The Grenfell Legacy of Courageous Service

The Grenfell Legacy of Courageous Service

Wilfred Thomason Grenfell was born on February 1865, at Parkgate, Cheshire, England to his parents - Algernon Sydney Grenfell, an educator and hospital chaplain, and Jane (Hutchinson) Grenfell. Grenfell grew up in the English countryside, swimming and fishing in the River Dee and hunting local birds along the river's banks.

At fourteen, Wilfred attended the Marlborough College in Wiltshire, a boarding school, and later studied medicine at the London Hospital Medical College and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry under Sir Frederick Treves, his tutor. He graduated in 1888.

Duly licensed to practice medicine, Grenfell searched for a suitable place to put his new skills to use. After meeting the American evangelist D. L. Moody, he was called to medical missions, and joined the interdenominational "Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen," a Christian ministry to deep sea sailors and their families. In 1888 Grenfell set sail aboard the Thomas Grey, where he spent four years ministering on the North Sea. He had found his life's work!
The purpose of a ‘mission ship’ was primarily to provide pastoral and spiritual support for fishermen at sea. The trawlers were hospital ships, but also equipped with fishing-gear and sent their fish to market with the rest of the fleet.

Four years later, Grenfell joined the crew of the mission ship Albert and set sail for Newfoundland. Upon arrival he fell under the spell of the natural beauty of the Canadian coast and knew that here was where he wished to spend the rest of his days. This began Grenfell's two careers: as a medical missionary and as a writer - for the beauty of his new-found home inspired him to write the first of his volumes, Vikings of Today: Life and Medical Work among the Fishermen of Labrador (1895).

Grenfell spent the next forty years of his life in his adopted homeland, during which time he established hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other social institutions for the benefit of the local fishermen and their families. He made annual trips up and down the Labrador coast, bringing medical care and his evangelical message to hundreds of far-flung fishing settlements. In 1909, after he had established himself in his new vocation, Grenfell met a Chicago heiress, Anne Elizabeth Caldwell MacLanahan. Admiring Grenfell's faith and goals, Miss MacLanahan agreed to become his wife and supported him in his work while raising their three children. She was his staunchest ally and supporter until her death in 1938.

Grenfell found life in Newfoundland intensely satisfying, not only because it permitted him to carry out his profession and to make disciples for Christ, but also because the wilderness gave him outlet for his lifelong love of adventure. He was inspired to write several books about his Canadian life, including Adrift on an Ice-Pan (1910), Labrador Days: Tales of the Sea Toilers (1919), his autobiography, A Labrador Doctor (1920), and The Romance of Labrador (1934).

While many of Grenfell's writings told of his life and adventures among the fisher-folk of Newfoundland, he also published many volumes reflecting his abiding faith. Among the most important of these works are A Man's Faith (1909), On Immortality (1913), Religion in Everyday Life (1926), and What Christ Means to Me (1926), which received international commendation.

Grenfell experienced two heart attacks, one each in 1926 and in 1929, which forced him to retire from the field. He and his wife moved from the Newfoundland coast he loved so well to make their home in northern Vermont. There he continued his writing and fundraising efforts for the Grenfell non-profit ministry until his death in 1940. We celebrate this month the creative and sacrificial ministries that seek out "the forgotten ones." Wilfred Grenfell's legacy lives on today in the ministry and hospital system that bear his name, and at the museum and home in Newfoundland that honor his faithful service.
"The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth.
It is obvious that man is himself a traveler;
that the purpose of this world is not 'to have and to hold'
but 'to give and serve.'
There can be no other meaning."
- Wilfred Thomason Grenfell
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
Taken from A Labrador Doctor: The Autobiography of Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, originally published in 1920 (Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, LLC; Illustrated edition, March 1, 2005).
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