NL GenWeb

West Coast ~ Early History

Bay of Islands District - Father Alexis Bélanger

The above information was compiled by MARLENE COMPANION and STEPHEN BAKER, July 1999.
While we have endeavored to be as correct as humanly possible, there may be typographical errors.
Father Alexis Bélanger
Father Alexis Bélanger

Father Alexis Bélanger was born in 1808 in Quebec. He was ordained in 1835 and in 1839 was sent as a missionary to the Magdalene Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the settlers, mainly fishermen, were destitute. We can get a picture of the conditions in which he and the fisherman lived from a letter he wrote in October 1847 to Bishop Walsh of Halifax. He writes:
"The approach of winter causes an ominous foreboding which brings fear to my soul. We are going to begin it under the saddest omens and its aspect disturbs and alarms me beforehand for I see famine besiege us on every side. At this time, our little country, without resources of its own, is again without provisions. Already several numerous families are without bread or potatoes although most are fishermen. However, many of them salted no fish at all this spring for want of salt. Once the ice will have closed the gates of our piteous and tedious prison, if provisions are totally lacking, our situation will become as frightful as that of poor shipwrecked sailors without food on an island barren, thankless and wild."
Two years later in 1849 he was again writing Bishop Walsh to say that, unable to stand the loneliness and hardships of this "miserable place" he was "raising anchor" but that his missionary heart would not permit him cowardly to leave the mission territories to enjoy the pleasures of ordinary parish life and he was therefore going to work among the fishermen along the south shore of the Gulf.

In 1848, Bishop Mullock, shortly after his consecration as Co-adjuror to Bishop to Bishop Fleming, visited the west coast of Newfoundland and coming to Sandy Point, the spit of land jutting out from the south of St. George's Bay and which was the most heavily populated area, promised the people that he would do everything in his power to supply them with a priest. It is estimated that there were about 2,000 Catholics on the west coast at the time.

This promise was not easy to fulfill since, besides the shortage of priests elsewhere, a suitable French-speaking priest was difficult to obtain. In the meantime Bishop Mullock staked out a plot for a church and asked the people to prepare for their priest. It took the Bishop two years to make good his promise but finally he was successful and Father Bélanger arrived at Sandy Point in 1850 probably inspired by the fact that many of his Magdalene parishioners had moved there before him. He received the title of Vicar General

Bishop Mullock visited him again in 1852, he found Father Bélanger living in a small log house next to the church which was well under way. Father Alexis Bélanger spent eighteen years at Sandy Point, during which time he supervised the building of the new church and a modest rectory. He also served the outer reaches of the parish which included Cow Head, The Bay of Islands and the Codroy Area. The frequency of his visits to Codroy increased after 1854, and visited the Bay of Islands for the first time in 1863, and again in 1868. A church and a small dwelling were completed in Codroy Valley on the north side of the Grand Codroy River, and Father Bélanger made the 75-mile visit by means of sail boat or row boat.

With Sandy Point as a centre, he continued visiting St. George's Bay, Codroy Valley and Bay of Islands, instructing the settlers, marrying them and baptizing their children. But he was more that a parish priest. He also acted as a doctor, dentist, carpenter, teacher, farmer and logger. We have no details as to the hardships he encountered on these journeys but we do know that they caused his untimely death at the age of sixty.

His last voyage was in 1868 to Bay of Islands which he had previously visited five years earlier. Except when an occasional merchant could be found to accommodate him, he lived in small fishing huts on the shore where people from all around came to seek his spiritual help. So exhausted was he at this stage that even when baptizing a few children he had to take frequent rests.

Eventually he set out on the hundred-mile journey back to Sandy Point huddled in the uncomfortable cabin of an old fishing schooner. Arrived at Sandy Point he took to his bed and the people were shocked to discover four or five days later that he had died with no one to attend him.

Knowing that there was no possibility of obtaining a priest from St. John's for the burial service and unfamiliar the proper procedure for the burial of a priest, the parishioners took the difficult decision of conveying his body the six hundred mile journey to Quebec. For this purpose his body was preserved in salt, a vessel was chartered and an honour guard of four men accompanied his remains to their final resting place. There he was buried with due ceremony in the church grounds of St. Roch des Aulnaies, his native parish.

Stories handed down from one generation to another say that Jean Prosper performed layman's duties in the Bay of Island area. This was because of his relationship with Father Alexis Bélanger. The two became friends (it is thought that this is how Jean Prosper got the name Companion) maybe because of Jean's religious conviction. It is said that Father Bélanger left Jean in charge of doing baptisms, marriages, and funerals for the area, keeping all of the records for Father Bélanger's return.

Since Father Bélanger resided in Bay St. George for many years it was thought that these records were kept at his Church in Sandy Point. Upon investigation there were no such records. One would assume that these records were taken to the Church where Father Bélanger resided at the time, but what Church in what country were they taken?

Although it has been told that Father Bélanger took the Bay of Island records with him to his home parish, some tell stories that Jean Prosper never gave these records to anyone. While in Newfoundland recently I was told stories by several Prosper descendants. All people tell the same story concerning documents that were lost forever.

It has been said that Jean Prosper Companion died approximately three months before his last child was born. His widow was left to care for several children, and to give birth to his youngest son. When the time came that the child would be born, Marie Prosper prepared the best she could. It was cold, early in April 1885. Marie's only help was from one of her older daughters, Adelaide.

The then fifteen year old Adelaide did the best she could do for her mother. She helped to look after her younger siblings and to care for the fire. She helped her mother give birth to William, youngest son of Prosper Companion. Sometime during Marie's labor Adelaide became desperate to keep the fire lit. She knew she had to keep the small house warm. With no firewood left she began to burn things in the house including all of Prosper's documents, his legacy to his family and those families he married, baptized and buried.

  • Turbulent Tides: A Social History of Sandy Point
  • Out of the Past Apostolic Priests Father Alexis Bélanger (1808 - 1868) By Brother J. B. Darcy
  • The Monitor, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's, Newfoundland
© Marlene Companion and NL GenWeb
Bay of Islands District