What makes a young man raised in an upper-class British family forsake everything and leave for the wilderness of Labrador? You might be forgiven for thinking some scandal or other was the cause, but in the case of Wilfred Grenfell, you would be wrong.
Grenfell’s father was the headmaster of Mostyn House School in Parkgate, England. Parkgate is perched on the Welsh border and young Wilfred spent a lot of time with Welsh fisherfolk. Here, Wilfred forged bonds with those who earned their living from the sea; bonds that would last a lifetime. Graduating from his father’s school, he went on to complete medical studies at the London Hospital Medical College, graduating in 1888.
In 1892, The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fisherman selected Grenfell to travel to Newfoundland in order to provide aid to fishermen and coastal dwellers. He worked out of several locations before finally settling in St. Anthony, at the northern tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Here, he established what was to become the International Grenfell Mission, a service for which he was later knighted.
Grenfell avidly courted the wealthy and the famous on lecture tours to finance his efforts, which not only provided medical care but also aided in the establishment of schools, cooperatives, social services and an orphanage. In this he was aided by his marriage to American socialite Anne Elizabeth Caldwell MacClanahan. Grenfell pioneered the use of hospital ships to serve isolated communities and spent much time aboard the MV Strathcona, a fully-outfitted vessel funded by Baron Strathcona. Grenfell recruited many nurses and doctors to the hospital, and orphans from the community, who had shown promise, were sent off to be trained, before being brought back for the mission’s needs.
Grenfell was dedicated to caring for the sick, often at great personal danger to himself. On one occasion he became stranded on an ice floe having embarked on an errand of mercy with his dog team. He was forced to consume his animals to survive, before a rescue team finally arrived. Afterwards, he insisted that a brass commemorative plaque be inscribed, to honor his loyal canines.
Today, visitors to St. Anthony can visit the Grenfell Historic Properties, where many of his instruments and artifacts are on display. Afterwards, I recommend visiting the Rotunda of the hospital that he built and seeing the spectacular Jordi Bonet murals, which symbolize the efforts of Sir Wilfred and his team.
Visitors should not miss out on climbing the hill to Grenfell’s home, which appears almost impervious to time. One can almost imagine running into Sir Wilfred or one of his family as you walk the halls of the house. The study walls are dotted with awards, honors and signed pictures of such notables as US president Theodore Roosevelt.
Afterwards, take the scenic trail up the Tea House Hill. Though the tea house burned down long ago, the views are spectacular and there are plaques marking the final resting places of Grenfell, his wife and others who were instrumental in the mission.
Grenfell is credited with giving the following sound piece of advice:
“The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth. It is obvious that man is himself a traveller; that the purpose of this world is not ‘to have and to hold’ but ‘to give and serve.’ There can be no other meaning.”
As a friend of mine said, if everyone gave only ten percent of what Sir Wilfred Grenfell gave, we would be living in an earthly paradise.
IF YOU GO…
All photos by George Burden – All Rights Reserved