Sermon at Saint Columba’s College at 8 pm on 1st March 2009
Each Saint Columba’s Day for the past seven years, I have sat in around about the same place in the chapel here. Each year I have looked up at the stained glass window in the north wall and have wondered about the man commemorated, Henry Irwin, “Father Pat” as he became known to the miners of the western Canadian Province of British Columbia. Going to British Columbia last summer, I discovered Father Pat was rather more famous there than he was here.
Staying in the town of Revelstoke, I picked up a local history of the town one evening. Looking up a place called Illecillewaet, where my wife’s uncle had been a gold prospector, I caught sight of “Irwin, Henry”. The book said, “He so endeared himself to his ‘flock’ that they called him ‘Father Pat’, the nickname by which he was known for the rest of his life”.
The next day we went to the town museum. Father Pat was a legend in the town, there was a plaque commemorating on the outside wall of the Anglican church. The curator of the museum told us that Father Pat was even more famous in her home town of Rossland. We drove there, curious to find out more about the story of this Irishman who had such an impact in such a faraway place. Rossland has a memorial to Father Pat in the main street and the town library has a great collection of papers—we took photocopies of everything we could find. Everyone to whom we spoke knew his name straightaway.
There was a biography called “Father Pat, a hero of the Far West” published in 1909. Put the title into Google and you can read it for yourself.
Henry Irwin went on to do extraordinary things after a very ordinary start. Born in Co Wicklow, 150 years ago this August, he came to school here at the age of 12 where he was good at games but was not so good at his studies. Mr Rice, who was warden wrote, “He was a diligent learner, though not able to reach the highest rank in scholarship”. The Warden did note, “Very early in life he conceived the desire to be a missionary, and his choice was for a cold climate.” Maybe the 19th Century heating here prepared him for the cold!
After leaving Saint Columba’s, Irwin went to Keble College at Oxford University and then became master in a boys’ school. Going on to train for ordination at Ely Theological College, he became curate of a parish in Rugby, then at the age of 26, he fulfilled his dream and went to British Columbia as a missionary.
It was in the Rocky Mountains and in the Selkirk Mountains to the west that he became ‘Father Pat’, a man remembered as having superhuman strength who was universally loved by all who knew him. Perhaps all the stories that grew up around Father Pat were not completely true, but the fact that the stories spread showed the regard in which he was held. I was told that he walked forty miles over mountains in a day to visit somewhere and then walked back again the next day—maybe he did, who knows? What was important is that he became known for his love for people in communities that were on the edge—the miners, the prospectors, the people in the frontier towns. Read some of his letters that tell about his work and, even if you’re not religious, you would have to admire his commitment.
He spent four years working in the most rugged places. In 1889, he returned to the city of New Westminster, to civilization, for a time of great happiness followed by the greatest of sadness. In January 1890, he married Frances Innes, but in November of that year their little baby was stillborn and, three days later, Frances died.
Henry Irwin continued to work in the Vancouver area, visiting home in 1891 and again in 1894, because of his father’s illness. It was 1896 before he returned to Canada, going back to being Father Pat in the mountainous area of Rossland. He became a heroic figure, even giving away the new coat the congregation had given him because he met a man who had no coat at all. His health was not great and the bishop wanted to move him to easier work, but Father Pat refused, in 1900 he was moved to the mining community of Fairview.
The community was poor and his health was failing and at the end of 1901, he was persuaded to head home for Ireland to rest, with the promise that he could return to mission work once he was stronger. Heading eastwards, for some reason he got off the train some miles west of Montreal. He was found wandering through snow and ice. No-one ever discovered where he thought he would walk. He was conscious and able to talk, but badly frozen and died in hospital a few days later. He was 42.
Dying from exposure in Quebec was hardly an auspicious end to his life, a life he had led in total obscurity; yet more than a hundred years later his name is still known in small Canadian towns because of his commitment and determination.
Henry Irwin could have taken life easy. He could have attended Saint Columba’s College and Oxford and found somewhere comfortable to live—he could have yielded to the temptation to just go with the flow.
The story of the temptations of Jesus is the story of him being tempted to take it easy; not to put himself out; not to have to try hard; not to face pain and not to make sacrifices. It would have been very tempting to take the soft option, but he refuses. Jesus has a God-given purpose to fulfil and he would not be deflected from obeying his Father’s will.
Each of us has a purpose to fulfil. Henry Irwin would have sat here in the 1870s, listened to Warden Rice and wondered about what purpose God had for him. What was it the Warden said? “He was a diligent learner, though not able to reach the highest rank in scholarship”. Yet it didn’t matter that he wasn’t the greatest of scholars; he had set his heart on being a missionary and with God’s help, that is what he became.
All of us face the temptation just to go with the tide; to take life as it comes; to drift along at times. It’s an easy temptation just to do whatever others are doing. It’s easy to say that it costs too much determination to be different.
Henry Irwin would have wished for no fuss to have been made about him; he would probably have not been happy at a stained glass window in his memory; but he is there as a reminder about commitment and dedication. Henry Irwin is a reminder of what God can do through unlikely people in unlikely places. Henry Irwin, the boy from Co Wicklow, became Father Pat, the hero of the mining communities, through sheer hard work. Have we the determination to follow Henry Irwin’s example? In hundred years time, will people on other side of the world, or people in your own community, remember you as an old Columban who came to the place where they were and made a difference?