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The Life and Death of Missionary Bishop Seghers

Copied and annotated by Murray Lundberg

    The mortal remains of the late lamented Archbishop Seghers were consigned to their last resting place in the pro-Cathedral, Victoria, on Friday. A post mortem examination of the body was made on Thursday by Drs. J. D. and J. S. Helmcken. It was found to be in a good state of preservation, although the features were unrecognizable. The examiners discovered that the cause of the Archbishop's death was a bullet wound in the left breast immediately above the heart. At the trial of the murderer, Fuller, the Indians asserted that he shot the bishop through the head, whilst Fuller asserted it was through the body. His statement was the correct one. The tragic event took place about two years ago in the interior of Alaska. The remains were conveyed to the coast and thence by the U. S. revenue cutter, Thetis, to Victoria.

    The tragic death of the good Archbishop produced a profound feeling of sorrow throughout the Northwest, where he was widely known and greatly loved. His services here for religion and morality were sincere and devoted, and exceptionally successful. By birth he was Belgian and in the 47th year of his age when he was murdered. He arrived in Victoria in November 1863 as an assistant to the late Bishop Demers, who died in July, 1871. Father Seghers was then appointed administrator of the diocese of Vancouver Island, a position which he filled with such prudence and zeal that at a solemn consistory, held in Rome on Friday, March 23, 1873, Very Rev. John Charles Seghers was appointed to succeed the deceased bishop of that see, being at that time the youngest bishop in the American prelacy. Immediately upon his consecration the youthful bishop entered upon the development of the religious interests of his diocese; new missions were organized, churches were built, schools were established, and the magnificent edifice known as St. Joseph's Hospital was erected in Victoria.

    Being imbued with a missionary spirit, he resolved to make a tour of Alaska, and in company with the Rev. Father Mandant, in 1878, they set out in their arduous work. Upon his return from Alaska, Bishop Seghers learned that he had been selected as coadjutor to Archbishop Blanchet, with a right of succession, although the reverend clergy and the Catholics heard the news with sorrow at the loss of one whom they learned to love for his talents and his zeal. Archbishop Seghers left Victoria the latter part of June, 1879, to assume the high and responsible position of coadjutor to the then aged and feeble Archbishop Blanchet. He entered upon the duties of coadjutor immediately upon his arrival in Portland. He continued to serve with zeal and efficiency in that capacity until early in 1881. On the 21st of February that year Archbishop Blanchet, impressed with a due sense of his rapidly-failing strength and increasing feebleness, concluded to tender his resignation as Archbishop of the diocese. The subject of this sketch then entered upon the duties and priestly dignities of Archbishop in fact. In August following the Pallium arrived here from Rome (having been brought in person by Rev. Father Fierens from San Francisco to Portland) and on the 2nd and 3rd of that month was confirmed on Archbishop Seghers, attended with all the solemn and impressive rights and ceremonies of the Catholic church. The pallium was conferred by Rt. rev. Aegideus Junger, D. D., of Nesqually, assisted by a large number of the clergy from various pints in Oregon, Washington territory and British Columbia. He remained in charge of the diocese until after the death of his predecessor, the venerable and beloved Archbishop F. N. Blanchet. During the fall of 1883 he left Portland and visited the eternal city. He held several audiences with the pope and finally tendered his resignation in person to the head of the church on December 30, 1883.

    It is known that the desire to be of service to the Indians was a paramount one with the reverend Bishop. This he gave as his reason for resigning, to His Holiness the Pope. Writing from Rome under date of January 3, 1883, after his final interview with the holy father, after the acceptance of his resignation, Archbishop Seghers says:

My offering was accepted, my scheme received the highest sanction it could in the world; and the pope's blessing on it is an earnest proof that it is in conformity with the will of God. Prepare for me, therefore, a small corner on Vancouver Island which in 1863 I selected as the portion of my inheritancy, when I began my mission career, and where, Good willing, I shall terminate it.

    Archbishop Gross was appointed to the diocese of Oregon at the Plenary Council held at Baltimore in December, 1884, and reached Portland in May, 1885, Archbishop Seghers continuing the administration of the see until the arrival of his successor. The lamented Archbishop preached his farewell sermon in St. Mary's Cathedral. Portland, on the 29th March, 1885, and left immediately for Victoria, where, after remaining for a year, he left for Alaska. The journey proved to be his last one on earth.

    After returning to Victoria from Portland, the pallium was again conferred on Archbishop Seghers by Archbishop Gross. Those solemn rites were celebrated in Victoria, Sunday, May 30, 1886. The affair was an imposing one and witnessed by a vast concourse of people. Six weeks thereafter he left for the far north, with the object of evangelizing the Indians of Alaska. In a letter written from Victoria, under date of July 15, 1886, he explains in detail his purposes and his hopes, and says that in a few days he will be on board of the steamer Ancon, bound for the rugged shores of Alaska. As he foreshadowed in his letters, that desolate and wild region was to be the scene of his earnest and zealous labors in the future cause to which he had solemnly dedicated his energies and his life. It proved his home, and in the soil of that territory, far remote from civilization, he found a temporary grave. To the last he was hopeful, brave and heroic, scorning personal danger and patiently enduring every hardship and privation. Sitka was reached in safety, and soon after the resolute and zealous prelate turned his face toward the desolate and forbidding wilds of Central Alaska. It was close upon a year after his death ere news of the event was heard. A few weeks prior to his death he wrote a very long letter from the heart of Alaska to Very Rev. Father J. J. Jonckau, his Vicar General, and who has since crossed the great divide and found his beloved Bishop. The letter was brought from Salmon River by a miner returning to Juneau, and thence by steamer to Victoria. The narrative of the labor and toil and perils of the missionaries and their companions and Indian guides, in climbing across the mountains to reach the head waters of the Yukon is full of intense interest. This letter bore the following date: "Mouth of Salmon (or Toa) River, 61 deg. 55 min. Lat., Alaska Ter., August 31, 1886." The letter was forwarded by Father Jonckau to Portland and was published in the Sentinel of December 23, 1886. The letter was not received at Victoria until early in that month. The next news received was the startling intelligence of his death. He died a martyr to the cause of Christ, beloved by his people, esteemed by all classes. In every respect he was a good man. And thus he passed away from the earthly labors. His farewell words were" ADIEU, I LEAVE FOR ALASKA, AND GOD KNOWS WHEN OR WHETHER I SHALL RETURN. PRAY FOR ME."

Bishop Charles-Jean Seghers

    This article is copied in its entirety. The newspaper title and article heading are from the copy of the original newspaper at Newspapers.com.

    Although this article calls him John Charles Seghers, it was actually Charles John Seghers, born Charles-Jean Seghers. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography provides more information about his life and death. The original source of the photo to the right is not known but is reported by Wikipedia to possibly have been taken in 1873.

    The bishop arrived safely in Sitka in July 1886, but the San Francisco Chronicle of August 24 that year reported that "Archbishop Seghers was assaulted and robbed of all his valuables by an Indian chief near Sitka recently. The robber was arrested, but was discharged without punishment." That wasn't the end of the bishop's troubles before even reaching the wilderness - the Atlanta Constitution, on September 9th, reprinted the following: "When Governor Swineford arrived here [Tacoma] last week from Washington it was reported to him that one of the chiefs of the Chilcoat Indians had insulted Bishop Seghers and party on their way to the Yukon. The governor took twelve men from Juneau and got the Idaho to take him and party to Chilcoat. On arriving there he invited the chief on board, under pretense that the governor wished to see him. When the chief came on board the steamer they had him put in double irons and put him down in the ship's hold and took him to Sitka before the commissioner, who, after hearing all the evidence, discharged the chief. No wonder the mob will drive out the Chinese and do what they please when the governor will do such a high-handed piece of work as to take a posse of men, kidnap an Indian and take him two hundred miles from home without authority." On October 5th, the New York Sun gave more details on that "insult": "Klanat, a chief of the Chiclat Indians of Alaska, who has held possession of a mountain pass through which all must pass to reach the new mines on the river Yukon, has been demanding and receiving tolls from travelers all summer, his demands increasing with success. His latest victim was Archbishop Seghers. He asked him a double price for certain services, and when the archbishop expostulated he laid violent hands upon him and robbed him of all the money he had. This led to the Alaskan Rob Roy's arrest, and he will be tried for his highway robbery."

    The Catholic Sentinel which on December 23, 1886, printed Bishop Segher's long letter describing his labour, is online, and the letter appears to also have been reprinted in G. F. Henley's 1897 Guide to the Yukon-Klondike Mines.

    The San Francisco Chronicle was the first newspaper to report the murder, in a lengthy article on July 19, 1887. That article can be read here.

    A news dispatch dated December 28, 1887, reported the conclusion of Fuller's trial and his sentencing. The defence had been insanity; and he was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to pay a fine of $1,000 and to spend 10 years in the prison at McNeil Island, Washington Territory.

Arctic & Northern Biographies