Simon Gibbons, the first Inuk minister
Simon Gibbons’s early years are lost in mystery.
Indeed, one legend claims that he was found on an ice-floe off the Labrador coast. The historical record is unclear, but he was probably born on June 21, 1851, to an Inuk woman in Forteau, Labrador, on the shores of the Strait of Belle Isle.
Her name has not survived and neither did she, not for long — one report is that she died while giving birth to Simon, another says she died a few years later. Simon’s father was a white man, a fisherman named Thomas Gibbons.
A few years later Thomas Gibbons, too, was dead, leaving Simon, at age six, an orphan. He and his siblings were turned over to what was called the Widows and Orphans Asylum, run by the Church of England in St. John’s, Nfld.
The orphanage reported that Simon “evinced intellect of no ordinary degree” and so he was placed in a school operated by the church.
In 1862, his name came off the rolls of the orphanage when he was taken into the care of Sophia Mountain, widow of a minister, Jacob George Mountain. A few years later, Mrs. Mountain remarried to the bishop of Newfoundland and Simon became a member of their household.
After graduation from the church academy, Gibbons continued his studies to prepare for the ministry, acting as lay reader, teacher and catechist in some of Newfoundland’s outports.
In 1875, he moved to Quebec where he taught in a church-run academy at Clarenceville.
Three years later, he would return to Clarenceville to marry the rector’s daughter, Frances. But before that, he moved on to King’s College in Windsor, N.S., where he prepared for ordination.
Here, if he hadn’t experienced it before, he had a taste of racism, being bullied by some of the other students because he was “different.”
He was a short, stocky man with a round face, swarthy complexion, straight black hair and a moustache. Brushing aside the taunts of others, Gibbons persevered and was ordained as a deacon in February 1877 and a priest a month later.
Simon Gibbons served as minister in three Nova Scotian parishes, the first in Victoria County in Cape Breton, where he acted as a travelling missionary.
His trips were legendary and often dangerous. A biographer wrote, “More than once he would stumble into a friend’s house… exhausted and with bloodstained snowshoes.”
To solicit money for the building of churches in Nova Scotia, he also travelled to England where he used his Inuit appearance to advantage.
A church official wrote of him, “He had qualifications not possessed by every collector; a musical voice, fluent and eloquent speech, an attractive personality, and above all his thoroughly Eskimo physique. These attracted large audiences wherever he went.”
Gibbons summed it up simply in these words, “My face was my fortune.” He preached in Westminster Abbey and had an audience with Queen Victoria.
He built and furnished two churches and a mission house with the money he raised on his first trip to England, as well as providing the bishop $4,500 to permanently endow the mission. The first church he completed was St. Andrew’s-by-the-Sea at Neil’s Harbour.
Exhausted after over seven years in Cape Breton, he transferred to Lockeport, N.S., where he ministered for three years to three congregations. His health had deteriorated, though, and in 1885 he took a six-week vacation in the West Indies to recuperate.
A few years later, he returned to Britain for more fundraising. This trip too was successful and he returned with funds and furnishings for his new church at Jordan Falls, N.S.
His last parish was Parrsboro, N.S., where he built three new churches. He worked along with the carpenters in their construction, and served the workers a tot of rum each morning to encourage them.
Simon Gibbons travelled and lectured extensively. He was a gifted and amusing speaker. One listener wrote, “Mr. Gibbons, who is one of the most humorous speakers that I have ever heard, convulsed the people with laughter and everyone went home in the best of humour.”
Gibbons apparently felt that an entertained listener gives more generously. He once remarked that “the Lord loves a hilarious giver.”
His health continued to deteriorate, though, and he knew that his end was near.
Shortly before his death, he said to a friend, “I shall not live much longer…. We Eskimos do not live to a great age. I am now forty-six, which is extremely old for an Eskimo.
“I do not believe that my changed habits and living conditions will prolong my life expectancy. I shall not live more than a few months longer at most.”
On the night of his death, Dec. 14, 1896, he preached a sermon on the text, “We needs must die.” Then he went home and died. He and his wife had no children. He is buried in Parrsboro parish cemetery.
As with his birth, legend also surrounds Simon Gibbons in death.
Bishop Leonard Hatfield wrote in 1987, “The ultimate legend about Simon Gibbons concerns a bird that often sits on the cross on top of the spire of St. George’s Church at Parrsboro. It looks like a sea gull but is said to be the ‘shade’ of Simon Gibbons. It will not sit on any other church in town and it always faces north, back towards his home and his Eskimo people.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.