|A mission church becomes a parish at the discretion of
the local Bishop, whose decision rests on a variety of factors. First among
these factors would be the spiritual welfare of a growing number of parishioners,
whose needs can no longer be satisfied by the occasional visit from a pastor
living some distance away and likely already burdened by obligations in
his parent church.
INFLUX OF PARISHIONERS
This applied to the Shelburne situation, in the early 1950s, when the number of parishioners increased suddenly, due to the installation of the Shelburne Naval Base at Sandy Point, where personnel included a proportionate number of Catholics.
Perhaps the deciding event which necessitated a resident pastor, though, was the transfer of all the boys from St. Patrick’s School for Boys, Halifax, to an abandoned naval base on the outskirts of Shelburne, along the Sandy Point Road. The Halifax School for Boys had been operated for many years by the Irish Christian Brothers, who educated and re-habilitated these youngsters, who had been sent to the school by the Courts, for delinquency, truancy, vandalism etc. and small crimes. These included Catholics , as well as non-Catholics, mostly from the towns of Nova Scotia , including Cape Breton. The government paid a modest fee to the Christian Brothers for each boy, and, as long as the school was near full to capacity, the institution could make ends meet. After the end of the 1939-1945 war, a number of hurriedly built military bases were closed in Nova Scotia, one of which was the small navy base on the outskirts of Shelburne. The Nova Scotia Government claimed a section of the base, which included two large, two-story, dormitories, an administration building, a chapel and a large playing field. This became the Nova Scotia School for Boys (N.S.S.B.), to which all non-catholic delinquent boys were committed. This, however, meant that fewer boys were being sent to the Halifax School for Boys - in fact only Catholics - and the small government payments were no longer adequate to operate the partially occupied school.
Discussions followed, between the Irish Christian Brothers, Government officials, the Archbishop of Halifax, and prominent Catholic laymen of Halifax. Since the Government indicated that it would not change its policy, the Christian Brothers announced the closing of the Halifax School for Boys, resulting in the Catholic boys being transferred to the N.S.S.B. in
Shelburne. The Archbishop of Halifax, His Grace Archbishop Gerald Berry, contacted Bishop Albert Lemenager of Yarmouth, pleading with him to place a resident pastor in Shelburne, whose duties would include chaplaincy at the Nova School for Boys there. Since there was a scarcity of priests in the newly created (1953) Diocese, a deal was struck whereby a young priest from Halifax, Father Edouard Theriault, would transfer to the Yarmouth Diocese, allowing a Yarmouth priest to take up residence at Shelburne. Father Clarence Thibeau, senior assistant to Monsignor Nil Theriault, at St. Ambrose Cathedral, Yarmouth, was thus named the first resident pastor of St Thomas Church, Shelburne.
SURPRISED BY THE NEWS
“ I received a message at my office at St. Ambrose Rectory, that the Bishop wished to see me. Unaware of what awaited me, I put aside what I was doing, and hurriedly walked the two blocks to the Bishop’s Office at 55 South Park Street. When ushered into his office, he invited me to sit down and immediately explained the situation at Shelburne. Before asking if I would accept the appointment as resident pastor, He further explained that the Parish territory included all of Shelburne County, some 940 square miles, one fifth the area of the Diocese, and that the small St. John’s Church at Lockeport, would become a mission to St. Thomas Church. Further to this, he added, that St. Thomas Church would have to be enlarged and a residence built. For a moment I hesitated, frightened by the immense size of the parish, as well as by the problems needing immediate attention. However, being a mere 32 years of age, and, like most assistant priests, impatient to be entrusted with a parish, I accepted the Bishop’s offer, relying on the good Lord to supplement my inadequacies. In truth, I knew very little of Shelburne, having always travelled to Halifax using Highway One, through the Valley. I would likewise be a novice at juvenile guidance. I could now identify with the Apostles, to a lesser degree of course, who must have been bewildered when told to “Go and teach all nations!”. An unknown territory, a huge task, and few provisions.”
BISHOP SHEEN BLESSES SHELBURNE MINISTRY
The effective date of the appointment to Shelburne would be May 1st, 1956, so, with a few free weeks at my disposal, I accepted the offer of Monsignor Theriault to join him on a vacation to attend the installation of the first Bishop of Bermuda , where Monsignor had been pastor for many years. On the way back from Bermuda, we stopped at New York, to visit the renowned television personality, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen,, who had vacationed at St. Theresa’s Rectory, Hamilton, Bermuda, when the Monsignor was pastor there. So, following a quick phone call, we were ushered into the Bishop’s spacious office, where a number of stenographers were busy typing his books, sermons, speeches etc. He was a most gracious host, inviting us into his private office, where the loud sound of typing could not be heard. One had to be impressed by his piercing, deep-set, dark eyes, giving the impression of penetrating through one. In our twenty minutes conversation, he became very interested in my coming appointment to St. Thomas Parish, Shelburne, and penned the following message in a copy of one of his books (Thinking Life Through) that I had earlier purchased at a lower floor bookstore: “ To Rev. Clarence Thibeau, with the respectful esteem of the author, and the prayerful wish that your apostolate may be rich in sanctifying souls in Christ’s name. +Fulton Sheen. Apr. 12,1956”
VICAR GENERAL’S LETTER
Arriving home from our vacation, the following letter
This letter arrived the following day:
THE APPOINTED DAY
On May 1st, 1956, the appointed date of my appointment to St. Thomas Church, Shelburne, I methodically loaded my 1953 Chevrolet with clothing, books and my reliable portable
Royal typewriter. I say methodically, because I tried to place the immediately needed items where they would be more accessible, aware that there was no Rectory, I could not be sure how long it would be before I could unpack all of these items. My fears were not unfounded.
The old Highway II, with its numerous blind bends and
turns, especially in areas along Doctor’s Cove and Atwood’s Brook, made
the one and half hour drive seem a great deal longer and more tedious.
Arriving mid-afternoon, I immediately searched out the one family name
Maurice Jr. called his father from a back room, and when he saw me, I was immediately aware that the matter had completely slipped his mind. Father and son lived side by side , hardly a block away, and Maurice Sr. invited me to his house at once, to meet his wife. Over a cup of tea, we were considering options, when Maurice Jr. arrived and immediately suggested that I live at his father and mother’s roomy house, until a more permanent apartment could be located. Mrs. Flemming at first resisted this arrangement, insisting that she had never before cooked for a priest (as if priests enjoyed a different digestive system than other people). When Maurice Jr. then suggested that I room at his father’s house, and eat with him, his wife and children, next door, she agreed. In reality, I both comfortably lived and ate with the senior Flammings for a couple of weeks, until I rented an apartment, an annex to the home of Mr. J.A. Weingart, at the corner of King and Harriet Streets, within sight of the local school, and the small C.N.Railway station. The rent was $27.00 a month for a bedroom, small sitting room, a complete bath and a private entry on Harriet Street. It was pleasant and comfortable. The Church was only a short distance away.
Mr. Weingart , a former boat-builder, now a widower, was a gentle person, giving the impression of being a prolific reader. The few times I had occasion to visit his part of the house, he was always comfortably seated, facing his large fireplace, reading.
I remained in that apartment some four months, until Sept. 10th, of the same year, when parishioners by the name of Mr. & Mrs. Carmine Ferretti, who had accepted a job in the north of Canada, offered me their small cottage-styled home on Digby Street , also within sight of the church. When winter settled in, the house, with an unfinished basement, proved to be damp and difficult to heat. I remained there until the following summer, when the Rectory was built.
A VISIT TO THE CHURCH
Once settled at the home of Mr. & Mrs. Maurice Flemming Sr. (Sheriff ), I prevailed upon him to give me a guided tour through St. Thomas Church, which was hardly a block away, up the hill on Buckley Street. It was nicely situated, on a corner property (Buckley and Harriet Streets) with a small cemetery wrapped around two sides of it. A local dentist (Dr. Pugh) lived in a modern one story house facing the Church, Mr. Galen Pierce, school principle lived in the adjacent property, Louis and Margaret Thompson lived diagonally across the street, facing the Church, whilst a local plumber, a Mr. Graham Pentz, lived in a large older home along Harriet Street. Beyond that was unoccupied land, then forests.
As we approached the small church, my attention was drawn to the large, round window, over the front door, which featured the Star of David. Rather unusual for a Catholic Church. The interior of the Church was less than impressive: a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the floor with a stove-pipe traveling half the length of the building, just a foot or two above head level; a few pews providing seating for well under one hundred people; a small choir loft; and a small annex behind the altar, serving as a Sacristy ( providing space for vestments and other sacred vessels).
THE FIRST SUNDAY
Sunday, May 6th, proved to be a beautifully warm day and I was some what apprehensive awaiting the arrival of parishioners, curious as to their linguistic, cultural, racial and occupational make-ups. They were probably similarly curious about my make-up. As people gathered, there were natives, Irish, English, French, sailors, juvenile delinquents and even a group of Baptists.
This group of Baptists were from Barrington, arriving with Mr. Irving Cunningham. This only came to light in 1963, when, searching for land on which to build St. Philip’s Church in Barrington, I was urged to visit him and seek his advice. Anxious as I was to inquire about available land, He insisted firstly on telling me why he had coaxed Baptist friends to accompany him to Shelburne on May 6, as the first resident pastor of St. Thomas Church was being installed.
He reasoned that a new pastor, of any church, should always be greeted with an overflow attendance. He further explained that he had struck up a friendly relationship with a former Pastor of East Pubnico, Father Olivier Bellefontaine (1927 - 1941 ) who had initiated monthly Masses at St. Thomas Church, Shelburne. On these monthly visits, the priest would drive to Shelburne Saturday evenings, stay at a hotel, celebrate early Mass at St. Thomas Church, then immediately drive back to a later Sunday morning Mass in his parish church at East Pubnico. As Mr. Cunningham related the events, it seems that on a given trip to Shelburne, Father Bellefontaine’s car broke down near the Cunningham residence, and the distraught pastor went to the house requesting permission to phone a garage. Not only was the priest well received, he was served a cup of tea, and persuaded to use the Cunningham car to continue his journey to Shelburne, with a promise that the disabled car would be repaired in the meantime. The two gentlemen remained good friends for years, and Father Bellefontaine never failed to stop, on his way to Shelburne, at the Cunningham home, to share a friendly cup of tea with the obliging couple. This explained his reason for being present when a new resident priest was installed at Shelburne.
Watching parishioners arriving for Mass on that Sunday, some fifty or so boys from the N.S.S.B. arrived on foot, accompanied by their supervisors (counsellors). It being a warm day, and having walked the two kilometres, they were immediately ushered into the small church, all sweaty and tired, occupying the majority of seats, leaving insufficient seating for the parishioners, many of whom had to remain standing during the Mass. It was obvious that a solution had to be found as quickly as possible.
INSTALLATION OF PASTOR
The highlight of the first Sunday Mass, was the moment when Father Arcade Theriault, Pastor of East Pubnico Parish, and formerly responsible for the Mission at Shelburne, removed the stole (symbol of priestly authority) from his own shoulders, and placed it on the shoulders of the newly appointed Pastor.
Father Theriault preached the sermon, the words of which
As the parishioners exited from the Church, at the close of the Mass, Father Arcade Theriault introduced me to most of them, and, although I would soon get to know many who would offer their services, it, nevertheless, would be some time before I would eventually link faces with names. This is the experience of most priests, as they assume office in a new Parish.
During the following week, whilst visiting the superintendent, Mr. Jack Sands, it was requested that Sunday Mass be allowed to be celebrated in the unused chapel on the school grounds. This would save the boys a long walk, and allow more seating in Church for parishioners. He resisted the idea, using the excuse that he did not have the authority to use the chapel, as only the Associate Minister of Welfare for Nova Scotia , Mr. F.R. KacKinnon, could authorize this. So the congested situation at St. Thomas Church continued for a number weeks until the end of the Spring school classes, when dignitaries were invited to witness the awarding of certificates and prizes to the boys with passing grades. On this occasion, Mr. F.R. MacKinnon was in attendance, and , asking about my work at the School, I answered that it would be immensely improved, if the local chapel could be used. He turned and asked Mr. Sands why the chapel was not being used. He answered that he had not been given authority to use it, although he did admit that the key wasn his possession. In reply to this, the Associate Minister stated: “Surely! when entrusted with the keys to a building, one is free to open the door!.” That settled it ! On August 12th, Sunday Mass began being celebrated at the Chapel, with a later, morning Mass, at St. Thomas Church.
Congestion at the church was thus considerably lessened.