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Is Father Judge a forgotten hero?

It is one of the tragedies of life that acts of kindness and deeds of good go unrecognized, while extravagant, outrageous, violent and lawless behaviour receive too much attention in our daily lives. "If it bleeds, it leads" is a rule in journalism.

It is one of the tragedies of life that acts of kindness and deeds of good go unrecognized, while extravagant, outrageous, violent and lawless behaviour receive too much attention in our daily lives.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is a rule in journalism. So the newspapers and television and the internet are clogged with articles depicting murders, tragedies, violence and crime. I have yet to see a newspaper run a headline that said, “Today, nothing but good deeds were performed.”

I suppose that is why Father William Judge, a Jesuit priest, received so little newspaper ink for performing kind acts and good service to the public during the Klondike Stampede.

Father William Judge is known for his acts of charity and care during the gold rush. He stands out as the most selfless man in the greed-inspired phenomenon that was the Klondike.

William Henry Judge was born into a religious family in Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 1850. In addition to Judge, four of his siblings also entered Holy orders.

As a youth, he was frail and sickly, but he survived, and at age 25 he embarked on years of study and teaching, in the Jesuit order.

Finally, in 1890, at the age of 40, he volunteered for service in the Alaskan mission, not with a specific posting, but to do the bidding of his superior.

After a lengthy journey which lasted several months, he arrived at Holy Cross Mission, the principal Jesuit centre on the Yukon River, where he joined the Father Superior, two brothers, and three Sisters of St. Ann, who taught 50 resident school children.

Judge had acquired many useful skills before he became a priest: carpenter, cabinet-maker, blacksmith and baker. These skills were put to good use and earned him brownie points among his colleagues at Holy Cross.

After two years at Holy Cross, he was sent to a smaller mission at Nulato where he spent his time teaching native children in their own language, constructing a church, and travelling widely to visit both whites and natives in a large region. Here he had established himself happily and was content with his assignment.

Orders then reached him from the Father Superior to establish a mission at the small mining town of Forty Mile, hundreds of miles up the Yukon River from Nulato.

His fortitude was tested at Forty Mile, where he alone served the spiritual needs of the Catholic community.

“No doubt,” he said, “the hardest part will be to be alone for 10 months, with no communication whatever with the other Fathers; but I hope it will be alone with God.”

The challenge for the missionary was formidable because the “leaderless legion” of miners had little concern for anything but the search for gold.

Father Judge noted: “...everybody is looking for gold, some finding it and some getting nothing, a few becoming rich, but the greater number only making a living, and all working very, very hard. You would be astonished to see the amount of hard work that men do here in the hope of finding gold ... O if men would only work for the kingdom of heaven with a little of that wonderful energy, how many saints we would have”

The low water on the Yukon River made it hard for him to get to Forty Mile in the first place. Then, when he was reassigned to Circle in 1896, the same conditions prevented him from leaving. Stuck at Forty Mile, his diaries reveal, he kept up a rigorous routine of visits to the sick and needy, as well as visits to the miners out on the remote creeks.

He was well positioned to intercede when gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek, which was soon to be renamed Bonanza. He spent the winter tending to his dwindling Forty Mile flock until March of 1897, when he followed them to Dawson, “...a solitary, feeble old man with a single sled rope over his shoulder, and a single dog helping the load along…”

Judge had secured 1.2 hectares of land near the north end of Dawson. Once he was settled there, he set about building a church, a residence, and a hospital. The latter, which would be sadly needed in the forthcoming months, was completed August 20th, 1897.

With harsh climate, poor nutrition and deplorable sanitation conditions in the new town, the hospital was in immediate demand. He was soon tending to 20 patients a day, which rose to 50 during the winter, then, with the influx of humanity and typhoid epidemic in the fall of 1898, 135 patients daily. This dramatic increase made necessary the construction of an addition to the hospital.

Until reinforcements arrived, Judge tended to his congregation single handedly, supervised the construction work, raised funds, and managed the hospital.

Father Judge dedicated himself selflessly to his work. He spent hours ‘cheering and comforting the sick and consoling the dying.’ His kindness and generosity knew no religious boundaries.

Judge was past exhaustion from his work, yet when the new church burned to the ground in June, 1898, he immediately set about raising the funds and managing the construction of a larger replacement, which was ready within 10 weeks.

When reinforcements arrived the summer of 1898, he was able to hand over the responsibility for nursing and care of the sick to the Sisters of St. Ann, and the services in the new church to the Oblates, but he continued his dedicated work as hospital chaplain and administrator.

For two years, he had laboured without thought or concern for himself, devoted solely to the care of others. Worn out, exhausted by his own labours, in early January of 1899, he fell ill and for days battled pneumonia, finally succumbing on January 16th.

When Father Judge died, the sadness was shared by the entire community, regardless of religious persuasion. His contributions to the community were widely recognized, as was his spiritual work.

Beyond that, however, it was as though he had elevated himself to a higher state of spiritual devotion. During all of his trials, he exhibited a calm and serenity that contrasted with the frenzy and obsession with gold that surrounded him, and which grew as thousands of gold-seekers poured into the community.

He was, perhaps, “the only person in Dawson who sacrificed himself totally to the needs of others for no earthly reward” It was for this, above all else, that he became known as “The Saint of Dawson.”

If you go to the north end of Dawson today, near Whitehouse cabins, you will find a quiet clearing overlooking the Yukon River near where his great works were performed. It is here that his grave is found, and nearby, a plaque, mounted on a huge block of stone by the people of Canada, which recognizes his contribution to the physical and spiritual well-being of the miners.

Michael Gates is a local historian

and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.