New Brunswick

From a doomed church, a 136-year-old story of vaccine mandates and resistance

A piece of newsprint discovered during the demolition of a church in southwestern New Brunswick tells a familiar story of public health challenges during a smallpox outbreak in 1885 that have been renewed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Piece of newsprint found in N.B. church tells a familiar story of unrest during a smallpox outbreak in 1885

While demolishing a church in McAdam, N.B., crews came across a tattered piece of newsprint that featured a story about vaccination for school children in Montreal. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

A 136-year-old piece of newsprint discovered under unusual circumstances highlights public health challenges that have been renewed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The clipping details a push to get Montreal school children vaccinated against smallpox at a time when vaccine mandates were sparking violent riots, despite the disease killing thousands in Quebec.

The page from the now-defunct Montreal Herald is believed to have been printed in August 1885. It was found while crews were demolishing the St. Clement's Catholic Church in the southwestern New Brunswick village of McAdam last December, said Dave Essensa, who worked as project manager on the demolition.

The single sheet of newsprint was discoloured with age and burnt around the edges when it was found on the wet, slushy ground.

Newspaper promoting vaccines during smallpox outbreak found in N.B construction site

5 months ago
Duration 2:36
Stuffed in the walls of a McAdam church that burned down not once, but twice, then was found in a mud puddle, the article bears a poignant message from a bygone epidemic.

It might have been overlooked entirely if Dale Nason, the worker who found it, hadn't read the timely headline: "Vaccination for school children."

"The word 'vaccination' caught his eye," said Essensa, speaking to CBC's Harry Forestell.

"And he brought it over to a construction trailer that we had set up here on the site and more or less looked at me and he said, 'What do you think of that?'"

Dave Essensa, project manager for the demolition, took the newsprint home with him and did some research to determine the publication date. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Digging into the background

Essensa said he brought the piece of newsprint home that night to give it a closer look.

The publication date had been lost, and the weathered text of the story was hard to read.

However, by drawing on a few key details, Essensa said he determined the story must have been about the push to vaccinate school children against smallpox during Montreal's devastating outbreak in 1885.

"The article speaks of a doctor [Louis] Laberge as being the chief medical health officer for the City of Montreal," said Essensa.

"A bit of internet searching and referencing some articles … that spoke to a smallpox epidemic in the province of Quebec in 1885."

The smallpox outbreak of 1885 killed 3,259 people in Montreal alone and 5,964 across Quebec.

During the outbreak, violent riots broke out in the streets of Montreal by groups opposed to the city's vaccination campaign, according to Jonathan M. Berman's When antivaccine sentiment turned violent: the Montréal Vaccine Riot of 1885published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"On Sept. 28, the Board of Health announced that vaccination was to be made compulsory," writes Berman.

"In response, a 'howling mob' surrounded the East End Branch Health Office that evening and 'wrecked' the building."

Reflection of today's challenges

The resumption of in-person classes in New Brunswick this week came as officials, including Chief Medical Officer of Health Jennifer Russell, urged parents to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19.

At the same time, a vocal minority of people have gathered in cities in New Brunswick and Canada in recent weeks to protest COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

Given the current climate around vaccine mandates, Essensa said the discovery of the clipping was an interesting coincidence.

"What I took from it was... our ancestors have been through these things before. Civilization has been through these things before," Essensa said.

"Let's just get this done. And yeah, [the discovery] was pretty bizarre, but I'm not going to read more into it than that."

Surviving two fires and a demolition

Essensa said he suspects the clipping had been packed into a wall of the church as insulation, which explains why it was suddenly found on the ground during the demolition.

He said the timeline matches with construction of the church in 1889.

A stained-glass arch window was saved during the demolition of St. Clement's Catholic Church in McAdam, N.B. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

After that, Essensa said the clipping survived two disasters.

"The church burned in 1904 … the main vestry area which this [clipping] came out of, survived that first fire in 1904, was rebuilt, and then in the 1940s, it burned again," he said. 

"And it appears by all accounts... that paper would have been in there as insulation. A vast majority of it would have been burned in one or both of those fires, and somehow this one little piece survived."

McAdam Mayor Ken Stannix said he thinks the clipping is a significant reminder that though people have rejected vaccines in the past, history has proven they work.

"I think it gives us a message that these vaccines, so long as they are vetted by the scientific community as they have, work to the benefit of mankind rather than against it," Stannix said.

"And I think once people come to realize the benefits of the vaccines in the current age, they will do that. They will take them."

With files from Harry Forestell

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