John Sperry, Pioneer Bishop
  • Monday, March 12, 2012

By Ron Csillag

Like many Christian missionaries who ventured into Canada’s far North, John Sperry packed his Bible, a prayer book, warm clothes, and basic dental tools. Saving souls was one thing; pulling teeth required pliers. Sperry came North in 1950, became intoxicated by the Arctic, and never left. A beloved Anglican cleric, he grew to love and respect the Inuit people until his death in Hay River, Northwest Territories, on Feb. 11 at the age of 87.

From 1974 to 1990, he was bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of the Arctic, working throughout Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Nunavik. A staggering 4 million square kilometres — 15 times the land mass of Great Britain or twice the size of Mexico — the territory is the world’s largest Christian diocese. It sprawls over one-third of Canada, from the Yukon west to the tip of Labrador, and north of the 60th parallel to Grise Fiord, the nation’s most northerly permanent civilian settlement.

In temperatures that would make southerners shudder, Sperry logged 3,000 kilometres a year by dogsled, bush plane, commercial flights and snowmobile to minister to the 18,000 Anglicans in his charge, strewn across 31 far-flung parishes. As a priest, he visited, or tried to visit, every settlement, camp and village he could, keeping him away from his family for up to nine months of the year. He preached self-reliance and learned to hunt, fish, trap, skin and shoot. He loved to eat Arctic char, seal liver and his favourite, caribou tongue. With ease, he could haul a 100-kilogram seal into a boat and saw ice blocks from rivers and lakes to be stored for drinking and cooking.

“He absolutely was in love with the Arctic,” said his daughter, Angela Friesen. “The people, the land, the history!” His flock consisted mainly of Inuit but also some Dene, Slavey, Gwichin, Dogrib and Cree peoples.

At the same time as Sperry preached the gospel, he delivered packages and medical supplies and was ready to meet any emergency, including pulling rotten teeth. “He did my teeth, too,” his daughter said. “The old missionaries were trained in basic dentistry. When the nurses came up and could not handle a tooth extraction, they would call my father. He had stronger hands.”

A familiar figure in mukluks and parka, he was well over six feet tall and towered over the Inuit. This earned him the moniker of minihitakotak, or “tall minister.” Friends and family knew him as Jack. The Sperry home became a kind of club, where children would go to learn knitting, sewing and cooking.

Since few of his scattered flock spoke English, Sperry learned Innuinaqtun, an Inuit dialect, into which he translated the four gospels, the book of Acts, the Book of Common Prayer and 200 hymns.

His Scripture translations showed sensitivity to the local culture, said Chris Williams, his successor as Arctic bishop and also a Briton. For example, instead of Jesus calling King Herod “that fox,” an animal considered a “rather timid creature” in the Arctic, Sperry’s translation of the passage from the book of Luke had Christ calling Herod a wolverine, “which is far fiercer and nastier,” Williams said.

John Reginald Sperry was born in Leicester, England, on May 2, 1924, to William Sperry, a shoe manufacturer, and the aptly named Elsie Priest. At 16, he became an evangelical Christian, and knew he was destined for missionary work in the Arctic. “The North has attracted European clergy primarily,” he told the Globe in 1982. “I think they had a vision of the place which was perhaps more vivid than that of some Canadians.”

He joined the Royal Navy at 18 and served during the Second World War aboard the destroyer Verdun on coastal patrols and Atlantic convoy escorts. Later, he worked on a minesweeper in the Far East. At war’s end, he studied at Emmanuel Bible College in western England.

Spurning a naval commission, he chased his dream and arrived in Halifax, N.S., in 1949 to study at the University of King’s College. Ordained a deacon, he set off for St. Andrew’s mission in the tiny, isolated community of Coppermine, now Kugluktuk, Nunavut. A storm delayed his arrival for a week, and he stayed with a trapper who shared his black bear stew.

On arrival in June 1950, the young Englishman encountered tough Inuit parishioners (seven families in total) who lived in igloos and skin tents, eking out an existence as hunters and trappers. He came in time for the arrival of the annual supply ship and was ordained into the priesthood by the bishop, Donald Marsh. He was the only Anglican priest between the Alaskan border and Baffin Island. The terrain was as bleak and haunting as he had dreamed.

“The land was very beautiful and rugged,” he recounted to the Globe. “It captivates you, but the people there are above all the main attraction. They have maintained a quality of life despite modern problems.”

Before those modern problems, as Sperry recounted in his memoirs, Igloo Dwellers Were My Church, published in 2001, “many quiet evenings were spent in the half-light of the snow house, listening to tales of the past, to legends and lore.” By the turn of the millennium, many elders looked back on that era “with intense nostalgia, knowing it could not last.”

Sperry welcomed the introduction of snowmobiles and outboard motors that shortened travel times. Increasingly, nomadic groups coalesced into permanent settlements. The construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in the 1950s brought employment, prosperity and consumerism. But in time, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide became tragic hallmarks of Native life. “The social fabric of Arctic society was beginning to fray,” Sperry rued in his memoirs. The subject would make him “very sad,” his daughter recalled. “Every time he talked about that, his voice would go low.”

After 19 years in Coppermine, Sperry spent five years as rector of St John’s Anglican Church in Fort Smith, N.W.T., where he had moved primarily so his children could attend high school. In 1974, he was elected the third bishop of the Arctic diocese and spent two years in Iqaluit, Nunavut, before relocating to Yellowknife, where he lived for 34 years. He moved to Hay River a little more than a year ago to be closer to his children.

He encouraged Inuit to go from the pews to the altar. “He certainly paved the way for me,” said Andrew Atagotaaluk, the diocese’s current bishop, the first Inuit to hold the post, “and for those [who] will come after me.”

In the mid-1980s, he lashed out at animal rights groups, warning they would be guilty of cultural and economic genocide if they succeeded in closing down the fur and seal industry in North America. “I use the word genocide with great care,” he said. “But what these so-called animal rights activists are doing to the native people of the North is really just that. If they could see what impact their cause has had on the lives of these people, the pain that these people are experiencing as a result of that cause, then I am convinced they would rethink their position.”

The Inuit culture, he stressed, has a special affinity and reverence for animals. “The hunt did not contain that element of cruelty which the animal rights groups attach to it. In fact, they regard each animal as a gift from the Creator. To their way of thinking, wildlife has both cultural and religious significance.” Besides, southern society seemed to have no qualms about eating beef or wearing leather.

As for accusations that churches themselves were guilty of committing cultural genocide among aboriginal peoples, Sperry remained unapologetic, bewildered by talk of Christian culpability and calls for apologies. He told an interviewer that apologies from Church authorities held only the barest recognition of the “sacrificial and compassionate service of a whole generation of good and trusted supervisors and teachers.”

Sperry said he knew a few young people who attended residential schools at Aklavik and Inuvik, northwest of Coppermine. The stories they later told were “in marked contrast with the more horrific accounts of life in southern residential schools operated by churches and sponsored by the Government of Canada.”

On retiring to Yellowknife, Sperry became a padre to the Canadian Rangers, who patrol the country’s northern frontier, and to the Canadian Forces Northern Region. He kept travelling. “He was emphatic about going into every camp even into his 70s and 80s,” said his daughter. “In his later years, my father would go up to [Nunavut’s] Bathurst Inlet Lodge every year for three weeks in summer. He was in his glory.”

Sperry was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2002, and a week before his death, was notified that he was to be awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal later this year.

He leaves a brother, Roy, children Angela and John, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Elizabeth, a nurse and midwife, died in 2001.

Ron Csillag is a writer in Toronto. This article, which originally appeared in the Toronto Globe & Mail, is reprinted with his permission.

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