Ecumenical by necessity - remembering Reverend Seymour Dallas

By: Rebecca Tinsley

Imagine a single diocese larger than England. Or traveling three days on a horse and then eight hours on a train to reach a synod meeting. Imagine officiating at a church service attended by 45 people who hailed from 13 different varieties of Christianity, none of whom belong to your church.

This month marks 100 years since the Reverend Seymour Dallas was killed in Flanders. This otherwise obscure chaplain was one of many who died during the Great War, alongside the troops they served. But Dallas’s life is being commemorated not just for his commitment to his soldiers, but because of his remarkable role as a missionary in a remote part of Western Canada.

Although Dallas was an ordained Anglican priest, he ministered to Christians of every denomination out of necessity. In a report to his home church in Kensington, the Anglo-Catholic St Mary Abbott’s, he tells of being summoned to an Italian community on the prairies that was so far from the nearest town that no one could recall ever seeing a Roman Catholic priest. Dallas found “babies galore” among the Italians, who urged him to baptize them. He spoke no Italian, so he conducted the services in Latin and baptized every child present.

In a mere three years missionary service in Alberta, he built five churches and set up schools across his vast territory. In some of his schools there was “not a single Anglican,” as he remarked, but “happily we are looked up as the ministers for the district rather than merely the Church.” As he reported to St Mary Abbott’s, “I can never see that keenness for our own Church need make us prejudice against other Churches; it only keeps us apart instead of drawing us together.”

The child of missionaries in China, Dallas arrived in Alberta in 1911, age 27, at a time when thousands of British people were emigrating to Canada. After days traveling north from Calgary along appalling roads, he found that his vicarage was a shed with a dirt floor. Two years later, a visitor from St Mary Abbott’s in Kensington was astonished to find the vicar had to chopped down his own trees, light his stove, draw water, care for the horses, and cook and clean house for himself. While he was out during the day, visiting different parts of his 300-square-mile patch, his bread and milk would freeze solid. He rode fourteen miles to one Sunday service, and then a dozen miles to the next. If he held a church social, his parishioners would stay until dawn because traveling at night was so hazardous.

He was recalled to the UK in 1915 and within a month he was serving as a chaplain at the front in Ypres. He died two years later, on September 20th 1917, at the age of 33, killed by a shell.

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