Free Issue! Try Saltscapes Magazine before you buy. Download Now

Former Hebron mission: abandoned but not forgotten

Moravian missionaries from Europe established a presence in northern Labrador dating back to the mid 1700s. In 1830 they expanded their efforts and built the Hebron Mission Station. Along with their goal of bringing Christianity to the nomadic Inuit of the area, the Moravians also introduced medical practices, commercial trade and music, as well as detailed record keeping, which offers a unique glimpse into both early European and Inuit culture on the Labrador coast.

Over several generations, the community of Hebron drew many nomadic Inuit of the area, offering trade opportunities for fishing and hunting. Life was harsh on the coast, whether living as a nomad or in the community, and epidemics were frequent. But life in Hebron carried on and it was not until 1959 that a decision was made by the Newfoundland government to pull out of the community, in part due to the high cost of providing services in such a remote area.

Without consulting the population an announcement was made, during an Easter church service, that the community store would be closed, effectively closing the community along with it. Residents were relocated to other settlements along the Labrador coast. This displacement led to social issues not only for Hebron’s residents, but also the residents of the established communities where they were relocated. There was not always room for extra families, fishers or hunters. Echoes of this relocation still exist today and in 2005, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador officially apologized to the former residents of Hebron for the relocation and its effects.

The Hebron mission house as it looked 15 years ago. While the building was intact, the elements have taken their toll and it was in danger of severe deterioration or collapse. Recent restorations have secured the building from further damage.

The Mission House

The mission house in Hebron is one of the best examples of early European contact in the area. Located approximately 180 kilometres north of Nain, Labrador’s most northerly community, Hebron was declared a National Historic Site in 1976 and in 2004 a restoration project began on the mission house.

The mission house was by far the largest building in the community and served multiple purposes. It was a school, church, residence, store and workshop all rolled into one, and its Germanic design—including its timber frame structure, small dormers and long steep roof—cuts a unique presence sitting on a rock foundation surrounded by a treeless tundra.

The restoration, which began in 2004 by the Nunatsiavut government (an autonomous region in northern Labrador), remains true to the original design and the exterior walls and roof have been repaired to prevent further weather deterioration. The structure was likely originally assembled in Germany, dismantled and then shipped to Hebron for reconstruction. This makes the structure one of the oldest—if not the oldest—pre-fabricated buildings on our continent. The frame is all wooden post and beam, connected with mortice and tenon joints and secured with wooden pegs. All the joints are scribed with roman numerals to facilitate reconstruction, to ensure that the building goes up as it came down.

The mission house and the surrounding outbuildings are post and beam frames with angled vertical posts throughout, filled with masonry (likely the bricks used as ballast in ships) and then covered with wooden clap boards. This exact same construction method and frame geometry can still be seen today in many buildings throughout small towns in Germany.

Renaissance

Hebron has experienced a bit of a renaissance in recent years. While some outbuildings have collapsed and some are on their last legs, the mission house itself is ready to face another century. Located just south of Torngat Mountains National Park, visitor numbers to the area are increasing and a trip to the park is not complete without a visit to Hebron.

I have had the privilege of visiting Hebron many times. These photos were taken over a period of 25 years, with the buildings in various states of disrepair, showing different light conditions and the mission house before and after its rehabilitation.

Other Stories You May Enjoy

Name That Place

Remember Abbott and Costello? They had a comedy routine that involved a baseball team; the man playing first base was named “Who.” When Costello asked “Who’s on first?” Abbott answered, “Yes”—and...

Sole to Soul

"AMAZING." An overused sentiment perhaps, but when Martine Vermeulen utters the word her eyes widen and shimmer-as if caught in some great surprise. Although Vermeulen says the word frequently, it's...

Are We Sinking?

It's an unseasonably warm February day and more than 100 people are tucked into Halifax's Neptune Theatre for a noontime performance. But this isn't Neptune's latest theatrical production. On stage...