Stephen has been exploring the history, legends, and folklore of his home province of Newfoundland Labrador 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 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.
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 that was chosen, however, was met with a great deal of opposition from 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.
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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.
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, 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 known for certain, and is most likely dependent upon the faith of the individual. Regardless of your faith, however, (or lack thereof) 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.
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 beachside 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.
© 2017 Stephen Barnes