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The Life of James Robertson

WINNIPEG in those days was the Mecca of the fortune seeking and the land hungry from the older portions of the Empire and from other countries as well. For all Scotch folk, and for all folk of Presbyterian extraction, connection or leaning, the Presbyterian minister was the natural resort for all in need of advice, of guidance, of cheer, of aid financial and other, and the minister’s home became a kind of Immigration Office, a General Information Bureau, an Employment Agency, an Institution for Universal Aid. This meant to the minister that his time and strength, and often his money, were at the command of all who came to his door. To his wife it meant a good deal more. For not only did they keep open house, but an open table as well. This necessitated a larder continually stocked, a kitchen never anything but busy. This was hard enough upon the mistress of the house, with her young family about her, and her congregational duties demanding her time, strength and thought; but for all ordinary exigencies Mrs. Robertson was always ready. But when at the dinner hour her husband calmly ushered in some half dozen or dozen hungry folk, if her nerve failed her for the moment, what wonder? There was, however, no breakdown of the spirit of hospitality, and no failure upon the part of either minister or minister’s wife to show kindness to the stranger. By the minister this was accepted as a part of his regular duty, and as affording a valuable opportunity of service. By the minister’s wife, as part of the burden, not to say cross, laid on her as her husband’s wife.

But through all the years of the Knox Church pastorate no immigrant called on Mr. Robertson in vain for aid, and none was turned away from that hospitable door. Many years afterwards one of these immigrants, remembering gratefully his kindness to the stranger, thus writes:

"On my arrival in Winnipeg twenty-four years ago, at that time a town of five thousand people, I called on Mr. Robertson who was then pastor of Knox Church. He came with me at once and guided me to a desirable hotel where our family of seven persons could be accommodated. Besides, he spent a forenoon in aiding me to get my effects through the Customs, a thing that a stranger could not do.

"Nearly every day he was called on by some strangers from the Old Land and from our Eastern Provinces with many questions to ask, and he patiently heard them and intelligently answered them. He knew more of the Prairie province than most men, and newcomers were always befriended by him. Knox Church was then a large congregation, and rapidly becoming larger, and demanded much of his time. But with all the pressure upon his time, he never complained of being overburdened in seeing to the wants of newcomers from other lands.

"I know of some instances of men who, when they came to our Province, were short of funds. Though Mr. Robertson had no money to spare, they came to him in their distress and he handed them what money they wanted. And I have the best of reasons to believe that these borrowings were never repaid."

Patience of spirit was by no means a striking characteristic of Mr. Robertson in those eager, busy years. But for the stranger, lonely, poor, heart-sick, his patience never failed. Often imposed upon, he never sent men away without an attempt, at least, to meet their wants. They came to him for meals and lodgings, and he took them in. They came seeking work and he tramped the street with them. They came selling extraordinarily unuseful articles and he purchased of them all. His wife remembers one unhappy agent selling coat hangers from whom the minister bought half a dozen, though at the time he had only a single coat needing a hanger. Another day a gentleman too proud to beg and too honest to borrow, offers for sale a pair of high riding boots. The minister buys them for $6.00, though he knows they are sizes too small. He is gaining experience and other things besides, for which he is paying dear, but ever without a grudge. The time will come when in settlements far away he will meet those who will think it joy to serve him and for his sake the cause he loves.

After many years had passed, a friend of his came upon one of those who counted it honour to do him service. This friend writes:

"I drove up to a comfortable looking homestead. The house was built of logs, not grand, but comfortable. The barn, however, was truly magnificent and thoroughly equipped with the most up-to-date appliances for scientific stock-raising. I had never seen anything like it even among the wealthy farmers in Ontario. The stables were full of horses and in the fields far away a large herd of cattle could be seen. It was evidently a farm of great prosperity, and indicated growing wealth.

"In the house I found an old Scotch lady and her two sons, fine young fellows. I mentioned the name of Dr. Robertson and at once the shrewd old face took on a different look. It seemed to fill up with kindness, and she began to talk. She had a remarkable story to tell.

Twenty-one years before, she, with her husband and two baby boys, had come to Winnipeg. They had not much money, and all they had they invested in an ox-team, waggon and general outfit. They spent a Sunday at the immigration sheds in Winnipeg. The Presbyterian minister came down to preach to the immigrants in the afternoon. The place was uncomfortable and crowded. Her baby was fretful, and so the mother sat outside the door; it was a warm spring day, and there she listened to the sermon. She could not see the preacher’s face, but she gave me a good bit of that sermon. The theme was Abraham and his northwest adventure, and the parallel was drawn between him and these people who were about to seek their fortune in the West. The two main thoughts that the old lady carried with her for these twenty years were these: ‘God is going with you. Do not be discouraged. Never give up hope,’ and ‘You are going to make a new country, build your foundations for God.’ She remembered the grip of the minister’s hand as next day he went with them far out on to the prairie to set them on their westward journey, and how standing there he bade them a cheery farewell and watched them almost out of sight. His words of cheer stood them in good stead on that journey. As they neared the Portage plains they found the prairie one great wide expanse of black mud and water through which laden teams were frantically struggling, trying to get through. Again and again the husband was forced to unload his stuff, the mother holding her two babies in the waggon, till at last in despair he was for turning back. But the wife would not hear of it. The words of the preacher rang in her heart, ‘Never fear. God is with you. Don’t turn back.’ And they did not.

"They reached their location and began to farm. Within two years her husband died and the mother with her two little boys were left alone. But the neighbours were kind. She could get plenty of work to do. She did the washing for the bachelors round about, and baked bread for the villagers. She had no one with whom she could leave the children, but back and forward she went with her washing and her bread, leading one child by the hand and carrying the other upon her back, going barefoot through the water of the slough to save her boots.

"Her people in Scotland were anxious to have her return home, but she would not. She believed that God was with her and that she should not turn back. To-day, with a section and a half of the best land that the sun shines on, with barn and stables, cattle and horses, she has proved again that God keeps His promises. And often through these years by her devotion to the cause he represented, has she shown her gratitude to the minister who preached to her in Winnipeg that day and whose words upheld her for many a day afterwards."

But many are the stories that could be told of the wider ministry of the pastor of Knox Church of that day in behalf of those needy immigrants, and many of these same immigrants, now prosperous merchants or wealthy farmers, remember with grateful hearts and hearty greeting, the sympathetic hearing, that firm, strong, downward grip of the hand of the Presbyterian minister of Winnipeg to whom they appealed for help when help was needed, and never vainly.

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