Getting to Know Sir Wilfred Grenfell

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Mission! The Extraordinary Adventures of Sir Wilfred Grenfell. Written by Colleen Shannahan, Illustrated by Raidel Bas and Willie Stevenson

Spending the past month in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, we have heard the same name over and over again: Grenfell. We pieced together that he had done something with the local hospital, and that he had gotten stranded on an iceberg once. However, we didn’t really start to appreciate the extraordinary life of Sir Wilfred Grenfell until Jocelyn, the wonderful librarian whose generosity and knowledge of the area has made us feel right at home during our weekly visits to the St. Anthony Public Library, recommended Mission! by Colleen Shannahan and illustrated by Raidel Bas and Willie Stevenson.

The book does a wonderful job blending together the fascinating story of how Dr. Grenfell survived nearly 24  hours floating out at sea on an ice pan with the background of how we left England to provide medical care to the people of rural Labrador and Newfoundland. The book begins by telling the true story of how Dr. Grenfell set out on dogsled on Easter morning to make a house call to a sick child. As he was crossing over a patch of frozen sea ice, it broke off and he found himself drifting out to sea for an entire day and night. Every other chapter goes back to to explain how Dr. Grenfell decided to leave his home of England and devote his life to providing life-saving medical services to the fishermen and their families in Labrador and Newfoundland. As the book then returns to Grenfell stranded on the ice pan, it details how his quick thinking and tough decisions end up helping him survive the ordeal.

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The house in which Dr. Grenfell lived with his wife for many years. It has been preserved as a museum of his life and legacy.

It is truly fortunate that Dr. Grenfell did survive because he went on to international fame as he left his mark on the region: starting schools and hospitals up and down the coast, creating cooperative stores to make goods more affordable, outfitting boats to become mobile hospitals that could reach remote communities, and creating an infrastructure to sustain his medical mission that endures to this day. As St. Anthony was his home and headquarters for all of his work, we were eager to visit the various Grenfell Historic Properties and explore the Grenfell legacy first hand.

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A view from the Tea House Trail, a place where Dr. Grenfell and his staff could go for some peace and relaxation after a busy day of service.

After visiting the Grenfell Mission Store and the Grenfell Museum, we set out for a leisurely hike on the Tea House Hill. This maintained gravel trail, with well-placed wooden steps and benches, was unlike any other hike we have done here in the Great Northern Peninsula. Being sheltered from the strong coastal winds, the trail winds through a quiet canopy of trees that could not survive on the edge of the sea. The song of countless birds and the warmth of the heat radiating from large trees were a nice contrast to the sound and feel of the cool sea breeze was are accustomed to while hiking. The view of water connecting the communities of St. Anthony was unbeatable (the harbor appears in the foreground of the above photo and the bight in the background), and we could picture the feeling of release the staff of the Grenfell Mission must have felt looking out over these same waters. Heading back down the hill towards St. Anthony, a town forever transformed by the vision of one man, we felt truly awestruck by the extraordinary legacy of Sir Wilfred Grenfell.

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