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Heritage of Faith

Sacred places that have spiritual meaning in Aboriginal cultures are most likely to be natural landscape features – a rock, a slope, a body of water. Built structures can also acquire spiritual significance through their association with honoured ancestors. Traditional spiritual sites of Aboriginal peoples are significant not only for the traditions they evoke, but for their ongoing significance in Aboriginal culture. The stories associated with a sacred place are as important as the physical attributes of the site itself.

2.1 Xá:ytem, Fraser River, British Columbia

Xá:ytem is a spiritual site important to the Stó:lo people of the Fraser River Valley. It is made up of a “transformer” rock and the archaeological remains of human habitations dating back to at least 6800 B.P. To the Stó:lo, the transformer rock is a highly significant spiritual site with both past and present meaning. Archaeological remains located near the rock also have spiritual value because they connect the Stó:lo people to their ancestors.

2.2 Kwe?ehdoò and Hodoodzoo, Idaà Trail, Northwest Territories

The Dogrib people believe the landscape is a living thing, filled with sacred sites. Two Dogrib sacred sites located along the Idaà Trail between Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake are connected to the nation’s legendary hero Yamozhah. Kwe?ehdoò (“blood rock”) is a large bedrock hill said to be the birthplace of Yamozhah. According to legend, the length of time it takes for a stone thrown into the crack of the rock to hit the water foretells the length of the thrower’s life. Hodoodzoo (“sliding”) is a large, smooth rockface that is the site of the legendary story of Yamozhah and the wolverine. A traveller can slide down the rockface to determine the length of his or her life.

3.0 Missions

The first Christian missionaries arrived in Canada in the 17th century. The early missionaries were Roman Catholic nuns and priests who belonged to various religious orders, including the Jesuits, the Récollets, the Sulpicians, and the Ursulines. After the British conquest, they were joined by missionary societies sponsored by the Church of England (the Anglican Church) and other Protestant Christian denominations such as the Methodists. The early missions were simply set up as part of a fur trading post or fishing village. Small missionary churches were built as places to hold worship services, often using local materials. The design of each church became a way of communicating religious beliefs to potential converts. Missions often included schools and hospitals, as well as churches.

3.1 Our Lady of Good Hope Church (1865-76), Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories

Our Lady of Good Hope Church sits within the traditional homelands of the nomadic Mountain, Hare and Sahtu Dene people on the shores of the Mackenzie River, just south of the Arctic Circle. Its simple exterior hides an interior that is lavishly decorated with intricate woodwork and painted surfaces. Built by Oblate missionaries between 1865 and 1876, Our Lady of Good Hope Church is one of the most remarkable examples of church decoration in Canada, as well as one of the oldest surviving buildings in Canada’s North.   

3.2 St. James the Apostle Anglican Church (1852-57), Battle Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador

St. James the Apostle Anglican Church is the oldest surviving Anglican church in Labrador. In the mid-19th century, the church served the needs of both permanent fishermen (“livyers”) settled on the island and several thousand migrant fisherman (“floaters”). It also provided a base for the Anglican mission in Labrador. St. James is typical of 19th-century Anglican mission churches in Newfoundland. It is a small, wood-frame building, covered in clapboard, with a tower at the west end and exposed roof beams inside. The church has all the basic parts of an Anglican church: a chancel and vestry at the east end, a pulpit and pews, a stone baptismal font, and a communion table.

4.0 Sacred Places and Early Settlement

As early as the 17th century, Canada began to be settled by colonists coming from Europe, and later, from Asia and the United States. Constructing a church, a temple, a mosque or a synagogue was an important part of building a community. It provided a place to worship, meet and celebrate. It also announced to the world that these new settlers and immigrants intended Canada to become their permanent home.                      

4.1 St. Paul’s, Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks (1785), Brantford, Ontario

This small wooden chapel near Brantford was built in 1785 by the British government for Mohawk settlers of the Anglican faith. It is the oldest surviving church in Ontario and the first Protestant church to be built in Upper Canada. After the American Revolution, loyalists to the British cause, including Mohawks from the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy in New York, fled to what is now Canada. As a reward for their loyalty, the British government granted the Mohawks a large section of land on the Grand River near what is now Brantford. It also ordered two mills, a school and a chapel to be built. The chapel was constructed by two non-Mohawk Loyalists from New York State. Its simple design reflects the American colonial building traditions of its Loyalist builders. In 1904, Edward VII declared St. Paul’s to be a Royal Chapel, the only one in North America. St. Paul’s Chapel is a national historic site.

4.2 Covenanters’ Church (1804), Grand Pré, Nova Scotia

The Covenanters’ Church is a good example of a New England meeting house, a simple style of church built by Protestant settlers during the 19th century. Erected for a Presbyterian congregation between 1804 and 1811, the church was briefly used by a dissenting Presbyterian sect known as the Covenanters. It is the oldest surviving Presbyterian church in Canada. The building is a simple, symmetrical rectangle with the main entrance on the long side. It includes box pews and an upper gallery typical of meeting houses. Since 1925, when Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian congregations across Canada united to form the United Church of Canada, the Covenanters’ Church has been part of the United Church of Canada. The Covenanters’ Church is a national historic site.

4.3 Sharon Temple (1825-31), East Gwillimbury, Ontario

The Sharon Temple is an expression of faith in a tangible, three-dimensional form. Built in 1825-31 by a Christian religious group called the Children of Peace, every element of the temple communicates something about the religious beliefs of its builders. The Children of Peace were a small Quaker sect that believed that the Old Testament Bible described a golden age of religion, before the division into denominations. They saw their community as a model for a society without political or religious divisions. They were also known for their love of ceremony and their emphasis on art, poetry and music as a way to worship God. They formed the first civilian band in Canada and built the first organ in Ontario. In worship, they “lined” hymns, repeating each line as it was sung to them. Later, David Willson, the sect’s leader, created hymnbooks for unison singing. In the temple, a steep, winding staircase, known as Jacob’s ladder, led to the musicians’ gallery. In the Bible, Jacob’s ladder led to heaven. From the heaven of the musicians’ gallery, music floated down onto the congregation. The last service was held at the temple in 1889. Since 1918, it has been operated as a museum by the York Pioneer and Historical Society.

4.4 Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church (1848), Amherstburg, Ontario

This small stone chapel is a testament to the strength and determination of African American refugees to build a permanent community in a free land. Hand-built by its Black Methodist congregation in 1848, the church became a terminus for African Americans fleeing slavery through the Underground Railway and the centre of a growing Black community. The simple, open “speaking box” design of Nazrey Church is typical in scale and form of the small Methodist churches built in Canada by African American refugee communities, but its stone construction is unusual. Members of the congregation built the church themselves, carrying fieldstones to the site and assembling the walls by hand. The immense amount of work involved in this task testifies to the dedication of the builders and the importance of the church to its community.

4.5 Congregation Emanu-El Temple(1863), Victoria, British Columbia

Built in 1863 by the first Jewish immigrants to Victoria, the Congregation Emanu-El Temple is Canada’s oldest surviving synagogue and the oldest continuously used place of worship in British Columbia. Synagogues were rare in Canada before the 1880s. Canada’s first synagogue was built in Montréal in 1777. Four others were built in Victoria, Montréal, Hamilton and Trois-Rivières during the mid-19th century. The Congregation Emanu-El Temple is the only one of these that is still standing. The building was designed by local architect John Wright in the Romanesque Revival style, a popular motif for synagogues in the 19th century. Other architectural styles, such as Gothic, were not used for synagogue architecture because of their associations with tragic periods in Jewish history. The Romanesque Revival style can be seen in the temple’s round-headed windows, triple-arched entranceway, large rose window and corner pavilions. Inside, three balconies look down on the central tabernacle. In 1978 the congregation rallied to restore the synagogue to reflect its original condition. It was rededicated in 1982 in a magnificent multicultural and multiethnic ceremony that recalled the original dedication of 1863.

4.6 Abbotsford Sikh Temple (1911), Abbotsford, British Columbia

The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is a simple, two-and-a-half-storey wooden building located in the heart of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Built in 1911, it is the only surviving example of a small group of early 20th-century Sikh temples in Canada and the oldest surviving Sikh temple in North America. The first Sikh immigrants arrived in British Columbia between 1900 and 1910, mostly young men working in the province’s rapidly growing lumber industry. They established a gurdwara (temple) society in 1907 in Vancouver, with branches in other British Columbia communities. They built four temples, including the one in Abbotsford. The early Canadian gurdwara (temple) served three roles for the Sikh community: a place of worship; a centre for social life, especially for newcomers and those missing their extended families; and a political headquarters to deal with the political struggles of Sikhs in Canada. The 1911 Abbotsford Temple was built by Sikh mill workers in their spare time. The Abbotsford temple includes: a carpeted prayer hall on the upper level; a community kitchen for langara, the communal meal, on the lower level; and a door on each of the four sides of the building. In keeping with Sikh tradition, it sits on a high piece of ground, overlooking the community. Outside, a flagpole flying the Sikh flag indicates the presence of a Sikh temple.

4.7 Doukhobor Prayer House (1917), Verigin, Saskatchewan

The Doukhobor Prayer House was the headquarters of the Doukhobor settlement in Saskatchewan. Built in 1917, its two-storey wrap-around verandah and elaborate metalwork are purposely evocative of a 19th-century Doukhobor prayer house constructed at Otradnoe, Russia. The Doukhobors are a sect of dissenting Christians from Russia who believe that each person has a part of God living within him or her. Instead of churches, Doukhobors meet in simple prayer houses, where everyone joins in the a cappella singing of hymns and psalms. In 1899, a group of 7,500 Doukhobors, led by Peter Vasilevich Verigin, emigrated from Russia to Canada to escape persecution. In Canada, they first settled on government reserves because they refused to swear the oath of allegiance required for homestead lands. When the government disbanded the reserves in 1905, the Doukhobors purchased a large parcel of land in Verigin, Saskatchewan, and built a new community with the Prayer House at its centre.

4.8 Al Rashid Mosque (1938), Edmonton, Alberta

In a quiet location in Fort Edmonton Park stands the oldest mosque in North America. Moved several times from its original location, the mosque, built in 1938, now operates as a museum of Islamic artefacts. The first Muslim immigrants arrived on the Canadian Prairies in the late 19th century, leaving their homes in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Many were young men fleeing war or conscription. By the early 1930s, a small community of Muslim families had gathered in Edmonton. A group of Muslim women persuaded the mayor to provide the land for a mosque; local shopkeepers of various religions covered the construction costs; and a Ukrainian-Canadian contractor erected the building. The Al Rashid mosque is a modest, one-room brick building with a basement for social gatherings. With its arched windows, hexagonal minarets and onion-shaped silver domes, it is sometimes mistaken for a Christian Orthodox church. When the old mosque was threatened with demolition in 1992, Muslim women again stepped in, persuading the city that it had historical value and raising funds to have it moved to a historical park operated by the City. Today it stands as an important reminder of the long-standing roots of one of Canada’s fastest-growing religious groups.

5.0 The Architecture of Sacred Places

As religious groups became more established in Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries, they built larger and more elaborate places of worship able to accommodate larger numbers of worshippers. They were usually designed by architects or by clergy who had architectural training. Like earlier churches, they continued to function as centres of their community, communicating and representing religious values. At the same time, the immense size and sophisticated design of these buildings made a significant contribution to the architectural character of the community.

The Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, both of which were well established in Canada by the 19th century, were the first to build substantial, architecturally sophisticated buildings, consistent with their Christian beliefs. Larger Sikh and Muslim temples were not built in Canada until later, in the 20th century, when their communities were large enough to sustain the costs of building and maintaining them.

5.1 Church of Saint-Joseph de Deschambault (1834-37), Deschambault, Québec

From its dramatic perch on Cape Lauzon, the massive, twin-towered Church of Saint-Joseph de Deschambault overlooks the St. Lawrence River and the dangerous Richelieu Rapids. Designed by well-known Québec architect Thomas Baillairgé in 1833 and built in 1834-7, the church exemplifies the heart of the Roman Catholic faith in Quebec. The Neo-classical style of the Deschambault church reflects Thomas Baillairgé’s belief that traditional architectural forms, particularly the classical styles used in France, were appropriate to the religious and public buildings in Quebec. He feared the effect on Quebec culture of the use of other revival styles such as Gothic, Egyptian and Chinese. Baillairgé relied on the classical rules of proportion to bring balance and harmony to his buildings. Ornamental sculptor André Paquet, a close associate of his, decorated the interior of the church to Baillairgé’s specifications between 1841 and 1849.

5.2 Christ Church Cathedral (1845-1853), Fredericton, New Brunswick

The elegant Christ Church Cathedral in Fredericton is a testament to community strength and to the vision of Bishop John Medley (1804-1892). Medley was a member of a reform movement in the Church of England that wanted to revive the medieval Gothic architectural style for its churches. He arrived in Fredericton armed with a preliminary set of plans for a Gothic Revival cathedral, drawn up by the British architect Frank Wills. Bishop Medley believed that building a cathedral was essential to his mission, both as a symbol of church authority and as a model of proper church architecture for the whole diocese. Built between 1845 and 1853, the cathedral is an impressive illustration of Medley’s ideals and his hopes for the new diocese. It is one of the very best and the first example of a High Victorian Gothic Revival-style church in Canada. In 1911, a fire destroyed the spire, much of the roof and some of the stained glass, melted the bells and ruined the organ and most of furnishings. The congregation rallied together and funded the cathedral’s restoration in 1912.

5.3 Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (1930-52), Cook’s Creek, Manitoba

The strength of faith among Ukrainian-Canadians is magnificently illustrated at Cook’s Creek by the congregation’s 22-year struggle to build the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception. They were aided by the Reverend Philip Ruh (1883-1962), a priest who has left a remarkable imprint on the landscape of Western Canada. Amazingly, Ruh had no formal architectural training. He was sent to Canada in 1913 from Alsace-Lorraine as a missionary priest in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Almost immediately, he began designing simple wooden churches and, later on, concrete churches in the Byzantine architectural style. The Church of the Immaculate Conception was one of Ruh’s most ambitious and accomplished buildings. This large, elaborate Byzantine-style church, with its nine domes and large nave, is one of two survivors of his “Prairie Cathedrals” in Manitoba.