I heard tonight that Bishop Jack Sperry died yesterday in Hay River, Northwest Territories at the age of 87.
Bishop Jack has a lot to answer for in our family. He was born in the same city as me, Leicester in the English midlands. As an Arctic missionary, he would come home on furlough in the 1950s and early 1960s and it was he who got a young couple from St. Barnabas’ Church called Bob and Shirley Chesterton interested in serving in the Arctic. As it happened, Arctic life wasn’t for them – they stayed only one year, from 1967-68 – but my brother and I were with them and it was this that sowed the seeds of Arctic ministry in my own mind.
Years later, Jack invited Marci and me to go north to Aklavik, and we ended up spending seven years in the Northwest Territories, in Aklavik and Holman. I was a Church Army officer at the time, but it was Jack who ordained me as a deacon in October 1990.
Jack Sperry was born in Leicester in 1924. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Navy, first on a destroyer escort vessel in the Battle of the Atlantic and later on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He once told me that the most important part of his training to be a minister was not his seminary education but the years he spent living in close quarters with fellow crew-members in the navy.
He left the Royal Navy in 1946 and shortly thereafter emigrated to Canada where he did his theological education. He moved to the Diocese of the Arctic in 1950 and became the missionary-in-charge at St. Andrew’s Church, Coppermine (now Kugluktuk), where he spent the next nineteen years. In those days English was only spoken by white people who lived in the settlement, and so missionaries were silent until they could learn to speak Inuktitut. Also, the majority of the people were living out on the land for most of the year, working traplines and hunting and fishing as their ancestors had done. So as a young missionary Jack spent months every year on the trail, visiting people in small family groups in snow house villages. In this way he clocked up thousands of miles of dog-team travel every year, ministering to people not only in the Kugluktuk parish but also in what are now the parishes of Cambridge Bay, Bathurst Inlet, Bay Chimo, and Ulukhaktok (Holman) as far north as the old Walker Bay HBC post some fifty miles north of Holman on Minto Inlet.
Jack had a tremendous gift for languages and became a recognised authority on the Copper Eskimo (Inuinaktun) dialect of Inuktitut. He wrote some excellent grammar notes for the use of young clergy like myself who were just coming into the diocese and trying to get our heads around this amazingly complex language. He translated the Four Gospels and the Book of Acts into Inuinaktun; he revised an existing translation of the Book of Common Prayer and also many hymns. Later in the 1990s he produced a new translation of the Book of Common Prayer which also included some features from the Book of Alternative Services.
Jack married his wife Betty Maclaren, a nurse who had been serving in Aklavik, on April 14th 1952, and they had two children, John and Angela. His wife died some years ago, and their children and grandchildren still live in the north.
The Sperrys left Coppermine in 1969 and moved to Fort Smith where Jack served for a few years. After a brief stint in Yellowknife he was appointed as the Third Bishop of the Arctic in 1973 and served in this role with distinction until his retirement at the end of 1990. He continued to live in Yellowknife until his last years when he moved to Fort Smith to be closer to his family.
As I said a couple of months ago, I remember Jack as a down to earth, ordinary Christian; he loved the Gospel and he loved the people of the Arctic, and he loved most of all bringing the two together. He was an old-fashioned evangelical, but not of the sort who get things out of proportion and major on the minors. He was a man of prayer and a man who knew how to build things with his hands (you had to do that a lot as a missionary in the Arctic). He knew that his first job was to care for his clergy and their families, and when he came to visit us he always made time to play games with our children, draw pictures for them, and talk with them. Episcopal visits in the Arctic always involved staying overnight in the mission house, of course, as there were no roads in and out of most of the communities, and very few had more than one flight in per day. But with Jack, it wasn’t a case of necessity but of vocation; he knew how isolated his clergy were and he did his best to care for us as individuals and as families.
One of the best times I ever spent with him was in the early winter of 1988 after we moved to Holman. I was learning to negotiate a new language, and so Jack came to stay at our mission house for a week which we spent in intensive language study. For eight hours a day we poured over the few written resources available (most of which he had written himself), and it was then that I discovered that I not only enjoyed language, but I had a pretty good ear for it. But we also visited and told stories, and each night the local people would arrive at our door and come in without knocking, as was the custom, to sit and drink tea with the man who had once been their minister (Holman had been part of Jack’s patch in those nineteen years when he used to travel up the western side of Victoria Island by dog team each winter). The respect and affection they felt for him was quite obvious.
Jack Sperry has been known and loved by generations of northern people and hundreds of Arctic clergy. To me he was a true Christian hero and I will always look up to him. God bless you, Jack, and thank you for everything you did for me. Rest in peace, dear older brother in Christ, and rise in glory.
CBC: Arctic bishop John Sperry dies.
Nunatsiaq Online: The Arctic loses a dear old friend.
UPDATE: Some pictures from our family archives:
Above: Confirmation with Bishop Sperry in All Saint’s Church, Aklavik, probably about 1987.
Above: Jack sitting in the living room of the mission house in Holman about 1989-90, visiting with his old friend and trail companion Sam Oliktoak.
Above: Jack baptised our son Nicholas in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman, in January 1989.
Above: Jack at the Holman airport with catechist and old friend Morris Nigiyok.
Above: Jack ordained me as a deacon in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman, October 1990.
Above: The people of Holman give Jack a retirement gift, October 1990.