A Confession By Proxy On The High Seas
Yarmouth Vanguard, Tuesday, June 20, 1989
When I was young and curious, even before my teens, I heard in Pubnico a fantastic story, so bizarre that I wen around in the parish asking old people if it was true. They said, although "reluctantly", that they had heard it many times in their young days. An American lady by the name of Agnes Bourneuf, who used to spend her summers at her grandfather's in West Pubnico, having heard the story, wrote about it in "The Catholic Digest" (St. Paul, Minnesota - March, 1949). She gives fictitious names to the persons connected with the story, never heard of in Pubnico, probably because she did not want to reveal their real names.
This must have taken place during the middle or the second part of the last century, when fishermen used to leave for two or three months at a time for the Banks of Newfoundland. Miss Bourneuf gives the name "Josephine" to the vessel involved in our story, although no such name has ever been given in Pubnico to any vessel.
This vessel had been out on the grand Banks since a few weeks, when a violent storm hit her and cast her on the coast of Newfoundland. She suffered extensive damage, which, though, was not beyond repair. The members of the crew managed to save themselves. But the captain, one way or another, was seriously injured. While everyone was doing his best to nurse him, realizing that his wounds were mortal, he asked them to leave him alone in the cabin, where they were, with one of them who is not identified. But what was his surprise when the captain asked him to "hear his confession," so that he might tell the priest in Pubnico what were his "sins" and that the priest might forgive them. What could he do at the request of a dying man but to comply to his demand. Thus he became a "makeshift confessor." And the captain, thus relieved, had the consolation of dying in peace.
Our improvised confessor felt that he was bound by the "seal of confession". But what was he to do when the rest of the crew started to harass him with questions: What did he want? What did he say? How is it that he did not want us to stay? Our "confessor" felt that he could not tell them what had happened without breaking the "seal of confession". Finally, it came to his mind that the seal of confession implies only "sins"; it did not forbid him the reveal that the dying man wanted to tell him his sins so that he would repeat them to the priest to have them forgiven. It is not said what was the reaction of the crew, but you can be sure that, as soon as they reached Pubnico, after their vessel had been repaired, their story of the "confession by proxy" spread from one end of the village to the latter, and beyond.
It is easy to understand that the people in Pubnico, being all related to one another and knowing everybody in the parish by heart, were not to let such an opportunity pass by without setting ablaze their favorite pastime, that of gossiping, fond as they were of sensational happenings. What else could they do to pass the time away, when they had no radio to listen to, nor television to look at?
Why would the captain, who was known all through the parish to be an honest man and the best of Christians, have felt that he had to confess his sins before dying, especially when he had gone to communion just before leaving for the fishing trip, as it used to be done in those days? People went as far as asking themselves if he had really committed a "serious sin", even what could it be? Did the priest give the absolution after hearing what were those "sins"?
Setting themselves as theologians, they glossed among themselves on the validity or value of the absolution that the priest might have given. The man was dead; he had already appeared before St. Peter. Did St. Peter hold him at the gold gate of heaven, waiting that he would be forgiven for the sins he might have committed?
Our poor "makeshift confessor" was so harassed with questions that he dared not go out among the people anymore. He feared even that they might loosen his tongue and unlock his mouth. The story goes that the people went as far as to ask the priest if, in such a case, he would absolve the sins of a dead man.
Well, it seems that the priest thought that things had gone far enough, in what had been `til then the quiet and peaceful village of West Pubnico. We are not told what happened and how long the gossiping went on, But it seems that all of a sudden everything died down.
Although we are not told what happened, but knowing how the pastors in those days quenched disorders, disturbances and commissions that took place in the parish, we can presume that one Sunday, from the pulpit, the pastor of West Pubnico told his parishioners in a clear, persuasive and unabbreviated manner, that "enough is enough". It might be the reason why old people were reluctant afterwards to tell the story. To them, the word of the pastor was the word of God, knowing that Our Lord had told his Apostles: "He that heareth you heareth me."
No doubt that this is the only instances that we have in all the 20th century history of the Church of a "confession by proxy". It took place one day in West Pubnico. So that day Pubnico made history.