Is Father Judge a forgotten hero?

by Michael Gates ©

It is one of the tragedies of life that acts of kindness and deeds of good go unrecognized, while extravagant, outrageous, violent and lawless behaviour receive too much attention in our daily lives.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is a rule in journalism. So the newspapers and television and the internet are clogged with articles depicting murders, tragedies, violence and crime. I have yet to see a newspaper run a headline that said. “today, nothing but good deeds were performed.”

I suppose that is why Father William Judge, a Jesuit priest, received so little newspaper ink for performing kind acts and good service to the public during the Klondike Stampede.

Father William Judge is known for his acts of charity and care during the gold rush. He stands out as the most selfless man in the greed-inspired phenomenon that was the Klondike.

William Henry Judge was born into a religious family in Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 1850. In addition to Judge, four of his siblings also entered Holy orders.

As a youth, he was frail and sickly, but he survived, and at age 25, he embarked on years of study and teaching, in the Jesuit order.

Finally, in 1890, at the age of forty, he volunteered for service in the Alaskan mission, not with a specific posting, but to do the bidding of his Superior.

After a lengthy journey which lasted several months, he arrived at Holy Cross Mission, the principal Jesuit centre on the Yukon River, where he joined the Father Superior, two brothers, and three Sisters of St. Ann, who taught fifty resident school children.

Judge had acquired many useful skills before he became a priest: carpenter, cabinet-maker, blacksmith and baker. These skills were put to good use and earned him brownie points among his colleagues at Holy Cross.

After two years at Holy Cross, he was sent to a smaller mission at Nulato where he spent his time teaching native children in their own language, constructing a church, and travelling widely to visit both whites and natives in a large region. Here he had established himself happily and was content with his assignment.

Orders then reached him from the Father Superior to establish a mission at the small mining town of Forty Mile, hundreds of miles up the Yukon River from Nulato.

His fortitude was tested at Forty Mile, where he alone served the spiritual needs of the Catholic community.

“No doubt,” he said, “the hardest part will be to be alone for ten months, with no communication whatever with the other Fathers; but I hope it will be alone with God.”

The challenge for the missionary was formidable because the “leaderless legion” of miners had little concern for anything but the search for gold.

Father Judge noted: “…everybody is looking for gold, some finding it and some getting nothing, a few becoming rich, but the greater number only making a living, and all working very, very hard. You would be astonished to see the amount of hard work that men do here in the hope of finding gold…O if men would only work for the kingdom of heaven with a little of that wonderful energy, how many saints we would have”

The low water on the Yukon River made it hard for him to get to Forty Mile in the first place. Then, when he was reassigned to Circle in 1896, the same conditions prevented him from leaving. Stuck at Forty Mile, his diaries reveal, he kept up a rigorous routine of visits to the sick and needy, as well as visits to the miners out on the remote creeks.

He was well positioned to intercede when gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek, which was soon to be renamed Bonanza. He spent the winter tending to his dwindling Fory Mile flock until March of 1897, when he followed them to Dawson, “…a solitary, feeble old man with a single sled rope over his shoulder, and a single dog helping the load along…”

Judge had secured 3 acres of land near the north end of Dawson. Once he was settled there, he set about building a church, a residence, and a hospital. The latter, which would be sadly needed in the forthcoming months, was completed August 20th, 1897.

With harsh climate, poor nutrition and deplorable sanitation conditions in the new town, the hospital was in immediate demand. He was soon tending to 20 patients a day, which rose to 50 during the winter, then, with the influx of humanity and typhoid epidemic in the fall of 1898, 135 patients daily. This dramatic increase made necessary the construction of an addition to the hospital.

Until reinforcements arrived, Judge tended to his congregation single handedly, supervised the construction work, raised funds, and managed the hospital.

Father Judge dedicated himself selflessly to his work. He spent hours ‘cheering and comforting the sick and consoling the dying.’ His kindness and generosity knew no religious boundaries.

Judge was past exhaustion from his work, yet when the new church burned to the ground in June, 1898, he immediately set about raising the funds and managing the construction of a larger replacement, which was ready within 10 weeks.

When reinforcements arrived the summer of 1898, he was able to hand over the responsibility for nursing and care of the sick to the Sisters of St. Ann, and the services in the new church to the Oblates, but he continued his dedicated work as hospital chaplain and administrator.

For two years, he had laboured without thought or concern for himself, devoted solely to the care of others. Worn out, exhausted by his own labours, in early January of 1899, he fell ill and for days battled pneumonia, finally succumbing on January 16th.

When Father Judge died, the sadness was shared by the entire community, regardless of religious persuasion. His contributions to the community were widely recognized, as was his spiritual work.

Beyond that, however, it was as though he had elevated himself to a higher state of spiritual devotion. During all of his trials, he exhibited a calm and serenity that contrasted with the frenzy and obsession with gold that surrounded him, and which grew as thousands of gold-seekers poured into the community.

He was, perhaps, “the only person in Dawson who sacrificed himself totally to the needs of others for no earthly reward” It was for this, above all else, that he became known as “The Saint of Dawson.”

If you go to the north end of Dawson today, near Whitehouse cabins, you will find a quiet clearing overlooking the Yukon River near where his great works were performed. It is here that his grave is found, and nearby, a plaque, mounted on a huge block of stone by the people of Canada, which recognizes his contribution to the physical and spiritual well-being of the miners.

(Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.)

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10 thoughts on “Is Father Judge a forgotten hero?

  • John Livingston

    I enjoyed your article and the “forgotten hero” aspect in particular. Father Judge and my great-grandfather on my mother’s side were half brothers. They had a common father, Henry Judge, and their different mothers were in fact sisters, Ann McNulty and Ellen McNulty. Ellen McNulty died in childbirth after her third child with Henry Judge and her sister Ann came from Ireland to Jamaica to assist him with the young children. My great-grandfather Arthur Judge was the first child. Ann and Henry fell in love, married and had nine children and came to the U.S. in 1841. Father Judge was a child of this second batch of kids. I have the latin breviary given to Father Judge on the date of his ordination in August, 1885, by his brother Father Charles Judge who wrote the book on Father Judge. This prayer book travelled the thousands of miles with father judge in his travels first in the Rocky Mountain missions and later in Alaska and finally in Dawson. This fact was confirmed by father W. Judge himself when he wrote to his brother and stated in brief that he was daily reminded of him when reading the breviary given to him on the date of his ordination. Thought you might enjoy these stories. JOHN Livingston Georgetown, TX

  • Richard Cassidy

    Father Judge and I are both descendants of Henry Joseph Judge (1809 – 1871) Henry’s first son, Arthur J. Judge, is my great grandfather. The family history is quite interesting. Personally, I’m pushing eighty and living in Fountain Valley, California.

  • Will Nieberding

    I enjoyed the article. My name is William Nieberding and my mother’s name was Margaret Judge. Her grandfather was Edward Samuel Judge, Father William’s older brother and son of Henry Judge and Ann McNulty. Henry Judge was a piano tuner in Baltimore during the Civil War. I have been tuning pianos for thirty years and didn’t know about Henry until a few months ago. I am proud and fascinated by both Henry and William Judge and would love to learn more at kathy.will@hotmail.com.

  • Nancy Reynolds

    What a wonderful piece of history. My husband and I travelled to Alaska and the Yukon Territory last summer and I became fascinated with its history.
    I m now reading the 4th or 5th book about the Klondike gold rush and in the middle of Pierre Berton’s Klondike which prompted me to specifically look him up on the web. Thank you for sharing!

  • Meg Judge Arnold

    Fr. William Judge was my grandfather’s great uncle. He is our family saint and we named our son after him. I would like to someday visit Dawson city as my grandfather and uncle once did. Very proud to have him as an ancestor, and we pray to him often.

  • Lisa Turner

    My family and I watched the mini series Klondike. I was fascinated and looked up the bios of the people. As a Catholic, I was very interested in Fr. Judge. His bio showed he truly was the Saint of Dawson. What a wonderful relative to have in your generational history!

  • Richard Woolsey

    I enjoyed the article, recent series made for television but unlike the others, above, I am not related. Herb Score

  • Tommy Byrne

    Well, I see I have a few distant cousins on this page ! My Great-Great-Great Grandfather was Henry J. Judge and my G-G-Grandparents were Arthur J. Judge and “Kate” Clarke Judge (his first wife). John Livingston, above, and I have exchanged some notes in the past and I welcome any other Judge’s out there to drop me a line as I’d be interested in learning about distant cousins and possibly new pieces of the Judge pie. (email : aVirginiaBreeze@yahoo.com )

    ‘Will, you probably know this, but your G-Grandfather Edward (“Ned”) Judge was a color-bearer for Gen. Pickett in Gettysburg and was awarded honors for planting their Confederate colors at the stonewall atop Cemetery Hill behind Federal lines. He would have been my paternal Grandmother’s (Dorothy Duffy) Great Uncle.

    I haven’t come across the TV series referred above, as I am in London these days, but I will see if I can track it down. I look forward to hearing from any and all Judges. Happy New Year !
    I have an original edition of Father William H. Judge’s (SJ) biography “An American Missionary” written by his brother Father Charles Judge and published in 1904.

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