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.