The Northern Missionaries - Bishop Stringer - The Bishop who ate his Boots

William Kirkby  |  Robert McDonald  |  William Bompas  |  J.W. Ellington  |  Isaac & Sadie Stringer

William Carpenter Bompas

Fearing they were about to lose Robert McDonald to poor health, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) called for a replacement and William Carpenter Bompas answered. Within three weeks he settled his affairs in England, packed his belongings, and left for Fort Yukon. While Bompas was en route, McDonald recovered his health. Instead of sending Bompas back to England, the CMS decided they could use his help and instructed him to continue on to Fort Simpson (Northwest Territories) to assist Rev. Kirkby. He arrived there on Christmas Day 1865 and began his forty years of commitment and service in the North.

Willing to travel great distances, Bompas spent his first years in missionary work travelling and establishing contact with the native people. He also concentrated on learning their language. As indicated in one of his letters to the CMS, he was encouraged by how receptive the native people were to his arrival -

"I have been much cheered in my work among them by finding them all eager for instruction and warm-hearted in their reception of the missionary."

Under pressure from their Northern missionaries, the Church of England authorities agreed to divide the Diocese of Rupert's Land, which encompassed all of Northern Canada, into smaller, more manageable jurisdictions. In 1874, the Diocese of Athabasca was formed and Bompas was recalled to England and consecrated as its first Bishop. While in England, Bompas married his cousin Charlotte Selina Cox. Immediately after their wedding, the couple left to take up duties at their new post. Charlotte was amazed by her new home and put into perspective the vast area for which her husband was now responsible -

"The Athabasca Diocese extends both in length and breadth to a distance about equal to the length of the two provinces of Quebec and Ontario together, the length of the diocese being from end to end 3,000 miles and containing 750,000 square miles. The distance from London to Constantinople will represent to a European the length and breadth of the diocese."

Like Robert McDonald, Bompas had a talent for languages and he quickly learned to communicate in many of the native dialects. In the decade between 1870 and 1880 he composed four primers in Slavi, Beaver, Dogrib, and Gwitch'in languages. He felt strongly that his clergy should be able to converse well with the native people. To this end, he insisted that new clergy arriving in the North should spend at least four hours per day in language study.

Bompas frequently pointed out to Church authorities that his Diocese was far too large to be adequately served by one man. In 1884, the Church authorities agreed to split the Diocese of Athabasca and created the Diocese of Mackenzie River that included the area around the lower Mackenzie River and present day Yukon Territory. In 1891, the Diocese of Mackenzie was divided and the Diocese of Selkirk, with its boundaries solely encompassing Yukon Territory, was created. In 1892, Bompas was consecrated the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Selkirk and he took up residence at the Forty Mile mission, near the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers.

During the next few years, Bompas' main concern at Forty Mile was to firmly establish the work of the church among the native people and to protect them from the influx of white miners who exerted a baneful influence upon them, demoralizing them through drink and in other distasteful ways. He recorded his thoughts about the small settlement in a letter to the CMS in 1895 -

"A town laid down at Forty-Mile, and they have two doctors, library, reading room, debating society, theatre, eating-houses, and plenty of saloons, as public-houses are called in the West, besides two stores, or shops, and a few tradesmen. One debate was as to which has caused most misery in the past century - war or whisky? It was decided to give the enviable preference to whisky."

Bompas' great love and admiration for the native people was evident in his adaptation to their way of life and movement away from his own culture. He had become opposed to pomp or show, gave most of his own salary and possessions away, neglected his own health, and often shocked newcomers by his unkept appearance and the simplicity of his lifestyle. In 1904, his attendance at a meeting of the Canadian Bishops in Winnipeg, Manitoba, aroused considerable interest. He had become a legendary figure, patriarchal in appearance, poorly dressed, so accustomed to life in the wilderness that he preferred to sleep upon the floor rather than in a bed.

Bompas' legacy to the North was his commitment to education. He was the happiest when engaged in teaching in the mission schools or at fishing or hunting camps while the native people followed their seasonal pursuits. The setting did not matter as long as teacher and pupils could spend time together in pursuit of literacy and the teachings of the Gospel.

Bompas served 43 years in the Mackenzie and Yukon Dioceses, returning only once to England during that time. He died on June 9, 1906 in Carcross, Yukon.

Old Log Church Museum 2002