In the early 1800s, many of the remote new settlements along the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia were bereft of any religious influence other than the occasional visiting missionary or clergyman. Roads were virtually non-existent, other than paths through portions of the dense woods, so travel was mostly by boat, and sometimes by horseback or on foot. Missionaries were eventually sent to minister along this shore by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), and later the Colonial Church Society (CCS), organizations based in England and associated with the Church of England.
In 1843, Joseph Alexander, a native of Yorkshire, England, was sent by the CCS to labour as an itinerant catechist in eastern Nova Scotia. He was assigned an extensive territory that included the shore settlements from at least Beaver Harbour (near Sheet Harbour), Halifax County to Torbay, Guysborough County. He made his home in the centre, on the banks of the St. Mary’s River below Sherbrooke. Although supplied with a boat and a horse, conditions frequently forced him to travel on foot. Occasionally he was offered a welcome ride in a local fishing boat.
Alexander kept journals and made regular reports to the CCS, and much can be gleaned from his writings concerning the poverty and harsh living conditions in coastal communities at that time. A transcription of his journal survived covering the period of March 30, 1845, to May 31, 1846.
With great diligence, he attended to the settlers within his area, in all seasons, to the best of his resources and abilities. He held religious services in homes and established Sunday Schools and day schools – the first formal educational opportunity for many in these settlements. Through the week, he visited his flock, spreading the Gospel and loaning Bibles, tracts, and religious books that he carried on his back in a pack that sometimes weighed up to 26 lbs (12 kg). In 1849, he estimated he had travelled 1,600 miles (2,575 km) within his territory, the greater part on foot.
By 1850, fifteen Sunday Schools and seven Day Schools had been established within Alexander’s territory, and the CCS noted there were noticeable spiritual improvements. During his tenure on the Eastern Shore, people also began to erect churches in many communities.
When he arrived on the Eastern Shore, Alexander was not an ordained clergyman, so another missionary would occasionally visit to perform baptisms. On January 4, 1854, Alexander was ordained Deacon and on March 8, 1857, after three days of examinations, he was ordained Priest. Both ceremonies took place at St. George’s Church, Halifax.
Rev. Alexander’s hard work in difficult and harsh conditions over the years caused a severe decline in his health, and in 1859 he was reassigned to Stewiacke. He left the Eastern Shore with regret, stating that nothing but “our declining health [would] have induced us to do so.” A few years later, he and his wife, Anne, retired to St. Mary’s River, the settlement that had been their home for many years before. He passed away in 1869 and was buried behind the chancel of St. John’s Church, that stood as a testament to his faithful ministry in the area. This church was razed in about 1927 and replaced with St. Mary’s Church on the same site. St. Mary’s was deconsecrated in 2010 and subsequently sold. It was moved a short distance away and is now used as a cottage, leaving only the cemetery that surrounds Alexander’s grave. Soon after his death, Anne had a tall marble tombstone erected to his memory. It bore this inscription: “In Memory of Rev. Joseph Alexander who entered into his rest March 11, 1869, aged 68 years. He was for 40 years a Teacher & Preacher of the gospel of Christ, in connection with the Church of England, in various parts of the Province, but chiefly on these eastern shores, where he will have many for his crown of rejoicing, in the day of the Lord. He lived for Christ on earth below. He rests with Christ in glory now. This monument was erected by his sorrowing widow.”
Over the years, this tall monument was broken and repaired, and in 2016, the Parish of Liscomb and Port Bickerton replaced the original monument with a new granite tombstone, but preserved the original top finial and mounted it beside the new stone on the burial site in the cemetery where the little church once stood.