New exhibit pays homage to those lost at sea in the Magdalen Islands

A brand exhibit in the deconsecrated Anglican church in Old Harry in the Magdalen Islands, Que. Pays homage to those lost at sea since in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The sea around Magdalen Islands provides livelihood, food, and entertainments, but also great anguish

The St-Peter's-by-the-Sea Anglican Church which was deconsecrated in 2014 was given a facelift and is now home to the People of the Sea exhibit. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

One-hundred-twenty black and white portrait photographs line the white walls inside the 100-year-old cedar shingled Anglican church that sits atop a hill in Old Harry.

A small plaque under each photograph bears a name, but no story. Yet, they are all connected. Every individual in the exhibit died at sea since the turn of the 20th century.

The new exhibit, called A People of the Sea, at the St-Peter's-by-the-Sea Church pays homage to members of both the French and English-speaking communities on the Magdalen Islands.

Behind the altar, large panels tell the stories of modern shipping accidents, including that of the Acadien II in March 2008, where several people lost their lives at once.

"The ocean gives us plenty, like tons and tons of lobster. It's very generous that way, but it also takes away from families," said Douglas Clark, whose two older brothers have portraits in the exhibit.

Douglas Clark stands before a door carved in the memory of his brother, Aaron Clark, who drowned while saving distressed swimmers on the Magdalen Islands, Que. in 1986. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Obvious vocation

Nancy Clark, who is distantly related to Douglas Clark, is the co-ordinator for the exhibit.

She says the church's structure itself served as an inspiration for the exhibit. The church was built with lumber salvaged from the cargo of the Kwango, a Norwegian ship that wrecked in 1915 in the waters near the Magdalen Islands.

But even moreso, it was the story of one of Douglas' brothers' that inspired the exhibit in the deconsecrated church.

On Aug. 21, 1986, Aaron Clark, 25, was on Old Harry Beach with family when they realized some young swimmers were caught in a riptide. It was the aftermath of a hurricane farther south, and the currents were fierce.

"They made a human chain and my brother was at the end of the chain," Douglas said. "They were able to bring everyone back, but unfortunately a wave crushed him and swept him to sea."

"His body was never recovered."

After Aaron's death, the family used donations from community members to have thick wooden doors carved for the church in his brother's memory.

When the church was deconsecrated, the doors stayed, and they became the inspiration for the whole exhibit.

Graham Burke plays a song he wrote about the loss of his grandfather and two great-uncles during a sealing accident at the People of the Sea exhibit opening. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

A second tragedy for one family

Douglas says Aaron's death was a second blow for his family.

Several years earlier, in 1972, another brother, Peter Roy Clark, 15, was lobster fishing with his father.

"It was a beautiful day, the last day of fishing, it was an hour or more sail from where he was fishing to the wharf so [my father] thought he was being good to him and let him have a sleep" said Douglas.

"But [the wind] was so calm and that there was not enough ventilation. My brother died of carbon monoxide exposure."

He said he's very grateful a permanent exhibit now exists as a place where families can come and reflect.

"It's very important, it's not only preserving the church, it's paying tribute to everyone who lost a life."

Interim Official Languages Commissioner, Ghislaine Saikaley, cut the ribbon using Nancy Clark's sewing shears to officialy open the People of the Sea exhibit. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

A second life for St-Peter's-by-the-Sea

The small wooden church was closed in 2014 due to a lack of funds and parishioners.

When the church closed, the exhibit's co-ordinator, Nancy Clark, was the secretary treasurer. She says even if she was baptized Catholic, she has a deep attachment to the church so closing it was a painful decision.

"You almost feel like you failed as a community when you have to do something like close your church," Clark said.

The Anglican Diocese of Quebec sold the building for a dollar to the community.

"None of us could imagine some random person coming in to buy our church with all our dead people around it," said Clark with a chuckle.

The St-Peter's-by-the-Sea was packed with community members and dignitaries for the opening of the People of the Sea exhibit on July 25, 2017. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

She grew up behind the church, and her grandmother served as secretary treasurer for years before her.

She has fond memories being sent in the evenings to check the church doors had not been left open by tourists. Her siblings and friends tested their courage as children by daring each other to brave the church basement alone.

In the two years it took Clark to secure the funds and create the exhibit, every time she drove past the church, she would visualize what she wanted to come of the building.

And everything turned out just the way she wanted.

$200,000 project

Clark submitted about a half-dozen grant requests to every level of government and community organizations. Every single one was accepted.

The project cost about $200,000, which paid for work on the foundations, strengthening floors, rebuilding part of the steeple, giving both the the inside and outside of the church a facelift, as well as actually creating the exhibit.

She says several community members also volunteered their time to help out and scrape paint.

"I'm so happy because this community worked so hard to make this become possible," Clark said last month to a packed room during her opening remarks the day the exhibit was inaugurated.

Nancy Clark, coordinator of the People of the Sea exhibit, says she hopes the exhibit will be a place where family members will be able to find peace and calm.

A close call

Clark says putting together the exhibit was highly emotional.

"You're seeing a lot of photographs of children, and of people that you know their family members. I myself have two uncles in the exhibit," she said.

While she was working on the exhibit a personal experience allowed her to feel more empathy for the families on the victims.

In May, her younger brother was coming back to the Grosse Île harbour after a day of lobster fishing when his boat capsized, stern over bow, trapping him and his helper in the boat.

"There was about a 15-minute period where we didn't know if he was coming out of it," she said, her voice trembling."I just couldn't imagine I would have had to add his photo to this exhibit."

"Having felt what I felt for those 15 minutes, I think it brought me so much closer to what so many families have felt," she said. "I realized how lucky I was compared to them. I find that very hard."


Marika Wheeler

CBC Quebec's travelling journalist

Based in Quebec City, Marika travels across the province telling the stories of people who live and work in la belle province for CBC Radio One and