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The Lady of the Lamp

by Irene Craig

Manitoba Pageant, April 1957

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Years ago when first we read about Florence Nightingale we never dreamed "the Lady of the Lamp" knew about Manitoba - but she did. Many a time her thoughts must have pictured the little church of St. Peter's in the Indian Settlement on the Red River, for there it was that John Smithurst, the man she loved, worked with the Indians, no doubt helping himself to heal the heartache of an unfortunate love affair.

Her father, a stern man, would have none of it. He refused also to give his consent when his younger daughter wished to marry Arthur Clough who later became one of England's best known poets.

Incidentally, their name wasn't Nightingale at all. Fearing the family name would disappear, a bachelor uncle specified that his fortune would be left to his nephew, only if the nephew (Florence's father) would change his name from Shore to Nightingale - which he did. Later. when on May 12, 1820 Mr. Nightingale's daughter was born in Florence, in Italy, she was called after her birthplace; actually a most happy circumstance resulting in an exceptionally beautiful name.

Roaming through the tall grasses in St. Peter's Churchyard in the autumn sunshine you would find it pleasant to recall the record of the young missionary, John Smithurst, and to visualize him preaching to the Indians during the 1840s in this little church on the bank of the Red River.

But actually it was not in this stone church here beside you. It was in the original wooden one for which, at first, a site had been chosen near Netley, Manitoba in 1832. Later, however, this present location nearer East Selkirk was decided upon and here on this site (farther up the river) on January 4, 1837 the "neat Indian Church with its white spire" was opened. Two years later the Reverend John Smithurst came from Derbyshire, England, to assist Reverend William Cockran, in ministering to its congregation of 50 Christian families - oft times "in weather excessively hot. Their heads well anointed with sturgeon oil, which rendered the effluvia of the place almost intolerable." Here he remained until 1850, when he left to become Rector of St. John's Anglican Church at Elora, Ontario. Eight years later he died and was buried there.

Following Mr. Smithurst's departure Mr. Cockran found the Indian Church much too small, and in 1854, as Archdeacon Cockran he built the picturesque stone church which still stands on the same Red River site, its quaint little organ responding readily to the touch of caressing fingers. Though regular services have been discontinued, the hand-hewn wooden pews (so narrow and so upright) remain intact, while overhead hang the original brass lamps under their wide reflectors, ready when need be to play their part.

In the adjoining Churchyard the grave of the Reverend Abraham Cowley, who, in 1857, succeeded Archdeacon Cockran as "Praying-Master" (the Indians' name for him), lies close at hand. There he was buried in 1887. The grave of Peguis too, the Indian Chief so intimately connected with the opening of St. Peter's, may also be seen nearby. Still another stone of interest marks the resting place of a neighborhood family. On it the name "Mark Twain Clemens" reveals the close relationship of these early Manitobans to the celebrated American humourist.

The Parish of Dynevor, where the St. Peter's services are now held, lies across the water on the west bank of the Red River. It was named after Lord Dynevor, one-time Vicar of Fairford, in England, from whom Abraham Cowley as a boy had acquired his missionary inspiration.

How vividly St. Peter's on the Red highlights the romance and the remembrances our winding river brings to our very doorstep! In recording Florence Nightingale's interest, is it wishful thinking to fancy she may have been moved occasionally to give St. Peter's a passing thought whilst going about the wards with her lamp, comforting the sick and dying, so far away in the Crimea?

Page revised: 14 June 2009

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