Robert Wolfall, a priest of the Church of England and “a learned man”, was appointed by Elizabeth the First as “Minister and Preacher” to Martin Frobisher’s third expedition to Arctic waters in search of a Northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean and the lands in Far East. On September 3, 1578, Wolfall presided at the first recorded celebration of the Holy Eucharist in North America, in Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island, in what is now Canada. The service was noted in a contemporary history:
“Maister Wolfall on Winter’s Fornace, preached a godly sermon, which being ended, he celebrated also a Communion vpon the land, at the partaking whereof was the Captain of the Anne Francis, and many other Gentlemen, and Souldiers, Mariners, and Miners with him. The celebration of the diuine mystery was the first signe, seale, and confirmation of Christ’s name, death, and passion euer knowen in these quarters. The said M. Wolfall made sermons, and celebrated the Communion at sundry other times in seuerall and sundry ships, because the whole company could neuer meet together at any one place.”
Wolfall was the vicar of West Harptree, in the diocese of Bath and Wells, when he joined Frobisher’s third expedition. He was a graduate of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, who (as the captain of the Anne Francis tells us) had “a good honest woman to wife and very towardly children” and was himself “of good reputation among the best.” Despite his professional standing and large family, he chose to take part in Frobisher’s arduous expedition because he desired to sustain the faith of his comrades and, if the opportunity arose, to preach the gospel among the native peoples.
Frobisher abandoned the plan to establish a permanent settlement on Baffin Island and returned to England. It would be almost a century before an Anglican priest again celebrated the Holy Eucharist on Canadian shores, but in 1607 Robert Hunt, priest to the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, would celebrate the Holy Eucharist on the North American continent for a second time using the Book of Common Prayer.
Eternal God, you caused a company of English explorers, when they entered this land in quest of wealth, to remember the riches of our crucified Lord in the mystery of bread and wine. Grant us, who now prosper beyond their imagining, ever to seek the true wealth which comes from above; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
The Collect is taken from For All the Saints, the liturgical resource that supplements the sanctoral calendar of the Book of Alternative Services (Anglican Church of Canada). In the BAS, this commemoration falls on September 4, because the commemoration of Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, is appointed for September 2. Because Saint Gregory the Great is commemorated on another day in this sanctorale, I have retained the date of September 3 from the Canadian Book of Common Prayer.