A window into the past: The memorial to the Coaker Recruits

Sir William Ford Coaker built the Church of Holy Martyrs in honour of the men he sent to war.

At the Church of Holy Martyrs, there's a stained glass window for every Coaker Recruit that died

Stained glass windows in the Church of Holy Martyrs in Port Union feature plaques with the names of soldiers recruited by William Coaker who died in the First World War. (Alyson Samson/CBC)

The memorial to the Coaker Recruits who died in the First World War is much more than a plaque or a statue — it's an entire church.

The Church of Holy Martyrs in Port Union, on Newfoundland's Bonavista Peninsula, was built by Sir William Ford Coaker.

Alyson Samson brings you the story of the Coaker Recruits and the Church of Holy Martyrs built in their memory. 9:03

Coaker, a Newfoundland politician and activist, raised a contingent of soldiers who went to fight in the First World War in his name. To honour the fallen recruits, Coaker built a church in their memory.

"All the stained glass windows here in this church have the plaque numbers that carry the names and the service numbers of the recruits who served in the First World War," says Neville Samson.

Neville Samson holds a photo of his great uncle, of the same name, who died in the Battle of Cambrai. (Alyson Samson/CBC)

Samson, a member of the Holy Martyrs congregation, was named for recruit Pte. Neville Samson, his father's uncle who died at the Battle of Cambrai.

"I was confirmed here, I was baptized here, and I attend the church regularly … the Samson families in Port Union have always sat next to this stained glass window here in this church," Samson said.

The window he speaks of has a brass plate inscribed with 3544 Neville Samson Flat Island, Bonavista Bay — his ancestor.

The plaque dedicating the stained glass window in the Church of Holy Martyrs to Pte. Neville Samson of the Coaker Recruits. (Alyson Samson/CBC)

"I think the people who come here are very proud of what this church stands for," said Samson.

During the First World War, Coaker, a politician, activist, creator of the Fisherman's Protective Union, and the man who founded Port Union, called for 50 men to go fight in his place.

In total, 103 signed up. Of that number, 68 passed the medical test and were sent off to the front as the Coaker Recruits.

Jesse Norman enlisted as a Coaker Recruit when he was 19 years old. (Alyson Samson/CBC)

Bud Norman said his father, Jesse Norman, was just 19 when he enlisted as a Coaker Recruit.

His father returned from the war, but died when Bud was 13 years old.

"When my father enlisted in March of 1917, he was 130 pound he was five feet, five-and-a-half inches tall, as his record says, with a 31-inch waist."

Bud Norman's father Jess was a Coaker Recruit and returned home to Catalina after the war. (Alyson Samson/CBC)

Bud learned about his father's war experience through his war records, but it's not something he was ever told about as a child.

"I just got on the computer, I read a couple books — especially a book that Ed Roberts compiled on the memories of Capt. Sidney Frost, who I knew was my father's captain from his war records."

Ed Roberts, former Lieutenant Governor, has studied Coaker's legacy and written about his recruits in the First World War.

The Church of Holy Martyrs, built by Sir William Ford Coaker in Port Union, Newfoundland. (Alyson Samson/CBC)

He said the story of the Coaker Recruits is one not replicated anywhere else.

"It's unique certainly in this province and I suspect it's unique throughout Canada," said Roberts.

"There are many instances where there are memorials, [but] to have a whole church dedicated to the memory of these men … it was Coaker's way of acknowledging service and sacrifice and the sacrifice of those men."

This is just one of the 10 stained glass windows in the Church of Holy Martyrs in Port Union dedicated to the fallen Coaker Recruits. (Alyson Samson/CBC)

About the Author

Alyson Samson

Alyson Samson is a journalist working with the CBC in Newfoundland and Labrador.