weaves into one’s life, to keep it’s history and heritage alive, especially for the minds of those who inherit that place.  Maurice didn’t run for elected office or seek publicity; nor did he shun a bit of attention either!  His generosity, hospitality and encouragement was felt by all who knew him.  A trip to St. John’s was not worthwhile without a visit to 35 Craigmillar Avenue.

      The last time I saw Maurice, he was near the end of his life.  He was in a seniors home, having, out of necessity, forfeited his independence.  My father and I sat with him for several hours near a window where the warm afternoon sun cast a glow all around us.  He had his usual questions about people he knew, events since we’d last met, stories of those he remembered and moments of silence when being there was much more important than conversation.  It wasn’t a final goodbye for I fully expected to be visiting him again but the course of events which unfolded after that visit were different from what I imagined.  The last time I was in his presence was at his beloved St. Patrick’s church in down town St. John’s where a large number of family and friends had gathered to collectively say goodbye in a manner he would have thoroughly appreciated.

      Recently, when I happened across an article he’d written back in 1959 for the Atlantic Advocate magazine, I was delighted.  My heart melted as I settled back and listened to the voice of his words.  There was Maurice, telling a story I had not known.  Once again I was sitting beside the window on the street, sipping hot tea and savouring his mother’s (Rita) delectable sweets.  I am sharing that story in it’s entirety as it appeared in the Atlantic Advocate.  After you’ve read it I will come back to the story it tells and share a bit more of this ordinary/extraordinary man.

The Bluenose and the Thebaud Sail Again – Newfoundland Model Builder to Recreate Famous Race

by Maurice J. Burke,

Atlantic Advocate vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959 pp. 107-111.

For the old sea-faring men

Came to me now and then

With their sagas of the seas.

                        – Longfellow

      Have you ever taken a good look at a Canadian ten-cent piece? If you have, you will have seen that it bears the imprint of a fully rigged banking schooner. Her name was the Bluenose and she sailed to racing fame and glory on the storm-tossed waters of the North Atlantic. Perhaps you may have wondered why the Canadian Government decided to mint a coin in her honour. Why? Because from the date of her launching at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, on March 26, 1921, until she was lost off Haiti on January 6, 1946, she was the symbol of the sailing supremacy of the Canadian fishing fleet and she brought world renown to Canada in the five international fishermen’s races in which she competed, for in these races she was undefeated champion. She was a centre of attraction at the World’s Fair held at Chicago in 1933, at the Toronto Centennial in 1934 and in England on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935. She sailed her way into the hearts of all the people who live along the Atlantic seaboard and even today the mere mention of her name will cause old-timers to become misty-eyed as they speak in awe of her achievements, her trim lines and the way she sailed as no fishing vessel ever sailed before or since.

      Captained by that redoubtable fishing skipper, Angus J. Walters, the Bluenose won her first international race against the Elsie off Halifax in 1921, the same year in which she was launched. Thereafter she successfully defended her title in 1922 against the Henry Ford off Gloucester, in 1924 against the Columbia off Halifax and in 1931 and 1938 against the Gertrude L. Thebaud in perhaps her most famous races of all. The Thebaud was skippered by Captain Ben Pine, a Newfoundlander from Belleoram, Fortune Bay.

      The Bluenose and the Thebaud! Ah, what memories the names of these two famous schooners stir in the hearts of all bank fishermen! Memories of graceful, sleek ships in hard- fought races, and at stake the honour and prestige of nations! Today Ben Pine is dead and Angus J. Walters, long since retired from the sea, but still hale and hearty in his seventies, looks after his dairy business in Lunenburg. The motto of the Lunenburg Dairy is: “You can whip our cream but you can’t beat our milk.” When Angus Walters whipped his Bluenose through her paces she was the cream of the crop and you couldn’t beat him then either.

      This summer in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the stage is being set to recreate in miniature the races of these two famous schooners. In the basement of his home at 2 Saunders Place, a retired bank fisherman, Joe Farrell, who has already completed a model of the Bluenose, is building one of her famous challenger the Gertrude L. Thebaud. These are not little models that you can sail in your bathtub, but man-size boats, seven feet long and just as high, made from exact small-scale blueprints of the original shipbuilders’ plans. They are complete down to the last detail and carry every stitch of canvas their namesakes did: jib, jumbo, foresail, mainsail, balloon jib, topsails and staysail.

[Terrence Burke Photo from the Atlantic Advocate, vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959. Creative Commons]

Joe Farrell was born in Bay du Nord, Fortune Bay, a section of Newfoundland that has given the pride of its manhood to the bank fishery. Joe remembers when hundreds of men went each spring to the “banks” and recalls sadly that some of them did not return. Now in his seventy-fifth year, he can look back over a period of some thirty years spent afloat, some of them as mate for Angus Walters before the Bluenose was launched. His old skipper remembers him as “a number one man” and in the language of the sea that is the greatest compliment a captain can pay to any of his crew.

      Joe Farrell earned his living as a bank fisherman from the turn of the century until the end of the Second World War. He sailed out of Lunenburg in such well-known vessels as the Keno, the Independence, Muriel Walters (skippered by Angus and named for his sister) the H. J. Mackintosh, the Artisan (skippered by “Sonny” Walters, brother of Angus), the Madeline Hebb and the Lewis J. Thomas. So when Joe speaks of the bank fishery, he knows whereof he speaks. From his kitchen window he can look out across the harbour of St. John’s and he recalls that things were very different in his day of “wooden ships and iron men.” True the risks are still there (the recent tragic loss on the Grand Banks of the dragger Blue Wave with sixteen men on board is proof of this) but some of the romance has gone out of the bank fishery and the day of the banking schooner is gone for ever.

      As you listen to his yarns of the old days, told with the salty humour so common to the men of his time, the bank fishery seems to come alive again and it is not 1959 any more but 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930. The Grand Banks are teeming with cod and the majestic schooners go gliding by, reaping the silver harvest of the deep. You can picture the men hauling their trawls, their little dories bobbing on the Atlantic swell around their mother ship as they are rowed to her side, laden to the gunwales with the codfish, the real “currency” of the Maritime Provinces. Then the hardy fishermen are singing lustily as they heave up the anchor and hoist the sails for the race back to port is on, to take advantage of the best market price. And then when the fishing season is over, it’s racing time and it’s Bluenose and the Thebaud again. Always the conversation comes back to the Bluenose and the Thebaud. And in imagination you can picture the two of them tacking back and forth over the choppy waters off Halifax or Boston. Ben Pine and Angus Walters, the “Captains Courageous” of the Atlantic, are shouting orders to the crew and men are running to and fro, trimming the sails to catch each favourable breeze as they round the buoys and are off on another tack. And you seem to feel the same thrill as these men feel as they stand proudly on deck and see their vessel heeling to port or starboard, “dragging her cabin” in the water and they will tell you that there is no greater thrill than this . . . seeing your schooner overtaking her rival in a close race. It is something that makes you want to stand up and cheer. And Angus Walters is standing proudly at the wheel, dressed in his oilskins and sou’wester, the salt spray flying in his face as the Bluenose skims swiftly over the waves and races for the finish line . . . the winner again.

      Everyone who grows up in an “outport”* is born with a love of the sea and sailing ships. Joe Farrell is such a man. He is not an author to write wonderful stories of his seafaring days or an artist to paint beautiful landscapes. He is, however, a craftsman and his love of the sea finds its expression, as all true love ultimately must, in the creation of something beautiful to represent that love. Joe Farrell builds his model boats and his work is a masterpiece of perfection right down to the last detail, sails, masts, rigging, windlass and hatches . . . everything is perfect. It takes many painstaking hours of work but Joe Farrell is a patient man and for him it is a labour of love. In the basement of his home he spends hours studying actual blueprints of the vessels and makes his models to an exact scale. His wife stitches the sails and puts up patiently with the endless puttering around his workshop. He sailed his Bluenose last summer on the Quidi Vidi Lake, on the outskirts of St. John’s, and was very pleased with her trial runs. Some time this summer the Thebaud will be ready and then he will realize his dream of racing the two. The clock will be turned back twenty-one years. It will be 1938 once again and the waters of historic Quidi Vidi will take the place of the North Atlantic as the two old rivals race each other again.

      I wish that Angus Walters and Ben Pine could be there to witness the event. What a time they would have with reminiscences about the old days, and theories about just what went right and what went wrong in 1938! But Joe Farrell doesn’t expect an audience and doesn’t need one. It will be sufficient for him that the two models of his own creation will battle each other and for a short time he will relive a little of the past glory that once belonged to their famous namesakes. In a day when the public’s interest in sailing ships is very low, few people will be present, but Joe Farrell will experience a little of the thrill of his sea-going days, and when he watches from the banks of Quidi Vidi, there will be a twinkle in his eye and his step will be lighter as his two ships prove their mettle. I asked him which boat he thought would win but he wouldn’t hazard a guess. I suppose it really doesn’t matter. The main thing is that a dream will come true to gladden the heart of an old bank fisherman and be an occasion for joy among his many friends. In sport they say that it is always best to stick with a champion and I’ll put my money any day on the pride of Lunenburg and of its first citizen, Angus J. Walters . . . the Bluenose. May she rest peacefully in her watery grave under the blue waters of the Caribbean!

            That’s the Maurice I knew, driven to celebrate the accomplishments of others, eager to push someone he knew into the limelight, then step back and smile as the attention shifted away from himself.  Joe Farrell was known for his depth of knowledge of sailing vessels as both a sailor and a builder. His story is quite fascinating; maybe that’s another post for a later date.  Like you, I too wondered if the Bluenose and Thebaud raced against one another on Quidi Vidi Lake as he had planned. They did.  The Bluenose was victorious once again!

[Ern Maunder Photo from The Atlantic Advocate, vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959. Creative Commons]      

            Louise Whiteway published an article in the Fall 1967 edition of the Newfoundland Quarterly titled, “The Bluenose in Newfoundland” which took Joe Farrell’s story to the next step. I have included a link to that magazine below.  Read it to find out about Joe Farrell’s models of these two famous ships and find out where you can go to see one of them on display anytime you are in St. John’s. 

            Maurice Burke published many articles about St. Jacques during his lifetime, primarily in the Monitor newspaper and the Newfoundland Quarterly.  He also published a book titled Memories of Outport Life. Sadly, it is no longer in print.  It shows up occasionally in used book stores.  Before you wander off in pursuit of his other writings, read through the profile of Maurice which was published in his book.  I’ve included it here as it appeared. You’ll get background information that will add greater depth, definition and understanding of who he was.

       Maurice’s  brother John, who resides in Ontario, recently shared on social media a story of a pivotal event in Maurice’s life as a young man. Once you’ve read it, you will gain even greater appreciation for him.

      Maurice was third in line in our family of eleven, a healthy boy, until he contracted tuberculous from having spent a lengthy time visiting and reading to his friend, a victim of that disease. The disease left him paralysed from the  waist down. He went to St. Claire’s Hospital in St. John’s, not to the Sanatorium where most tuberculosis victims were treated. He lay there for some three years and was sent home with the sad reality that there was no cure for his disability.

      For years Momma prayed fervently to St. Anne for a cure for Maurice. But, it was not St. Anne who gave Maurice the miracle he wanted.  It was his brother, Michael!  This was not just an act of  brotherly love that brought about this miracle.  This was years of  blood, sweat and hard, hard, overtime work that Michael needed to do to  raise the money for the operation needed to allow Maurice to walk again.

      Michael had discovered that there was a Doctor in Montreal who did this new type of surgery, who could operate on Maurice, a Doctor Shannon.

      Maurice arrived in Montreal. He was hesitant to go through the operation.  You can well imagine Michael’s disappointment to hear that Maurice was not wanting to go through with the surgery. Apparently, a patient in a nearby bed to Maurice had claimed that it was tried on him and that it did not work.  With Michael’s pleading, explaining the wonderful reputation of Dr. Shannon, and arguing that he should go ahead with the operation, eventually Maurice consented.

      Maurice walked again!!!!  Michael was his ‘saint’  who sacrificed so much for his brother. Both of my brothers passed away some years ago. Michael ‘s act of brotherly love  stands as  an example of true brotherly love, no matter what the cost ! God Bless him!!  I suspect God already has.  (Burke, John. Facebook, October 08, 2020. Used with permission.)

       My earliest memory of Maurice is of a well-dressed man in a dark three piece suit walking along the gravel road during one of his ritual visits.  He would walk from the eastern side of the harbour where the road now ends, the location of his once family home, to the Roman Catholic cemetery and back, chatting with everyone he met along the way.  Every visit to St. Jacques included that walk as though it was a way to remind the hills, trees, rocks and shoreline that he was back.  He visited old friends, made new ones, paid his respects to the deceased and set aside time to pray in Sacred Heart Church.  He always had the appearance of a man who felt at home during that pilgrimage, one whose heart beat to the rhythm of waves, sea breezes and the flapping of seagull wings over the harbour.  As everyone who knew him can attest, he lived in St. John’s but he never left St. Jacques.

“The Bluenose and the Thebaud Sail Again – Newfoundland Model Builder to Recreate Famous Race,” in Atlantic Advocate vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959, pp. 107-111.

“The Bluenose in Newfoundland,” in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 065, no. 4 Fall 1967, pp. 23-24

“On Leaving Home,” Maurice Burke in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 078, no. 4 (Spring 1983) pp. 11–12.

“Memories of Outport Life,” Review by David Bryant in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 082, no. 2, Fall 1986. [Burke, Maurice.  Memories of Outport Life, Creative Publishers, 1985.]


Responses

  1. Thanks Alex for the great story.I heard stories of the bluenose from growing up in lunenburg and from from my husbands grandfather who was on the racing crew for the bluenose .I enjoyed reading about the racing schooners and the men that sailed them from Newfoundland.

  2. Wow! What a wonderful life story. Well written. I now feel that I know Maurice although I had never met him. I lived / boarded for about one year in St. Jacques at the Alec and Mary Hickey’s homestead ( memories I treasure forever ) whilst I taught at Fitzgerald High School. St Patrick’s Church was my second church to visit when I needed to go to confessions or daily Mass for the last 45 years and still is today. Our family also had a devotion to Ste. Anne. It stared with a novena after Mom’s two years of marriage and no pregnancy. Mom’s first of nine children was born on the feast of Ste. Anne, July 26. Your narrative about Maurice’s life has stirred up thoughts and fond memories of my own life. Thank you Alex. Give my regards to all your family.
    Sincerely, Tony Doyle

    I

  3. We have that book in our family and now I need to find out who has it. Thank you for sharing some sights into Maurice as well as the info about the sailing history.

    • I meant insights into ……


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