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Fort Chipewyan's Venerable Churches

By Libby Gunn

Fort Chipewyan\'s Venerable Churches.

The large white Catholic Church, set off by itself and flanked by lush green fields, overlooked the lake with an imposing countenance. The tiny Anglican church and school house also fronted the lake, but they were tucked between two buildings, the little church spire hardly taller than the two-storey house next door.

Established in 1788, Fort Chipewyan is Alberta's oldest Euro-Canadian community, and the churches and one school are three of the oldest buildings still standing and in use in the province. "These . . . buildings are very important," says Gary Chen, a preservation advisor with Alberta Community Development. The churches were built in the early mission styles and modified only slightly, so their historical integrity is very high. A long list of people influential in Alberta's development including Bishop Emile Grouard, have been associated with the missions.

Until railways and roads replaced waterways as the main transportation corridors, Fort Chipewyan was the service centre for anyone venturing north or west; goods bound for northern missions were also shipped through the community. And for over 100 years, Fort Chip was the centre of the lucrative Athabasca fur trade region. It was so critical that rival fur trade companies even resorted to arson, hostage-taking, and gunfire. But many Albertans have never heard of Fort Chipewyan, and few have seen its churches.

Exterior of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church.

Despite Fort Chipewyan's rich history, most of its historic buildings were demolished, says Oliver Glanfield, president of the local historical society and husband of the Anglican priest, Marjorie Glanfield. The last of the Hudson's Bay Company buildings was torn down in1964. Recognizing that without urgent and costly conservation work their churches could meet the same fate, Glanfield and others in Fort Chipewyan have worked hard to galvanize both the province and the community into action.

Slowly, the rewards are accruing. The historic and architectural significance of both churches is officially recognized and protected. In 1998 the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church was designated a Provincial Historic Resource, followed in 2001 by St. Paul the Apostle Anglican Church, day school, and cemetery-the furthest north of approximately 200 Provincial Historic Resources. This designation confers the Province's highest level of protection-but more importantly, the sites are now eligible for up to $75,000 in matching funds from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation (AHRF) over a five-year period.

In September 1847, the first Roman Catholic priest in the region, the Oblate Father Taché, debarked from his canoe at Fort Chipewyan. Three days later he said Mass. The following year he chose a site for a mission community-with an eye to the need for a large garden. Taché recognized that the best soil in this rocky land was at the bottom of a shallow lake. In 1851, the resident priest, Father Faraud cut trees for a church, hauling the log with the help of four goats. He then drained the small lake and planted a garden. The church thus became one of the first Roman Catholic missions west of St. Boniface, Manitoba.

Interior of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church.

The huge Anglican Diocese of Athabasca, stretching from Lesser Slave Lake to the Arctic and into western Alaska, was established in 1874. The same year, Bishop Grouard-who had moved to Fort Chip in 1862-dispatched two Grey Nuns from Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, to Fort Chipewyan to start the Holy Angels convent and residential school, which the Grey Nuns ran for the next 100 years. With the help of local people, the Catholic missionaries planted large gardens, harvested hay, put up over 30,000 fish each fall, ran a sawmill, and cut hundreds of cords of firewood.

They also printed prayer and hymn books in Cree and Chipewyan syllables on a printing press that Father Grouard brought from France. "For many years, there would be a priest for the Chipewyan who would speak their language, and one for the Cree who would speak their language, too," says Father Francois Cueff, who lived in Fort Chipewyan from 1963 to 1981, and 1989 to1995, and still conducts monthly services there. Cueff himself speaks both languages, but today only a small part of the service is in Cree and Chipewyan.

The current Roman Catholic church, completed in 1909, is the third and largest on the site. Its semi-circular windows and door transom are typical of the Northern French Canadian Oblate Mission style. Grouard, who had become Bishop in 1873, designated it as his Cathedral, but in 1902 the seat of the Bishop moved to Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. The church seats about 200-but until the 1950s it had no benches. "Before, the people were sitting on the floor-that was what they were doing in their tents," explains Cueff.

Stained glass window in St. Paul the Apostle Anglican Church.

Inside, the soaring vaulted ceiling is painted a deep celestial blue, dotted with small gold stars and angel medallions. To make deep red and purple "paint," the priests and nuns crushed cranberries and blueberries, then mixed the Juice with fish oil. Cree and Chipewyan syllabics frame the painting of the Crucifixion, and Father Cueff points out that the Virgin Mary has the features of an Indian woman. On the wall, a 1910 painting by Sister Dufaud depicts a York boat-long associated with the fur trade-in a storm. Chen calls the paintings "treasures" Bishop Grouard did many of the paintings, including the Crucifixion, which he painted in 1894 for the second church.

For decades, the church was heated by a wood stove and lit with smoky candles. "In '64 we cleaned the big picture of the Crucifixion," remembers Cueff. "It was all dark, you couldn't see the colour with all the smoke . . . it was a revelation for us when we did it." After the altar was moved in1964 so the priest could face his congregation, plywood was nailed over many of the paintings to maintain the symmetry of the ornamentation. This protected them inadvertently, says Chen. Indeed, lay preacher Elsie Yanik remembers once arriving early to make sure the cranky oil-burning stove had warmed the church enough for a funeral service. "When I got there everything was black, covered with soot," she says.

Jessie Ann Laviolette, a member of the new parish council, removed some of the plywood last fall. Exposing the paintings for the first time in almost 40 years, she had her own revelation. Now 47 years old, she hadn't seen the paintings since she was a child. "I was totally in awe. I'd forgotten. . . . I can't express how I felt," she said.

There has been no resident Catholic priest since 1995, when the Church trained Métis elder Yanik, along with other local women, to perform many of the priest's duties. Although timid at first, Yanik has conducted dozens of funerals, baptisms, marriages, and regular Sunday services. After open-heart surgery at 82, she finally moved to Fort McMurray, but returned last winter, at 84, to conduct three funerals. Laviolette and others have continued the work. In 1874 teacher Alfred Garrioch built a little Anglican day school in Fort Chipewyan. He laid squared logs horizontally between mortised posts in a method called pièce-sur-pièce, or Red River frame, construction. The school is a rare example of this style in Alberta. The school was attended by children of the Hudson's Bay Company workers, most of whom were from the Orkney Islands in Great Britain, although a few were English-speaking Métis. Most Métis were French-speaking Roman Catholics, and held lower-ranking positions in the fur trade.

In 1880, missionaries and fur traders completed St. Paul's Anglican church, also in the Red River frame style. Although it was likely built by William Wylie Sr., an Orkneyman, the church shows evidence of French Canadian influence in the tall narrow proportions, pointed nave windows, and round oeil-de-boeuf  window. These elements are typical of both Anglican and Roman Catholic mission churches built in the late 1800s.

Detail of painting in the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church.

St. Paul's played a key role in the development of the Anglican Church in Alberta. The Right Reverend John Clarke, Bishop of the Athabasca Diocese, explains: "It has some very real historic significance. Alberta developed from the north, south. And the church developed in the same way. St. Paul's in Fort Chipewyan is what we call the mother church . . . . It was from that church that people were sent to other communities, the gospel was preached, and church communities were planted." From 1912 to 1926 it was a pro- Cathedral (the seat of the Bishop). "It does have the most beautiful Episcopal chair I've ever seen," says Clarke.

St. Paul's never became a Cathedral, however. The Canadian Pacific Railway was reaching west, and a web of northern rail routes would soon develop. Then, in 1899, the Hudson's Bay amalgamated its northwestern districts under an Edmonton office. The transportation and administrative hubs had moved south. An Historic Sites paper sums up the impact: "Fort Chipewyan entered the 20th century merely as one of many northern outposts facing the prospect of diminishing fur returns."

There has even been talk of closing the church, but the congregation is dedicated, if tiny. "I recognized in Marjorie the gifts of leadership right from the first time I saw her," says Bishop Clarke. Marjorie Glanfield, now 63, was at first intimidated by her role as Anglican priest of St. Paul's.

"I found it hard to preach a sermon to the congregation because I felt like everybody knew me . . . everybody knows all about me." Now Glanfield loves her calling. When they gather on Sunday, she says, "We sing. We sing without music, just whatever we know and sometimes we don't sing the right tune, but that's ok . . . . We have an organ in the church but no one plays it"

A few years ago, St. Paul's was literally falling down. The bell tower was so unstable the congregation was afraid to ring the bell. "The floor had gone in the sanctuary . . . and the roof had a sway back to it," says Bishop Clarke. He doesn't mention the carpenter ant infestation or the broken stained-glass windows.

The Catholic church was in sad shape, too. The basement dug out of the lake sediment in the 1950s was flooding repeatedly. A 1993 technical report recommended a vapour barrier, insulation, and structural work to preserve the interior paintings, but first all the wiring had to be redone. Then in 1997 a provincial preservation advisor warned that, if the church was not heated continuously, "the painting by Bishop Grouard could be permanently damaged." Moreover, the foundations and interior paintings could be so damaged that the small community would be unable to bear the repair costs. "This could result in the buildings being demolished."

Yet getting formal recognition of Fort Chip's historic treasures, and money to maintain them, has meant many hours of often frustrating work for locals. Grant applications are time-consuming. The local museum does not have Internet, and its photocopier could be an exhibit. Access to heritage advisors and conservators to guide construction work is a problem. It costs 40 cents a pound to fly in anything from a loaf of bread to a bag of cement#8212;and the price just dropped from 60 cents. Freight on the winter road costs 23 cents a pound.

If the churches were in southern Alberta, they might attract more attention; Alberta Community Development acknowledges that distance has been a problem. Chen and his colleagues credit the local community, and Glanfield in particular, with keeping the churches in their field of view. "Oliver Glanfield has been the driving force for all these initiatives," says Monika McNabb, who handles funding for AHRF. He "deserves a great deal of recognition for his role and dedication to heritage preservation in Fort Chip" Bishop Clarke concurs. "The thing that has always impressed me about Fort Chipewyan-and I really mean this is the care that they have shown traditionally toward their churches."

The care is paying off. "The group there has done a very good job," acknowledges Chen. "We try to get them what they ask for" AHRF has approved matching funds of $36,700 for St. Paul's since 1997. The Anglican Foundation donated $10,000, the Madge Hogarth Foundation gave $7,500, and the local Anglican congregation itself raised almost $10,000. In 2000, AHRF gave the Catholic church $1,600 for an engineering study, and this year it will get $14,000 for foundation repair.

This is just a start. Laviolette says support is swelling: the regular congregation at the Catholic church has gone from about 10 to about 30 people in the last year, and they are selling plaques and holding raffles to fund more conservation work. "Over there on the Roman Catholic church they're going great guns," agrees Marjorie Glanfield, and says St. Paul's is also pushing forward. Perhaps Bishop Clarke summed it up best after visiting Fort Chipewyan in August 2000: "Instead of looking rather desperate as it once did, the church now stands tall and square, a real symbol of hope to the community it serves" *

Libby Gunn is a freelance writer who spent 18 months in Fort Chipewyan.

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