“A builder of faith:” Bishop Martin Mate remembered for constructing community and churches, too

“He put all of this fear and intimidation of seeing the bishop and being confirmed by the bishop aside as soon as you got to hear him speak,” recalls Bishop Sam Rose (bottom left). Photos in upper and lower left provided by the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador; on right, by General Synod Archives
Published December 21, 2023

In the early 1980s the Rev. Reuben Hatcher, now retired, was serving as a prison chaplain at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s during a hostage-taking that dragged on through Christmas. A simple phone call with his bishop, he says, was enough to give him the peace and strength he needed to go on. 

“I spent all Christmas Day and Boxing Day trying to talk the characters down who had a guard handcuffed in one of the offices. And I talked about it with the bishop, of course, and he was very helpful to me because it was a very stressful time,” he says. “He was so kind in talking to you, he just made you feel as if you had done something so important in [your] ministry. He had a lot of talent, that man.”

That bishop was Bishop Martin Mate, and the kindness and dedication to ministry he showed during this incident was typical of him, Hatcher says. Mate, who led the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador from 1980 to 1992, died Nov. 28 at the age of 95, and is being remembered by those who knew him as a peacemaker with a tireless dedication to community. 

Born in Port Rexton, a small town on Newfoundland’s east coast, Mate was ordained in 1953 and served in the diocese as a deacon, priest and curate of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s before his election as bishop. Hatcher, Mate’s friend of 50 years, now retired and in his 80s himself, says Mate was gifted with exceptional intelligence. He graduated high school at age 15 and went on to become a teacher before teaching himself Latin as a prerequisite to seminary study, says Hatcher.  

Likewise, Bishop Sam Rose, the diocese’s current bishop, remembers Mate for his calming presence—even, sometimes, despite his impressive physical stature. One of his earliest memories of Mate, he says, was when the bishop came to his church to preside over Rose’s confirmation ceremony when the latter was around 12 years old. 

“You can imagine being a little boy with a group of other little children in the church waiting on a very nervous day in my life, in our lives, to see this incredibly tall man come out with a mitre on, which made him perhaps a foot and a half even taller,” he says. “Yet he had this very gentle, loving, caring way about him that made you feel at ease and made you feel comfortable … He put all of this fear and intimidation of seeing the bishop and being confirmed by the bishop aside as soon as you got to hear him speak.” 

That reassuring manner stayed constant throughout his future interactions with Mate, says Rose. Even when the two would connect to talk about his own time as bishop, Mate’s encouragement remained a comfort. 

Both Rose and Hatcher commented on Mate’s commitment to forward-looking ministry in the diocese, showing concern, they said, for the province’s future and that of the church. For Mate, that took the form of advocating for innovations like the Book of Alternative Services, introduced during Mate’s tenure and now standard across the Anglican Church of Canada. And it showed in his work on social issues, they said. Mate presided over the ordination of now Canon Elaine Hamilton, the diocese’s first woman member of the clergy in 1981. Rose says he also remembers Mate for his dedication to community. When the cod-fishing moratorium devastated communities across the diocese, Mate travelled from parish to parish ministering to residents. He and the other bishops in Newfoundland and Labrador even led town-hall discussions for them and advocated on their behalf with the federal government, says Rose. 

“So he was a champion for the little person, the fisher person. He really advocated what I would call on-the-ground ministry response.” 

That hands-on approach applied to his work with ministries like Anglican Mission, the Cursillo Movement and Teens Encounter Christ, said Rose in his eulogy for Mate. Having been brought up by parents who taught him to use a variety of construction tools, he was a builder not only of faith but also frequently of cabins, houses and churches, Rose said. 

“Whether building a cabin or building a diocese, he had a plan and the skills and gifts to put it in place. His God-given gifts were foundational for Martin’s vocation to his family at home and his family in God.” 

Mate is survived by his five children, Caroline Tilley, Elizabeth Downer, Phyllis Mate, M. John Mate and Carl Mate as well as eight grandchildren.

This article has been updated to reflect an earlier instance of Bishop Mate ordaining a woman in the Diocese of Newfoundland.

 

Author

  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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