St. Mary’s bracing for the pirates

By Alexandra Brothers
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
September 15, 2023 Edition

After suffering a devastating loss to their heritage collection in a fire last summer, the Town of St. Mary’s is back in full swing with an upcoming event that is promising to be explosive. The St. Mary’s Battery Restoration Committee is hosting “The Invasion of St. Mary’s” on September 17 to celebrate the town’s exciting heritage.

The Battery Restoration Committee was founded in 2017 to rebuild an eighteenth-century four cannon battery that had been established in St. Mary’s in 1779. The battery had fallen into disarray over the years. Only one cannon remained when the committee started the project, but through dedicated work, they were able not only to replace the three missing cannons, but also to restore them to their original positions based on soil samples and research.

“I was always a bit of a history buff,” said David Fagan, president of the St. Mary’s Battery Restoration Committee. For him and his three fellow committee members, history is something that was easy to get hooked on, especially since the history of the St. Mary’s area is “unbelievable,” according to Fagan. The committee is a “really passionate group,” he said. They do a lot of research, spending many hours at the Rooms and the Centre for Newfoundland Studies. Fagan estimates that between the four volunteers, they have put in over 6,000 hours of work on their various historical projects over the past six years.

“When we first started, the four of us were the only people who believed that this was worth getting involved with,” said Fagan. But that has all changed now. The committee’s work has inspired others to get involved with the care and upkeep of the historical site.

The Restoration Committee had also been working on creating a museum of St. Mary’s heritage last year. The group was repurposing a cold storage building that had fallen into disuse and was only two weeks away from the opening day of the museum when disaster struck. A fire burnt the building to the ground destroying over 150 artefacts and models such as old muskets and period uniforms. Perhaps the most devastating loss was the barracks that were on display within the building which had been constructed based on a document in a logbook from 1778.

The committee members have no plans of letting that loss deter them from promoting their town’s heritage, however. The Invasion of St. Mary’s event is going to be held at the restored battery this Sunday, September 17th and will feature a special pirate-themed demonstration from the Raiders of the Avalon. Historical records show that St. Mary’s did fend off it’s fair share of pirates in its early days and that the cannons that once stood on the battery were in fact used in defence. The Raiders of the Avalon are “going to be re-enacting some shenanigans that pirates would have done,” said Fagan. During this re-enactment, the raiders’ trained pyrotechnician will actually fire one of the old cannons. Afterwards, the celebration will continue with a pirate-themed luncheon at the town hall complete with local entertainment.

Fagan is confident the event will receive a good turnout. Though the population of St. Mary’s is only just over 300, they are hoping to see some 200 people in attendance from both their town and from their neighbours along the Irish Loop. It has the potential to be a big event and a really fun day, said Fagan. It will be free to attend.
“We’re not in it to make money,” said Fagan.

Rather, the Committee aims to promote the town’s heritage and foster the community’s curiosity about local history. Since the battery was restored, Fagan has heard many St. Mary’s residents admit that they had not known anything about the significance of the site.

The Restoration Committee does have plans that will require some funding down the road. They are relying on the kind of donations and provincial government grants that they used to restore the battery to rebuild their barracks. Fagan is hopeful about the committee’s chances of finding funding for this project.

Fagan and his crew are also working on developing a trail system that is centred around a little-known piece of St. Mary’s history. After a 150-year-old French coin was discovered in the area during an archeological dig in 2000, historians became more interested in exploring the area further.

“That’s opened up a lot of eyes and it’s perked up a lot of ears to the point that we’re trying to develop some hiking trails, now, along areas where the locals would perch atop hillsides to watch for the French coming over from Placentia to get ready to be raided,” said Fagan.  

The committee had read historical documents about a region of flat rock on an escarpment called “the scrape” where the people of St. Mary’s would stand lookout around a fire, watching over the harbour for French ships that might try to raid their town. Last August, the committee found the flat rock described in the documents and have already developed five kilometers of a trail system leading to this area.

For Fagan, projects of this nature are not merely about cold hard facts. History, for him, carries a deeper personal significance. Fagan recounted visiting “the scrape” with a family member last summer. They had a fire at the site and Fagan remarked that it could have been the first fire held there in over 300 years. Watching the smoke rise into the air, Fagan wondered if his great-great-great-grandfather had once stood there doing the same thing. “It’s really personal and it’s really a very emotional sort of feeling to have standing on that same site,” he said.

“Not enough Newfoundlanders know their own history,” Fagan added. While touring the world on vacation is all well and good, he allowed, Newfoundlanders should also consider getting to know the culture and history that can be found in their own backyard.

“I just encourage everyone to seek out the history of where they’re from, their own towns,” said Fagan.

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