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July 17, 2006

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Religious landmark stands test of time


In the forests of British Columbia lies hidden treasure built long ago by B.C.ís native people. In the tiny village of Skatin, an enclave of 60 people on the Skookumchuk reserve about 75 km southeast of Whistler, lies the Church of the Holy Cross.

Shelley Peters / Special to The B.C. Catholic

Msgr. Jerry Desmond welcomes people to the ďChurch in the Wilderness.Ē



Shelley Peters / Special to The B.C. Catholic

Msgr. Jerry Desmond performs one of six baptisms that took place at the Church of the Holy Cross.



Shelley Peters / Special to The B.C. Catholic
Yvonne Peters,M.A. Peters (Auntie Anne), Father John Tritschler, and Chief Pat Williams
flank the new plaque for the Church of the Holy Cross.

The gem, built a century ago by some of B.C.ís first Christians, is a building inspired by pictures of the Cathedrals of Chartres and St. Denis in France. It is so deep in the forest that the only way to get to the Church of the Holy Cross is over bumpy and dangerous logging roads originally carved out by prospectors on the gold rush to the Cariboo.

However, the logging roads havenít kept people from the church, and according to Shirley Wallace, who grew up with the church in her back yard, The Church of the Holy Cross is worth the trip.

"Itís really amazing that our parents and grandparents built something like this just from looking at photographs," she said. "Their handiwork was amazing; they were artists."

The Gothic-style church made of cedar, although it is a fixture in the community, is a shocking sight in the middle of the wilderness. Visitors marvel at the craftsmanship and effort put into the building and wonder how its builders were able to create such a magnificent and ornate structure with no architectural plans and only rudimentary tools.

Despite its solid construction, the church is showing significant signs of wear after a century of use, so Wallace, band counsellor for the Mount Currie Reserve for the past 22 years, is working with the Ama Liisaos Heritage Trust Society to restore the church to its former glory.

Wallace and the society plan to raise $300,000 to $500,000 over the next few years to stabilize the foundation and renovate the interior. The group also hopes that if it raises $80,000 this year, the federal and provincial governments will provide matching funds to preserve the historic church.

Wallace explained that the church building is one of the main lifelines people in the area have had to Rome for the past 100 years.

"Even though there was no priest living in the community, the people would still pray in the church, and around Christmas and Easter people went to church even though there was no priest."

The Ama Liisaos group is not only preserving the historic building, it is also preserving native history by publishing a book entitled Spirit in the Land: Our Place of Prayers. The book will tell the story of the community which uses the Church of the Holy Cross, as well as the stories of the original builders and their families.

It seems miraculous how the building, built by 17 people from the Skatin, Samahquam, and Douglas bands, has stood the test of time, and what an incredible amount of skill went into making it.

Although nature has abused the building, it is still resplendent with stained glass windows and amazingly detailed carvings. Despite its worn-down condition, the church is still used for weddings and baptisms, and is vital to the life of the small Skatin community.

"My mother was baptized there, received first Communion there, was confirmed there, was married there, and she just celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary there," said Wallace.

The Canadian government sees the church as vital to the fabric of the country; it officially recognized it as a national historic site in 1981. The building was also recently endowed with a bronze plaque in the Stíatíimc, English, and French languages to indicate it as an official historic landmark, and a prime religious treasure of Canada.

Father John Tritschler, Pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish in Hope, was at the unveiling ceremony of the plaque. He explained that people made good use of his presence.

"Msgr. Jerry (Desmond, pastor of Our Lady of the Mountains Parish in Whistler) and I had a feeling that there would be a baptism or two," said Father Tritschler. "When they (Skatin community members) heard there were baptisms they stepped forward, but we had more baptisms then we were prepared for." They ended up baptizing six people.

"In the area of Skookumchuck, the people donít have much opportunity for baptismal preparation. For them, it was either get baptized then, or wait until the next time a priest was around, which could be some months!"

"There was some confusion, sorting people out, figuring out who belonged to what family, but it was done in a lot of good will and a lot of love on the part of Msgr. Jerry toward the people."

Father Tritschler explained he saw Godís beauty both in the baptisms and in the church building.

"The inside of the church is quite beautiful," he said. "The most outstanding feature of the church is the three spires of the church, which are the attraction. You wonder how could there have been such a majestic church built in the wilderness with three spires like that."

"Itís a credit to the people."

"Itís just an awesome building," echoed Wallace. "We just replaced the roof to keep it dry inside, but there is still so much work to be done," she said.

"The artwork on the altars is really fantastic. I love the beauty of it, and how the people respected the church itself, the building, and all the things that have happened in there."

The church rests on hand-hewn timbers set on giant stones that were dragged from the Lillooet River; the timbers are so large it would be difficult to transport them by logging truck. During floods in 2003 these timbers shifted slightly, creating cracks in a number of places in the church, forcing the choir loft closed for safety reasons.

The damage to the church is significant, but judging from a statement from B.C.ís Heritage Trust, the trust thinks it is worth saving.

"Although the exterior presentation of the Church of the Holy Cross is impressive, it does not prepare the visitor for the highly ornate interior," it says. "Upon entrance, a feeling of disconnection with the exterior of the church may occur as the visitor is overwhelmed with articulate carving and elaborate decoration."

"They did that from their own skills," said Wallace; "no power tools, just hand tools. There was no electricity, and itís that way even today."

Initially, the concern was to preserve the elaborate hand carvings and stained glass inside the church, but now the focus is on the foundation and the structural integrity of the building.

"We donít want the building to fall down before we do," said Yvonne Peters, Shirley Wallaceís sister. "We are desperate. We are talking about everything, maybe even a mortgage on my house."

Shirley too knows the situation is difficult, but she has faith that things will work out, and that she can follow the shining work ethic of her ancestors.

"Our ancestors, they were the ones who built the church. They did it on their own: it was their own money, their own labour, their own expertise; they did it all on their own."

Donations to the Church of the Holy Cross restoration project can be made to the Ama Liisaos Heritage Trust Society, 33233 14th Ave., Mission, B.C. V2V 2P7. More information is available by e-mailing Copies of Spirit of the Land: Our Place of Prayer will be available in August at the Pilgrimage to the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine in Mission.


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