Rev. William Durie

Rev. William Durie (1804-1847)
Over 160 years ago, in 1847, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church lost its beloved third minister, the Rev. William Durie. The loss was deeply felt within the congregation, and throughout the village of Bytown.

William Durie was born in Glasgow in 1804. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, as did his two brothers, and he was ordained as a minister at Earlston, Scotland in 1834. Aged 42, he arrived in Bytown in December 1846, settled into the manse behind the church, and reunited with his younger brother John, who had come to Bytown in 1832 and now had a thriving general store in New Edinburgh.

St. Andrew’s first stone church had been built in 1828, just 18 years earlier. From the first, Rev. Durie “took the hearts of the people by storm, and his words of burning eloquence held his hearers spell-bound,” wrote Mary McKay Scott. “He was not only revered by his congregation but was the warm friend of the sick and poor of all creeds.” His concern for the poor led Rev. Durie to join the Board of Health on its formation.

Rev. Durie’s ministry was to last only nine months. As the heat of summer approached, so did ships filled with Irish emigrants, escaping the potato famine, then in its third year and at its height.

In this year, which came to be known as “Black ’47″, 90,000 Irish emigrants headed to Canada. Most had the misfortune to sail to Canada as human ballast in the holds of cargo ships, particularly those of the timber trade.

In packed, foetid conditions, on short rations and tainted water, the emigrants faced an implacable enemy – typhus, also called Ship Fever. The disease spread swiftly from one to another, principally by lice. Some of the Fever Ships’ crews, fearful of contagion, sought to avoid contact with passengers in the hold. Many emigrants died at sea, others soon after stepping ashore at the quarantine station at Grosse Ile, downriver from Quebec.

As the emigrants moved upriver to Montreal, the fever moved with them. At Kingston, some 3,000 emigrants were packed into barges in June and July, and towed up the Rideau Canal by tugboats to Bytown, where the first typhus case – a young girl – was diagnosed on June 5th. At this time, Bytown had about 6,000 inhabitants.

The epidemic rapidly worsened, overwhelming the efforts of those trying to help. The Sisters of Charity hastily constructed, then extended, a typhus hospital, but it could not meet the need of so many. The very ill lay on the ground in quickly-built fever sheds or under upturned boats along the canal and river banks. They sought shade and shelter wherever they could find it, even on the grounds of what is now Parliament Hill. The town largely closed down; those who could leave, did so. On August 2nd, the Rideau Canal closed to emigrant traffic, but it would take 3 months more for the scourge to run its course.

As the devoted Sisters and volunteers began to fall ill themselves, the burden on Catholic and Protestant clergy grew. Father Molloy and Rev. Durie worked ‘hand in hand’ to help the wretched. Although Rev. Durie was not physically robust, from the very beginning of the epidemic he was unstinting in his efforts to aid and comfort the afflicted, day after day, throughout that sweltering summer.

When Father Molloy took ill and was sent away to recover, Rev. Durie and others maintained their efforts at the Fever Sheds.

The strain proved too much, and in early September Rev. Durie was stricken with Ship Fever. Just nine months after his arrival in Bytown, after a short illness, and in spite of every possible care given to him, Rev. William Durie died in the old manse at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, Sept. 12th, 1847. With his dying breath he begged the people comforting him to build a hospital for the sick and the poor. And they would do so.

The Ottawa Advocate, carried a long obituary, including this:
“Mr. Durie’s loss will be severely felt, not alone by his family and friends, but by his Congregation and the public generally. In the discharge of his religious duties as a faithful pastor, he was constant and indefatigable; and while able to do so, no consideration – no apprehension of danger – could prevent his attendance on the sick and dying; or interfere with the natural impulse of his nature to minister to the necessities of the wretched. … His exemplary piety, and his talents as a Preacher, endeared him to his flock, by whom he was deservedly much esteemed and respected. His general usefulness, and his scientific and literary attainments rendered his name popular among the reflecting and intelligent, – and the charitable, philanthropic nature of his disposition will long be remembered by all. … By his sad death, the Church to which he belonged has lost an ornament – the afflicted a friend, and every man a brother.”

Rev. Durie’s funeral service was conducted in St. Andrew’s, and “a large concourse of people of all creeds followed Rev. Durie’s remains” to the cemetery in Sandy Hill. As a mark of esteem, all places of public business closed during the interment.

In sorrow, St. Andrew’s congregation erected a large horizontal monument, bearing a powerful inscription, over Rev. Durie’s grave.

Almost a century later, Catholic historian Felix X. Laderoute wrote: “Father Molloy and the beloved pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church, stand out as two of the most devoted, heroic men of the early Bytown days. These two gallant men worked harmoniously together in caring for the typhus-stricken immigrants passing through Bytown. … There should be erected in this city two statues to commemorate the memory of Father Molloy and the Rev. William Durie, for theirs was a devoted, heroic and Christ-like service.”

In 1901 Mary McKay Scott said this about Rev. Durie: “No memorial of him graces the walls or windows of St. Andrew’s, but his memory speaks wherever the mantle of charity is thrown around the sincere, or a helping hand is given to the needy and suffering.”

His legacy of Christian charity guides us still.