Get Me to the Church

Many visitors remark on the number of churches that are in both town and country here on the Island.  In sight of our home in the historic core of Charlottetown there are six:  St Dunstan’s Roman Catholic Basilica,  Zion Presbyterian, St Paul’s Anglican, Trinity United, First Baptist, the Salvation Army Hall, and the local mosque is only five blocks away.  As you drive out of town you encounter more churches – some are modern buildings but most are older wooden edifices that reflect earlier times on the Island.

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Indian River:  William Critchlow Harris’s rural gem was deconsecrated but saved from destruction through the efforts of the Indian River Festival.  The remarkable acoustics make it the perfect venue for the Festival’s summer performances.

A ride along the main highways or down country roads will reveal white clapboard churches with brightly trimmed steeples on hill tops and in secluded valleys.  In town you are more likely to see the red Island sandstone as the frequent building material chose by architects such as William Critchlow Harris., though one of his most beautiful churches – to my mind – is the timber-framed St Mary’s Indian River.

One of the more intriguing churches is located on a hill top on Highway #2 as you approach the town of Kennsington.  The tower can be seen from several kilometres away as the road dips and curves around the red, yellow and green landscape.  The first time I saw it I had a flash back to those trips through the Italian countryside that we made on Sunday afternoons or on holiday during Feragosto.  As we got closer I was puzzled as it also brought back memories of walking the streets in Trastevere – here was a strange mixture of the baroque, neo-Classical, and Palladian that was seen in many Roman churches … but in white clapboard on a hilltop surrounded by fields in PEI.  I became fascinated by what seemed like quite the anomaly in the country side of our Island province.

St James Roman Catholic Church, Summerfield – built in 1928.

Unfortunately I was unable to find much information on the internet; in his The Historic Churches of Prince Edward Island H. M. Scott Smith devotes less than a full sentence to St James Roman Catholic Church, Summerfield.  From a stop to take a closer look I knew that it was consecrated in 1928 but could not find the name of the imaginative architect(s?) who melded these styles to create the unusual facade that reminded me so much of Italy.

Several people suggest that I contact Reginald Porter, a well-known Island historian and lecturer, all assuring me that if anyone would know about it he would.  Fortunately he and Laurent are acquainted and within an hour or two of dashing off an email Laurent received a reply, several pictures of the interior, and a good bit of the history of the church.  I will quote and paraphrase from him, with his permission, liberally to piece together a bit of the history of this structure.

(A left click on the images below will take you to a slideshow of various aspects of the church exterior.)

On the church design in general Reg writes:

In the the post-war period and the 1920s a number of churches were built on the Island with strong classical design elements from Roman churches encompassing the Early Baroque to the Neo-classicism of Valadier.  These were found at Mount Ryan, Egmont Bay, Hope River and Summerfield.

In the early 1800s the largely Roman Catholic Irish settlers in the area of Summerfield had no church of their own; anyone who wished to receive the holy sacraments had to make the 20 kilometre journey to Indian River.  In the mid-1860s as settlement expanded a mission church, dedicated to the Holy Magi, was built to see to the needs of the local faithful.  In 1918 Summerfield was granted Parish status and the parishioners (no doubt with the urging of their priest) pressed the need for a larger structure more appropriate to their status.  Dedicated to the Apostle James it was built in 1928 and consecrated in 1929.  Though I am only guessing it appears that it has almost returned to a mission status church in union with St Mary’s Holy Family Church in Kensington.  As best as I can tell the congregation of St Mary’s Indian River amalgamated with Holy Family when the church was deconsecrated in 2009.

There is only one mass a week – Sunday’s at 1030 – and at all other times the church is locked and bolted.  Fortunately Reg was able to visit it at one point and had some photos of the interior.

Of that design he says:

The interior tries to be classical.  There are three altars, built locally of wood and incorporating classical details in the framework used for earlier Gothic altars found all over the Island.  At times it looks very odd.  The wooden ornamental details are quite crude.

There is some good and interesting stained glass as well as a classically-styled Stations of the Cross set.  The terrible destructions following Vatican II never hit this church and so they still have all their original altar decorations and fittings, as well as some old vestments.


He was also kind enough to include two photos of the lovely stain glass along with a possible explanation of their iconography.

St James Strained 1

There is a possibility that this memorial window depicts one of the many apparitions of Christ to St Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1672 that led to the institution of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

St James Stained Glass 2
The grotto in this window suggests that it commemorates one of the eighteen Visitations of “small young lady” who appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 and asked that a chapel be built on the spot.   The grotto lay well outside the town of Lourdes, on common ground which was used by the villagers variously for pasturing animals, collecting firewood, and as a garbage dump, and it had a reputation for being an unpleasant place.  It was to become one of the most visited pilgrimage shrines in Catholic Christendom.

Again I want to thank Reg Porter for the information and the photos he so kindly supplied.  I am hoping at some point to be able to get into the church and have a closer look at the interior and perhaps even find out the answer to the question that sent me on my search to begin with:  who designed this lovely reminder of the hills of the Italian countryside and the piazzas of Rome.

On this day in 1405: Ming admiral Zheng He sets sail to explore the world for the first time.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

4 thoughts on “Get Me to the Church”

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