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Columbia Coast Mission celebrates 100 years

"North by west in the sunlight," as seagoing pastor John Antle wrote in his log in the late afternoon of June 1, 1904. He was taking the first practical step of the Columbia Coast Mission.

"North by west in the sunlight," as seagoing pastor John Antle wrote in his log in the late afternoon of June 1, 1904.

He was taking the first practical step of the Columbia Coast Mission. On that day he set off from Vancouver in a 16-foot open boat in order to explore the coast for opportunities in Christian medical mission. He had built the sailboat himself, powered it with an innovative three-quarter horse outboard and taken his nine-year old son for crew. An Anglican priest with broad experience ministering in the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador, he was a maverick and pioneer. This first voyage, covering some 500 miles of the coast, set events in motion that changed the face of B.C.'s coastal society in subtle and remarkable ways. Ultimately, the medical mission covered a daunting area: from the Sechelt peninsula to the top of Kingcome Inlet and along the eastern shores of Vancouver Island to the ends of Bute and Jervis inlets. Much of this area was uncharted.

Once described as a "glad, bold, even brash organization in its halcyon days," it took its inspiration from the social gospel. Following the admonition of Jesus to go out into the world and serve others, the Mission aimed at addressing the basic needs of isolated coastal people such as loggers, fishers, homesteaders and their families. It did so by offering medical and pastoral care, visiting the lonely and marginalized, offering fellowship and counsel, providing reading material and delivering mail.

In short, they brought church "service" instead of church services. In those days there was no social safety net. The Mission provided it. In doing so, it created community.

Of course, the Mission did provide official services as well. As journalist Gilean Douglas expressed it well over half a century ago: "They have been christening, marrying, burying, preaching and performing their thousand and one other jobs" while attending to their primary mission of medical care. Nothing deterred them. Again, in the words of Gilean Douglas, they battled "skookumchucks, Bute winds, Qualicums, Squamish squalls - and that sea of inertia and materialism which is encroaching with such deceptive calm upon our continent of the spirit."

Over the course of its 100-year history, the Columbia Coast Mission managed some twenty ships, launches and boats. It engaged skipper-pastors, medical doctors and nurses and a wide network of volunteers. Among the most famous ships were four successive Columbias (I, II, III, and IV), the Alan Greene, a sequence of ships named John Antle (I through V), the Rendezvous and the Veracity. Some of these are now private yachts: Columbia III, Montseraddo (ex-Alan Greene), Chelsea II (ex-John Antle V) and the Tari Jacque (ex-Rendezvous).

Drawing on donations from missionary organizations in Canada and England and support from the dioceses of British Columbia and New Westminster, the Mission established vital hospitals as well. These ranged from the rugged outpost at Rock Bay to the largest one at Pender Harbour: St. Mary's Hospital, now the Sundowner Inn. In its later years the Columbia Coast Mission took to the air, providing flying missionary care together with a pilot-pastor from the United Church of Canada.

Little physical evidence now remains of that great missionary adventure. But the Mission had been the leaven in the bread of social change. It had helped form the community of the B.C. coast. What has it all meant? As a former skipper-pastor Trefor Williams reflected some years ago while comparing the Columbia Coast Mission with the missionary journeys of St. Paul: "He did what he could and left the results in the hands of God."