Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: May 2017

Stanley Mission’s Holy Trinity Church still inspires awe

It is the most unlikely building in the most unlikely place.

Whether you sweep into Stanley Mission by canoe or fly overhead in a small plane, Holy Trinity Church stands tall and resolute, like a beacon, on the north shore of the Churchill River. That was the intention from the beginning.

In the mid-19th century, the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the evangelical arm of the Anglican Church, decided to expand into the western interior from its foothold in the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg).

Missions were established on the Saskatchewan River — first, in 1840, at The Pas, a traditional Cree gathering place and Hudson’s Bay Company outpost (just east of the present-day Manitoba-Saskatchewan interprovincial boundary), and then, two years later, at Upper Nepowewin, directly across from the HBC’s Fort à la Corne and a traditional gathering place known as the “waiting place” (pehonān).

The CMS also looked north to the sprawling English (Churchill) River district in response to the growing Roman Catholic presence at  Île-à-la-Crosse (Saint-Jean-Baptiste mission).

In 1846, Cree catechist James Settee and his mixed-descent wife, Sally, the daughter of HBC officer Joseph Cook, headed to the HBC Lac La Ronge post to lay the groundwork for an Anglican mission. Within a year, Settee’s proselytizing efforts had secured more than 100 adults and children for the church.

This encouraging beginning prompted the Church Missionary Society to dispatch English priest Robert Hunt to establish a permanent mission and thereby limit the influence of the rival Catholic Church in the region. With Settee’s help, Hunt relocated the mission in 1851 from the west side of Lac La Ronge to a favourite Cree gathering place on the north side of the Churchill River, traditionally known as âmaciwispimowinihk (shooting arrows uphill place). The site’s spiritual importance was underscored by the nearby rock paintings.

The Church of England had grand ambitions for what became known as Stanley Mission.

Beginning in 1854, Reverend Hunt, with direction and input from Robert Anderson, the new Anglican bishop for Rupert’s Land, oversaw the construction of a wooden “cathedral” church that had no equal in the region. Indeed, the tradition, including among early settlers, was first to build a temporary structure that would eventually be replaced by something more substantial and permanent. Holy Trinity Church, on the other hand, was meant to be a grand structure that would rival churches in other, more settled parts of Canada — and in England.

The building was massive in scale, especially in comparison to other contemporary buildings in the region. It measured 25 metres long and 10.5 metres wide, with a tower and spire that reached skyward 27 metres.

The design also set the church apart; its Gothic Revival style reflected the latest English architectural trend. That included the use of polychromy — in this case, red and yellow paint for the exterior. There were also aisles and open seating for the pews, another modern innovation.

Most remarkably, the structure was fashioned entirely from wood (except for the fieldstone foundation) by local indigenous men. Logs were floated down the Churchill and squared on site. Curved timbers were used for the arches. Telltale hand-hewn marks are still discernible in places. Only the church hardware, in particular the stained glass for the windows, was imported from England.

By the end of the decade, the graceful Gothic Revival Holy Trinity Church anchored a growing mission complex of some 30 buildings, including a school, parsonage, barn, storeroom, warehouse, and grist mill. This investment reflected a determination to make Stanley Mission the spiritual centre for Anglican activities in the North-West.

But farming was an uncertain enterprise because of the thin soil and short growing season, and the mission had to rely on the HBC and the local indigenous population for provisions. Over time, people moved to the other side of the river after the Stanley Mission First Nation was established there.

Today, Holy Trinity, refurbished and painted white, sits alone on the north shore of the Churchill, while the surrounding cemetery serves as silent reminder of the cultural importance of the site to the local aboriginal community.

And even though the expectations for the mission were unrealistic, the majestic church continues, in the bishop’s words, to inspire “awe.”

Just ask those who make the pilgrimage each year to visit the province’s oldest structure and find solace inside.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Holy Trinity Church at Stanley Mission is Saskatchewan’s oldest structure. 
Credit:Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Frances McGill Forensic

Canada’s first female forensic pathologist helped Mounties solve crimes

She had to bite back her irritation.

Dr. Frances McGill prided herself on her blood work analysis in the laboratory.

But here she was, in a Wilkie courtroom in March 1934, being grilled by Saskatoon lawyer Harry Ludgate about her autopsy of an eight-year-old boy who had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a murder-double suicide attempt.

It was understandable that Ludgate would try to raise doubt about McGill’s findings, especially when he was defending the boy’s parents.  That’s why he spent more than an hour painstakingly going over the autopsy findings.

But Ludgate crossed the line when he asked McGill, “Are you sure this diagnosis was not arrived at by you before you left Regina?”

“Carbon monoxide was the cause of death without any doubt whatsoever,” the pathologist thundered in response.

McGill then explained how the “most deadly poison” bonded with oxygen in the blood. It would take only one per cent of the gas to kill a person. But in the boy’s case, she found a range of 25 to 40 per cent carbon monoxide in his blood, ten days after his death.

Dr. Frances Gertrude McGill was Canada’s first female forensic pathologist.

Born in Manitoba in 1877, McGill had lost both parents after they drank contaminated water at the 1900 Brandon County Fair. That experience probably influenced her decision to give up her career as a rural school teacher and to train as a doctor at the University of Manitoba.

Upon graduation, McGill interned at the Winnipeg provincial laboratory, where she developed her lifelong interest in pathology. In 1918, she moved to Regina to assume her new position as provincial bacteriologist for Saskatchewan — just in time to deal with the deadly Spanish flu epidemic.

She was also responsible for treating venereal disease, especially among returning First World War soldiers. Her office and lab were housed on the top floor of the Legislative building, while the animal cages had to be kept on the roof.

Four years later, in 1922, McGill was director of Saskatchewan laboratories and provincial pathologist. But her real calling was found the following year, when she began to assist the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in their criminal investigations.

The force would later name her Honorary Surgeon in recognition of her service.

McGill’s forensic work for the mounted police took her to all parts of the province to deal with puzzling, at times bizarre, deaths.  Sometimes circumstances were nothing short of distasteful, especially if the body had not been found before decomposition had set in.  But she invariably came up with an explanation that made sense of the crime scene.

If the case were particularly intriguing or unusual, she gave it a name — such as the Deserted Shack Murder, the Bran Muffin Case, or the Straw Stack Murders.

The police who worked alongside the pathologist marvelled at her seemingly tireless energy and her willingness to put aside her own work to help them whenever and wherever her services were needed. This kind of dedication made McGill popular with the force and she was affectionately known as “Doc.”

In fact, her work as a pathologist meant so much to her that she became annoyed when questioned about why she never married. She regarded it as sheer folly for a woman to abandon a rewarding career for a man.

Besides, she found happiness in the company of her small circle of friends and loved to cook for them and to play bridge. And whenever she got the chance, she would go horseback riding for hours outside Regina.

Dr. McGill’s uncanny ability to determine the cause of death made her a regular fixture at preliminary hearings, coroners’ inquests, and trials, where she dispensed her forensic findings in a no-nonsense fashion.

She had no patience for lawyers’ antics, especially if they called into question the scientific basis of her work, and could thrust and parry with the best of them.

During another murder trial, McGill’s report that the stains inside a man’s pocket were human blood came under intense scrutiny.  The defence attorney wondered how she could presume to be an expert on the contents of men’s pockets.

“Not at all,” McGill gamely replied, “I am not a member of the legal profession.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Dr. Frances McGill’s forensic work took her to all parts of Saskatchewan to deal with puzzling, at times bizarre, deaths. 

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers