HALIFAX – 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 the 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. Mr. 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. He also took on the difficult task of seeing that the hundreds of dead were properly buried.
Mr. Ancient’s heroic deeds are now recorded on his new gravestone in Halifax’s St. John’s Cemetery. The black granite tombstone features the engraved face of the young bearded cleric and details of his actions on that fateful day.
Mr. Jastrzembski learned that Mr. Ancient rested in an unmarked grave at Halifax’s St. John’s Cemetery. Mr. Jastrzembski founded and operates Shrouded Veterans, which typically provides grave markers for American soldiers.
He made an exception for Mr. 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.
Mr. Jastrzembski said he was delighted to see photos of the finished project. “It’s always a great feeling when you see a newly installed headstone on a previously unmarked grave,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” he added. “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.”