A Deathbed Conversion?

I’m adding the Rev. James R. Rossiter (1827-1862) to my list of record-keepers who went above and beyond the call of (record-keeping) duty; and whose records, therefore, now offer researchers a little something more. This list also includes William Dowdall Pigott, census taker extraordinaire, whose 1851 enumeration of Fitzroy township, Carleton Co., Ontario includes an Irish county of origin for the majority of Irish-born residents of the township. And, of course, when it’s an Irish county for an emigrant ancestor who left no written records of his or her own (no letters, no diary, no family Bible), that little something more can be a pretty big deal: it allows you to replace “born in Ireland” with “born in Co. [County Name], Ireland,” which is the first step toward locating an ancestor’s Irish townland of origin.

As recorded here and here, Father Rossiter’s marriage records from the 1850s offer a wealth of information about the Irish origins of his parishioners. His frequent references to “the Rail Road in this mission,” moreover, help explain why at least some of these Irish emigrants were in the Ganaonoque region in the first place: some (perhaps many?) of the men were working for the Grand Trunk Railway.

A GTR Labourer Sends for the Priest

Here’s a nice example of that little something extra.

It is the record of abjuration of errors and profession of faith1 for James Warren (not previously a member of the Catholic mission at Gananoque, obviously; and, unlike many of Father Rossiter’s parishioners in the 1850s, not a recent Irish emigrant, I think it’s safe to assume):2

Profession of Faith of James Warren, 14 November 1856
Profession of Faith of James Warren, 14 November 1856

This record includes the standard formulation for a record of abjuration and profession of faith: “have received … his profession of faith,” and “have given him Conditional baptism and absolution from Heresy.”

But it also offers something more: a couple of specific details, and a striking phrase, which help to set the scene. The profession of faith was received at “the G.T.R.Road Station Landsdown.” And it was made by James Warren, a “labourer on the G.T.R.Road,” who, “on the point of death, sent for the priest.” On the point of death, sent for the priest? That is dramatic, that is almost novelistic. While many priests would have simply recorded the name of the convert along with the standard formulation, Father Rossiter’s details allow us to imagine a dramatic and poignant episode in the development of Ontario (or Canada West, as it was called from 1841 to 1867): the deathbed conversion of a railway labourer.

No doubt Father Rossiter considered this conversion at least a minor triumph for the forces of Catholicism. But what of the labourer himself, James Warren as he is named in the record? Why did this (apparently dying) Protestant send for a Catholic priest and make a profession of Catholic faith at, or perhaps near or in the neighbourhood of, the Grand Trunk Railway Station at Landsdowne? Well, he may not have had access to a minister of his own denomination, of course (there must have been an Anglican minister in the area, but who knows from what Protestant denomination James Warren decided to abjure?). And as a GTR labourer, he would have been working alongside Roman Catholics (both Irish and French Canadian) on a regular basis: perhaps some one or group of RCs exerted an influence?

In any case, let’s hope James Warren (I know nothing of him whatsoever beyond what is found in the above record) did not die in 1856. Let’s hope he went on to live a happy and prosperous life, whether as a newly-minted Catholic, or as an Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Wesleyan Methodist, or as an adherent of whatever faith he cared to profess.

  1.  That is, of the errors of Protestantism, and profession of the Catholic faith.
  2.   St. John the Evangelist (Gananoque, Leeds), Marriages 1846-1863, James Warren Profession of Faith, image 41 of 41: database, FamilySearch.org (http://www.familysearch.org/: accessed 9 March 2015), Ontario, Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923.
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