|George Hills, first Bishop of British Columbia, in a sketch probably made shortly before he left England for the colonies in November, 1859, after his consecration in Westminster Abbey (Drawing from Wikipedia.org)|
The Feast of the Epiphany in 1860 carried a hint of snow in the air as a tall, good-looking man strode ashore in Esquimalt. He was George Hills, the first Anglican bishop to set foot on the Pacific coast of British North America. As he looked about, he was surprised not to see a small English town spread before him. The bishop greeted Rev. Robert J. Dundas who had come to meet him and chose to walk to Victoria, sending his servants and baggage by cart.
As they tramped three miles through puddles over their ankles, Hills learned more about his new see. Isolated and wild beyond his imagination, the Diocese of British Columbia covered an area larger than Britain and France combined. Comprising the two colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia (mainland), it was home to over thirty thousand First Nations peoples and about one thousand non-Native settlers, mostly under forty years old.
Victoria shocked the pioneer bishop - the town had no sidewalks and the buildings were wood, not brick. His own small house had few comforts. But Hills accepted his lot, driven by a fierce sense of duty and his strong faith.
He energetically tackled the tasks of spreading the Gospel and raising the profile of the Church, which he wrote was in "a feeble state." The fifth day after his arrival, he announced a second church for Victoria; three weeks later he was planning church schools; and a couple of months after that he opened the first mission for aboriginals.
Hills set sail to the mainland to visit New Westminster in February. He spent time with Rev. John Sheepshanks who was relishing the challenge of ministry with no church and no stipend. Although the town's clearing looked ugly with massive stumps and mud, Hills saw past the mess and predicted, "A vast city may one day pursue world wide commerce here." He hiked the five-mile track north to Burrard Inlet overwhelmed by the forest pressing in on every side. As Hills stood on the shores of the future Port Moody, he foresaw the natural harbour would become a deep-sea port.
At Pentecost, the bishop was back in New Westminster laying the foundation stone for Holy Trinity and then continued up the Fraser River ministering to settlers, gold miners, and aboriginals. Much to his amazement, at the end of his first sixty-day, 826-mile journey to Lillooet and back, his clothes and boots had worn out. Over the next three decades, Hills regularly toured the untamed land on horseback, by ship and canoe, and on foot - a far cry from comfortable train travel in Britain. Always dressed in his black clericals, he slept on the ground wrapped in a blanket, endured soaring temperatures, and fought off swarms of mosquitoes, but never complained.
Hills's first apostolic adventure up the Fraser River sowed the seeds for the present Diocese of New Westminster. He had realized the diocese was too vast for one bishop and he appealed for its division to the Church of England many times. Despite his persistence, it did not happen for another nineteen years.
(c) Julie H. Ferguson 2009
Read more about the Right Reverend George Hills and the history of the Diocese of New Westminster in Sing a New Song: Portraits of Canada's Crusading Bishops (Dundurn 2006).