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St. Charles Mission: The Art of Log Construction

by Dorothy Field

Ce texte a été publié en anglais et n'est pas disponible en français.

St. Charles Mission, with the rectory in the foreground, and the church to the left. The mission was founded at Dunvegan in 1867, by Father Christophe Tissier, of the Oblates. Photographed in 1899.

With modern methods and machinery, builders can erect them with speed. The logs have all been hewn, pre-assembled and coded, then dismantled and shipped to their final destination. Like giant tinker toys, they can then be put together again almost magically and instantly in their proper configuration. Now anyone can have a frontier fantasy - without the backache.

St. Charles Mission Church (restored). Led by the efforts of Father Grouard (whose contributions included the interior iconography) and Father Husson, construction of this church was completed in 1887.Such was not the case for Alberta's pioneers. They had no chain-saws, front-end loaders, or logging trucks to ease their labour. To erect a log building of significant dimensions or complexity could extend over several seasons or even years. Everything had to be accomplished with hand tools. For our hardy pioneers, the list of all-important tasks included felling the trees, hewing and sawing them, then shaping and notching the logs. Some lucky builders could count on the assistance of draft animals to haul and lift the logs, but for many it was a simple case of their own human muscle power to get the job done.

The Roman Catholic Mission Church of St. Charles at Historic Dunvegan, one of Alberta's earliest fur trade posts and missionary centers, is a fine example of a 19th century log building. The church - by no means a large or elaborate building - took over a year to complete. In the fall of 1883, the two resident priests, Fathers Grouard and Husson, felled the trees needed for the building and rafted them down the Peace River to the construction site. They spent the following winter squaring and sawing the logs and competed some of the assembly in the summer of 1884. Slow drying timber delayed the completion of the church until 1885.

Interior view, St Charles Mission Church, DunveganThe finished structure is 40 by 25 feet, with a 10 foot extension to house at the altar at one end. The logs are roughly square in cross-section, with no two being exactly the same. They are all carefully shaped to nest precisely with their neighbours. The corners of the building are secured with half dovetail notches - just one of over a dozen log construction techniques - which you can recognize by the distinctive slope of the upper edge of the otherwise square ends of the logs. This method of notching makes the structure very sturdy. Witness the fact that this church was still standing in the mid-1950s even after almost half a century of neglect.

Altar at the St. Charles Mission Church. Note the iconography, originally painted by Father Grouard.People tend to give Father Husson greater credit for the construction of the church because of his skill as a carpenter. However, no one should discount Father Grouard's role. Stencilled decoration embellishes the interior of the building and a striking painting, done on moosehide, of Christ on the cross, hangs over the altar. Father Grouard created these works. As well, it is not too fanciful to see the influence of his artistic eye in the pleasing proportions of the log church.

The builders of the St. Charles church were of French origin, but Alberta pioneers from a variety of backgrounds built in log: Ukrainians, Norwegians, and Scots, to name a few of the groups best known for their skills with this building style. So, next time you go exploring in The rectory at St. Charles Mission, Fort Dunvegan northern Alberta - or any part of the province, for that matter - stop at some of the early log buildings. Though often little more than picturesque ruins, they are still worth a second look. The artistry of their construction speaks volumes about the pioneers who created them.

Dorothy Field, MSc., is Head of the Heritage Inventory Program at Alberta Community Development, Historic Sites Service. She received her Master's Degree in Architectural History in 1986 from the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning, University College London, England.

Reprinted with kind permission of Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine and Dorothy Field.

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