What To Know about “Abusing Grace” by John Coyne


If you’re from Brudenell, or know someone from Brudenell, I think you’ll enjoy reading “Abusing Grace”.  The author, John Coyne, was born there in the 30’’s

If you’re 40 or older and from the surrounding area Cormac, Wilno, Killaloe, Eganville or Barry’s Bay  I imagine you’d also get a kick out of it.  Anyone could enjoy “abusing grace” , but when you know the people it’s more interesting

I laughed as soon as I read the title.

I think it’s a playful take on the hymn “Amazing Grace” but if your name is Grace you could be put off by it.

It’s actually a collection of John Coyne’s memories that means he cares.  Nothing in it struck me as truly abusive.

I enjoyed it so much that I read all 336 pages in one weekend.  I took note of the page numbers of my favourite stories and I go back and read them.

As you continue to watch, you’ll decide for yourself if you want to read it.

There’s a book by Frank McCourt called Angela’s Ashes, about growing up in 1930’s Ireland.  A lack of respect for his parents and anger permeated that book, it left me feeling sad.

There’s none of that here, it felt good to read “Abusing Grace”. Mr. Coyne confesses his own sins, not other peoples.

He tells of the mistakes he’s made, like single handedly shutting down General Motors in Oshawa for a day.  You’ll want to read about that.

The back cover is a photo of the new graveyard.

When I was 15 I dug my Dad’s grave right there

My dad didn’t leave behind any writings.

I’m grateful to John for writing this.  He doesn’t know me from Adam but he knew my dad.

John’s take on growing up in Brudenell is no doubt different than what my Dad’s would have been, but I imagine the gist of it is the same. It’s a wonderful gift for me to read his memories of my dad and uncle Billy, of my aunt Mary before she married my uncle Tommie.

The front cover shows a fountain pen which was commonly used.  My dad told me that he would often use a feather quill as well. We’ve come a long way in one generation.  I dictate my notes to an iPhone.

When Jack grew up, most of the water was pumped from a hand dug well or pulled up on a pail at the end of a rope.

In the winter, the temperature occasionally gets down to -40 but mostly around -10.  If the fire went out, you’d have to break the ice to wash your face.

Brudenell was a ghost town when I was growing up. The Brudenell that John describes, in the 30s, was very different. There were hundreds more people and lots more things going on.  Cars, running water in the house, electricity, radio and TV were all new additions in the 40’s and 50’s.

He describes his grandfather John, who would throw a rip roaring fit if the cows broke into the garden, as if the cows were trying to provoke him.

When he was walking in the bush, his granddad would take it personal and get angry if a switch flew back and hit him.

I know how he felt.  when I was little my grandad let go of a switch that got me right in the eye.

It stung and my eye watered.

I think I was mad for the rest of the day, even though he kept apologizing and said he didn’t do it on purpose.  50 years later and I still think he might have, he was a bit of a joker

That’s the lesson of award winning book “the rake”.  If you can’t forgive someone, maybe it’s because there is nothing to forgive.

Look thoughtful

“Abusing Grace” starts with one of John’s earliest memories,  his grandmother dying and being waked at home.

I related to that because one of my earliest memories is of my grandmother Molly Whelan being waked in our living room.  I didn’t understand what dead meant   I asked my uncle why grandma wouldn’t wake up and play with me.  He just looked sad.

Look down

In Brudenell most homes were made of wood and heated by a wood burning stove which was used for all the cooking and heating of water. Most everyone would also have a summer kitchen to avoid heating up the whole house.

You were considered wealthy if you had 2 stoves, but most people moved the cast iron stove from one building to the other.

My Uncle Billy used to say everyone was dirt poor and no one knew it.

There would be a root cellar for storing potatoes for the winter.  It might be as simple as a hole in the ground dug out under the house.

Every kid would spend time removing the eyes from the potatoes, the sprouts.  I did the same, so some things didn’t change much.

John writes of travelling by horse and buggy.  It’s a 20 minute drive to Eganville today on a paved road, but it was a two day round trip back then.  It took all day to come back because it was mostly uphill.

He recalls using flour bags for pillow cases and I had forgotten that we did the same thing. Five roses.

John writes of the wind up gramophone for playing records and the battery powered telephone with a hand crank.  The local switchboard operator was my Grandma Molly.

That reminded me of our old party line where multiple families shared one phone line.  You’d know if someone was calling for you by the pattern of the ring. There were 5 families on our party line, but it wasn’t a problem, we didn’t use the phone much.

John attended the one room school house filled with 30 students.  One student was responsible for firing up the school stove and another would fetch water by the pail for everyone to drink.  Most kids walked to school barefoot in warm weather..

If I was a year older, I would have went to that same one room school house.  It was one of the last schools in Ontario where kids from 5 years old to 14 years would all be taught by one teacher in one room.

Butler’s catechism was one of the main texts and I recall my dad being upset that we weren’t using it in our school.

Page 91 There was a teacher who often beat the kids with a rubber strap.   Eventually she was fired.  Mary Kelly was hired as the new school teacher.

John tells of how Mary was locked into the school as a prank one day.  Apparently, she climbed out the window and didn’t say a word about it, depriving the prankster of the satisfaction.  I can imagine her doing that. My uncle Tommy would later marry her.  I remember her as a kind and strong woman.

Here’s some images of Brudenell

I met John at the dedication of the church steeple, which had been destroyed by fire from a lightning strike.  Two authors from Brudenell, we exchanged our books.   Coincidentally, we both married Filipina women from half a world away.

The church bell was rung daily at 6 am and 6 pm and you could hear it a mile away.  In the 1930’s and 40’s there were no headphones or TV’s to block out the world.

Our lady of angels church is what the parish of Brudenell formed around.  John went to confession in the same booth that I did.  I did my sacraments from baptism to marriage in that church.  I’d like my funeral to be there too.

At home, they used sticky ribbons for catching flies and they’d fill up and turn black in a week.  That hasn’t changed,

If you’d like to know what it was like growing up in Brudenell in the 60’s you could go there now.  It hasn’t changed that much.

It’s still dark enough to easily see the Milky Way

The summer air is still thick with mosquitoes, I don’t miss them.

It’s still a great place to go swimming, but the only lesson I had was sink or swim

There have been some changes though.

When drIving I used to wave at everyone I’d meet and I’d probably know them.  I’d wave even if I didn’t know them and they would  wave back.  Not so much anymore..  Now, most of the roads are paved and people drive much faster than when it was dirt roads.

If we saw a person walking on the side of road we’d offer them a lift.    It was funny when people started jogging in the 70’s.  My mom would  say you look like you’re in a hurry, hop in.

My mom was superstitious and I thought I had heard them all, but John writes of one superstition I hadn’t heard of.  His brother was bit by a dog and the belief was that if the dog got rabies AFTER you were bit, you would get rabies too.  So there was talk of shooting the dog that bit him, just to be on the safe side.  Luckily for the dog, they decided to leave him be.

I was shocked to read that their were up 20 altar boys serving mass.  It was down to less than 5 when I was an altar boy and I’d often serve mass by myself.

I know what you might be thinking and no I wasn’t.

“Abusing Grace” is packed with stories. Here’s a few more that I enjoyed.

Page 70 Before the second vatican council, it was required to fast from midnight onwards before receiving holy communion.  The priest would announce the people whom he would be visiting to deliver the sacrament during the week.  He’d head out in the dead of winter, travelling for an hour or more in the cold just to do this.

He arrived at a distant farm where the son was sick and instead of being greeted with “Good morning Father” or “I’m sorry Father”  the mom’s first words were “The son of a bitch broke his fast”

Can you imagine that?  All that way for nothing.

There was a race track back then, but it was a swamp when I was growing up.  My dad told me it used to be  a race course but I thought he was kidding.  I couldn’t imagine anything had been there.

This is important.  It was a common tragedy back then that every family would have at least one child die.

But that didn’t make it any easier than it would be for you today.

John’s mom suffered the death of a child and then a miscarriage in the same year and she slipped into a depression.

He describes a folk remedy shock treatment of cold water to treat it.  His mom would dump a bucket of cold water over herself every morning and her depression lifted.  If you have that problem, it’s free to try and there is some hydrotherapy research to support the idea.

Page 160  was proud to read that my Grandfather Andrew was a skilled craftsman and talented shoe maker.  He died before I was born and I knew nothing of him.  He made my Uncle Billy a sleigh that was the envy of all he other riders.

I’m happy to be reminded of the many expressions I grew up with, like have a snort, by jumping, holy liftin, by the reefin ginger and shut your face.

I stopped using those expressions when I moved to the city, maybe I’ll start using them again.

Page 219 This blew my mind.  People were flying from Killaloe to Ottawa in 1947.  It’s like reading they had high speed internet before I was born.  To this day my sister has never been on a plane.

Page 221 John’s first paying job was working for my dad, picking stones for $2 a day.  I wonder what that was like for him.

Page 250 He later worked with my uncle billy who loved to read, which is something we had in common. They worked on building the hydro dams together.  There were quite a few deaths on those projects and no safety investigations back then.

Page 259 I was shocked to read that no drinking of alcohol was allowed in Johns house.  We had a two drink minimum.

He recounts going to confession with Father Drohan who was going deaf.   So confessing to him was like broadcasting to the community.

I said ” I took the lords name in vain 3 times”

Can you imagine that?


Brudenell had lots of things that I never dreamt of, they were all gone by the time I came along.

I never saw a pool table until I went to college, but according to John there had been one in the parish hall and one in each of the barbershops in Killaloe.

Even Hollywood movies were shown in the parish hall.

It didn’t last long, as Father Drohan didn’t approve of some of the scenes in the movies.

He tells of my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Billy having him and his brother Murt over for dinner.

She asked “Do all Brudenellers think one bath a week is good enough?”

Murt replied “Take a bath? in the winter?”

I think it was my Aunt Margaret who told me the one about the old man from Brudenell who took a bath every Saturday, whether he needed it or not.

There are lots of other stories in “abusing grace”

If you want to get your own copy, check with the Eganville Leader or email me [email protected] and I’ll let John know.

I hope this inspires you to tell your own stories.  It’s sure to be a pleasure to someone and you may not have any idea who.

Thank you so much John for taking the time to write it and thanks to my sister Sandy for suggesting this show.

I’ll end this with Mr. Coyne’s lines from his grade 2 play, (page 59)

I am quite small,

to go to school,

But you can see,

I am no fool,

I studied hard,

my piece to say

So now I’ll bow

and go away