Dedicated to the North

Northerners are mourning a man known to many as a spiritual and community leader.

John Reginald Sperry, a long-time Northern bishop of the Anglican Arctic diocese, died in the Hay River Hospital at 7:05 p.m. Feb. 11.

Sperry, known as ‘Jack’ by family and friends, will be remembered across the North as a missionary, a bishop and an adopted Northerner. In his public and private life, Sperry endeavoured to educate people on the history of the North and its people as he learned it through his missionary work.

“Even after he retired as bishop, he continued to speak about the North,” said daughter Angela Friesen. “He was his own ambassador for the North, and very genuinely in love with the Arctic. My mom always said he’d be as comfortable at a tea party at Buckingham Palace as he would be drinking tea in an iglu.”

Sperry moved to the Woodland Manor in Hay River a little more than a year ago to be closer to his daughter and son John.

Sperry suffered a stroke on Feb. 9, 2012. Having experienced heart problems in recent years, he developed pneumonia five months ago and never fully recovered.

He was born on May 2, 1924 in Leicester, England. He came to Canada during the Second World War to serve in the Royal Navy when he was 18. A hard worker, he had the chance to be promoted to a military officer, but that wasn’t his calling.

“When he went to war he was already a Christian,” said Friesen. “He said no (to the military), that he wanted to go back to school as a missionary and go out to the Arctic.”

He met his wife Elizabeth at Emmanuel Missionary College in England. He then travelled to Nova Scotia for training, then onto Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in 1950. He was later married in 1952. He and his family lived in Kugluktuk from 1950 to 1969 before moving to Fort Smith so his children could attend junior high and high school. Elizabeth died in 2001.

In 1974, he was elected bishop of the Anglican Arctic Diocese and spent the next two years in Iqaluit before moving to Yellowknife, where he lived for 34 years.

For the first few years as bishop, he spent nine months of the year in transit. Even as a retired bishop, he travelled extensively to speak of his experiences in the North. He served as a padre for the military and was active in community as a volunteer. He supported the minister at Holy Trinity church in Yellowknife and was wholly available to the community.

“He still acted like a counsellor for anyone who needed him,” said Friesen. “In Yellowknife there were always functions and people would always call him up.”

Once a year, Sperry would visit Nunavut’s Bathurst Lodge for three weeks. There, he would share teachings of his learning during his years in Kugluktuk, the history he learned from the people, and the old
way of life he observed.

“He would still go and teach every year,” said Friesen. “He taught visitors to the North of the old way of life.”

Although it took years to assemble, Sperry wrote a book titled: Igloo Dwellers were my church. The book was based on manuscripts he drafted during his time in Nunavut.

“He wanted specifically to educate people in the world,” said Friesen.

Worried they would lose their father’s wealth of knowledge, Sperry’s children committed to recording his anecdotes which later contributed to a book written by his niece Nicola Vollkommer. The book, On the Edge of the Frozen World, is published in German.

“I have 14 hours of tape,” said Friesen. “He talked about the war extensively, early Arctic life, his life with the people. He would lie on his bed and just talk.”

Sperry received the Order of Canada in 2002 for his work as a missionary and his contributions to the Arctic. He was also awarded with a Diamond Jubilee Medal commemorating 60 years of the Queen’s reign.

He also translated the Anglican prayer book, the old hymn book, full gospels acts and epistles from English to an Inuit language.

These honours and publications are only a small fraction of how much Sperry will be missed, said Friesen.

“So many people have loved dad and appreciated him for who he is,” she said. “He really enjoyed the people, wherever he moved he made the place his home. That was his life. He was very adaptable, very approachable, a good listener, very kind and never made anyone feel bad.”

Reverend Vivian Smith said Sperry was still an active member of the Anglican congregation in Hay River.

As Smith milled around the Anglican Church on Sunday, several approached her to offer their condolences. Sperry was present during her ordination and had become a great friend to her.

“The church was his life,” said Smith. “Every Sunday he was here to do the final blessing. This Sunday I had to do it for him. It was hard because everyone loves him so much. He was a great teacher and a great bishop. His memory will live forever.”

Sperry’s funeral will be held on Saturday in Yellowknife at 2 p.m. The location will be announced once a venue large enough is found to accommodate the large crowd expected to attend the service.