Rev. Edmund James Peck, shown at Blacklead Island. (Photo courtesy of Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Archives, P7502-45b)

A sealskin church

By Kenn Harper

In June 1894, Rev. Edmund James Peck left his wife and family behind in England and travelled to Peterhead, Scotland.

There, he and assistant Joseph Parker signed on as members of the eight-man crew of the Alert, a small whaling ship of 129 tons. Peck signed on as chaplain, Parker as doctor.

A few weeks later, the tiny vessel left Peterhead for the isolated whaling station of Blacklead Island, across Cumberland Sound from the present community of Pangnirtung.

Peck had already been a missionary to the Inuit of northern Quebec from 1876 until 1892. On this trip, he was about to achieve his long-held goal of establishing an even more northerly mission to the Inuit of Baffin Island.

Peck’s first impression of Blacklead Island was not favourable.

He wrote: “In very truth this island is a gloomy-looking spot, almost absolutely nothing to be seen but rocks, and the bones of whales which strew the place everywhere.

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“Sometimes in a particularly sheltered spot, one may come across a tuft of coarse stunted grass.”

The settlement at Blacklead occupied only the relatively flat eastern portion of the island, and Peck thought it to be an untidy mess. The decaying remains of whales were everywhere, and at times the smell from the carcasses was most unpleasant.

Hoops and barrels littered the shoreline and everywhere was the excrement of the sled dogs whose mournful howls was for Peck a plaintive, nightly chorus.

The missionaries’ accommodations were in a building provided by the whalers and their quarters were anything but luxurious.

The building was a two-room shack, each room only 10 square feet. In these small quarters not only did they have to live, but to store a two-year supply of foodstuffs and perishables.

Their domestic outfit included: One ton of flour, 800 pounds of sugar, 180 pounds of tea, 800 pounds of preserved meats, dried and preserved vegetables, 600 pounds of oatmeal, one ton of biscuits, 100 pounds of jam, one barrel of paraffin oil, methylated spirits, articles of trade including knives, pipes, tobacco and scissors, and 200 pounds of soap.

They also brought 15 tons of coal and one ton of wood.

Near the whaling station, Inuit had built a camp composed of skin tents and wooden shacks, made from whatever material was at hand.

Peck took a census and found there were 171 Inuit living there. He knew that there was also a sizeable population at Kekerten on the north side of the sound as well as many small camps throughout the sound. And he realized just how much the Inuit had come to rely on the whalers for employment as well as guns and ammunition.

Although the whalers had provided Peck’s accommodation, there was not a building to spare to use as a church, and Peck felt an urgent need for a place where the missionaries could meet for worship with the Inuit.

And so, the first church on Blacklead Island was constructed of sealskin. It had a wooden frame, 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, covered with skins. Peck held his first service there on Oct. 7, 1894.

The sealskin church served its purpose for a few months until shortly after the new year. Then a period of poor hunting and extreme hunger affected all the inhabitants of Blacklead, both men and dogs.

At 3 a.m. on Jan. 23, Peck and Parker were woken by the sound of a pack of starving dogs. They were on top of the church and were tearing it to pieces. Peck estimated there were more than 100 of the ravenous animals. Many had fallen through the roof into the church. They destroyed a good portion of it.

Parker wrote in his diary: “The poor, starving dogs greatly disturbed us one cold night … by breaking into our — may I call it church? — tearing the little place down and devouring it.

“We were quickly on the scene of destruction, but too late to be able to save much of the materials which had formed the roof, for being skin, the dogs had eaten it up quickly. It was a sorry little edifice — still, our best.

“Next day we set to and repaired it somehow with all kinds of odds and ends, so that it was in use again the following day. It has undergone repairs and improvements this summer, but still remains a despicable little object, though I am glad to say the people think it grand.”

Peck spent four periods of two years each at Blacklead Island. On each of his one-year furloughs in England, his routine was much the same — oversee the publication of church literature in syllabics, lecture on the importance of his mission to the Inuit, and lobby the Church Missionary Society for the mission’s continuance.

On one of his fundraising visits to Scotland, when he was telling the story of the sealskin church to a Sunday school class a young girl remarked, “Now that we have heard of a kirk being eaten by dogs, it is not hard to believe that a whale could have swallowed Jonah.”

The Blacklead Island mission closed in 1906.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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