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American historian ‘thrilled’ efforts to honour Canadian hero paid off

A Canadian hero who had lain in an unmarked grave for decades now has a tombstone honouring his life, thanks to an American author’s discovery of the story during a visit to Halifax five years ago. 

Frank Jastrzembski, who is also a historian, stumbled across Rev. William Ancient’s story at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in 2017 and jotted down the memorable name of the priest involved in rescuing people from the sinking SS Atlantic in 1873.

The steamship left England for New York that March, but ran low on coal. The captain changed course to Halifax. It ran ashore near Lower Prospect, N.S., at Marrs Island. The ship sank on the morning of April 1 and 565 passengers and crew drowned.

But locals saved more than 200 others. Rev. Ancient played a role in that rescue, memorably telling one of the final people saved to “never mind your shins man, it is your life we’re after,” before getting him to safety. 

Ancient also took on the difficult task of seeing that the hundreds of dead were properly buried.

A black granite tombstone features the engraved face of a young bearded man and details of Rev. Ancient's heroics involving the SS Atlantic.
Rev. William Ancient’s heroic deeds are now recorded on his new gravestone in Halifax’s St. John’s Cemetery. (Jon Tattrie/CBC)

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‘A special place in my heart’

Jastrzembski learned Ancient rested in an unmarked grave at Halifax’s St. John’s Cemetery. Jastrzembski founded and operates Shrouded Veterans, which typically provides grave markers for American soldiers.

He made an exception for Ancient. 

He raised about $3,000, and the headstone wound up costing a bit more than that. But Heritage Memorials covered the difference. He said the money came from a few big donors, and a lot of small contributions. 

Jastrzembski said he was delighted to see photos of the finished project. 

“I was thrilled! It’s always a great feeling when you see a newly installed headstone on a previously unmarked grave. It’s hard to believe it all started with my visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. Coupled with my interest in 19th century military and religious history, I think it was meant to be,” he said. 

“It’s a wonderful feeling. There isn’t anything more satisfying than honouring a hero like Ancient. He’s someone all Canadians should be proud of. Canada, especially Nova Scotia, will always have a special place in my heart. I’m glad I was able do a good deed for my Canadian neighbours.”

White Star Line’s 1st Atlantic disaster

A man kneels next to a grave in lush grass.
Historian Bob Chaulk says we can find inspiration in the actions of our ancestors. (Jon Tattrie/CBC)

Bob Chaulk is the author of Atlantic’s Last Stop and a member of the SS Atlantic Heritage Park. The park donated money to the cause and helped with the local logistics. 

Chaulk spent a decade researching the “bizarre” story of how White Star Line suffered its first big disaster off Canada’s East Coast, decades before it lost the Titanic, many of whose victims lie near Ancient in the adjacent Fairview Lawn Cemetery. 

“He buried approximately 277 people,” he said of Ancient, noting that meant figuring out who was Catholic and who was Protestant, and burying them appropriately. 

Chaulk thinks Ancient was buried with a grave marker, but it was lost sometime in the last century. 

“It probably was wood, because Ancient was a humble man. He was a minister in the Anglican church,” he said. 

The new one is built to last. 

“History is very important and the people who have come before us are very important,” Chaulk said. “We don’t spend a lot of time learning about Canadian history and the wreck of the SS Atlantic is a very significant one, as is the story of William Ancient.”

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