The Story of Father Duffy's Well in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Updated on March 30, 2017
Stephen C Barnes profile image

Stephen has been exploring the history, legends, and folklore of his home province of Newfoundland for the better part of 40 years.

Approximately 68 km (42.25 miles) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, on the Salmonier line, is a provincial park known as Father Duffy's Well. This pleasant little roadside rest area grew up around the legend of a parish priest, his fight for his church, and a natural spring on the side of the road.

Though many of the people that come to visit Father Duffy's Well do so to avail of its purported healing powers you do not have to be a believer to enjoy this beautiful little park, with its picnic area and wooded walking trails. Nor do you need to be Catholic to appreciate the story of Father Duffy, the remarkable priest for whom the well and the park are named.

Father Duffy's Well Provincial Park

A
Father Duffy's Well provincial park:
312 Salmonier Line, Brigus Junction, NL A0B 1G0, Canada

get directions

Road sign marking Father Duffy's Well
Road sign marking Father Duffy's Well | Source

Father Duffy

Father James W. Duffy was born in County Monaghan, Ireland, around the year 1798. He was serving as a Curate in Ireland when he was brought to Newfoundland by Bishop Michael Fleming. On September 21, 1833 he arrived in St. John's. He remained in the capital city until early 1834, at which time he was named to Ferryland by Bishop Fleming as assistant to Father Timothy Browne. Duffy served the parish from Fermeuse to St. Mary's Bay. In St. Mary's, a small fishing community on the shore of St. Mary's Bay, Father Duffy learned that the two churches that had previously been built in that community had both been destroyed by wind. It is here that the story of Father Duffy's Well begins.

Roadside sign welcoming visitors to the town of St. Mary's.
Roadside sign welcoming visitors to the town of St. Mary's. | Source

The New Church and the Dispute

In December of 1834 Father Duffy decided that it was imperative a new church be built in St. Mary's to replace the two that had previously been destroyed. He knew that if this new church was not to suffer the fate of the previous two it would have to be constructed on low ground. He choose a sheltered location close to the beach that would be safe from the wind. The proposed location chosen, however, met with a great deal of opposition from a man by the name of John Martin, a local merchant, and a non-catholic (this was at a time in Newfoundland when Catholics and Protestants pretty much kept to their own, and it took relatively little for tensions to flare up between the two groups). Martin was the agent for Slade, Elson and Company, a 19th century outport merchant that had extensive holdings in the area. Father Duffy went ahead and had the new church built anyway, despite Martin's protests. It was not long after the new church opened its doors that the real trouble started.

Martin had recently erected a large fish flake which obstructed access to the new church. In spite of protests that the beach was a public right of way Martin refused to move the flake. Hostilities between Duffy and Martin continued to escalate until, on January 13, 1885, Duffy led a number (approximately 80) of his parishioners to the beach to dismantle and burn the offending flake. As a result of this action Duffy and nine others were arrested and charged.

A 19th century Newfoundland fish flake, used for drying cod.
A 19th century Newfoundland fish flake, used for drying cod. | Source

Court Appearances

The charges against Father Duffy lead to him having to make several court appearances in St. John's. In order to attend these court appearances he had to make the 115 km (71.45 mile) journey from St. Mary's to St. John's on foot, and back again by the same means. It was on these long walks that Father Duffy would stop at a little clearing along the side of the road (what is now the Salmonier Line) where there was a natural spring that emptied into a small rock pool, to rest and refresh himself. It was this spot that became known as Father Duffy's well.

Grotto at Father Duffy's Well Provincial Park, erected in 1935 by the Knights of Columbus.
Grotto at Father Duffy's Well Provincial Park, erected in 1935 by the Knights of Columbus. | Source

The Well

Over the years a great number of stories and legends developed and grew around father Duffy and this little spring. Many people came to believe that the waters of this spring held special healing properties, and large numbers made pilgrimages to the site in search of a cure for their ailments.

In 1935 the Knights of Columbus built a grotto on the site, channeling the spring through a metal pipe and pooling it in a small cement basin at the bottom. Though it has been repaired and added to since, the original grotto is still there. This location was later designated as a provincial park and has since been expanded to include a picnic area, walking trails, and rest spots.

Whether or not the waters hold any particular healing properties is not know for certain, and is most likely dependent upon the faith of the individual. Regardless of your faith, however, (or lack there of) it is a great place to visit, perhaps for a picnic on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the way to check out the local wildlife at the Salmonier nature park, or a quick stop to rest and stretch your legs on a long, scenic journey around the Irish Loop.

Walking trail, Father Duffy's Well Provincial Park
Walking trail, Father Duffy's Well Provincial Park | Source

Afterward

All charges against father Duffy were dropped in May of 1837, the same year he became the first Parish priest of St. Mary's. In 1850 he moved to Arichat, Nova Scotia, where he was in charge of Notre-Dame Cathedral. In 1858 he transferred to Prince Edward Island where he became assistant at St. Dunstan's Cathedral, in Charlottetown, where he died on December 1, 1860. He is buried in the cemetery at Kelly's Cross.

The fish flakes along the beach in St. Mary's are long gone (though there is still a fish plant there) as are the Slade, Elson and Company, and Father Duffy's beach side church. The Catholic church in St. Mary's has moved back up on higher ground and now overlooks the beach where it and Martin's fish flakes stood so long ago.

Our Lady of Assumption Church, St. Mary's, Newfoundland and Labrador
Our Lady of Assumption Church, St. Mary's, Newfoundland and Labrador | Source
Fish plant on the beach, on a foggy day in St. Mary's, Newfoundland and Labrador
Fish plant on the beach, on a foggy day in St. Mary's, Newfoundland and Labrador | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Stephen Barnes

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      • Stephen C Barnes profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephen Barnes 

        3 months ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

        Thank you Mike. A lot of people are unfamiliar with the story, even some that have gone to the well for its purported restorative properties.

      • profile image

        mike 

        3 months ago

        good job. drove by there for 34 years not knowing the story.

      • Stephen C Barnes profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephen Barnes 

        18 months ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

        Thank you Thelma, I'm glad you enjoyed.

      • Thelma Alberts profile image

        Thelma Alberts 

        18 months ago from Germany

        Very interesting piece of history. I have not heard about Father Duffys Well. Thanks for sharing.

      • Stephen C Barnes profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephen Barnes 

        19 months ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

        It is a very interesting and beautiful place to visit, though I would much rather be in Brazil right now. It was -12 degrees here in St. John's today, -25 with the wind chill.

        The entire area, which is known as the Irish loop, is very scenic and has many points of interesting, including Mistaken Point, which is the focus of another of my hubs.

        Though fish flakes are no longer used commercially many people in outport communities still use them for drying fish. As to the fish plant, giving that a pass is a wise decision.

        Fortunately building materials and techniques have improved considerably in outport Newfoundland over the past 200 years.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        19 months ago from Brazil

        Such a lovely piece of history. I had never heard of or seen a fish flake before.

        It sounds like an interesting place to visit although I would give the fish plant a miss.

        I am assuming the new church, which is on higher ground again, is made of sturdier materials now, lest it will be the third to get blown down.

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