Yesterday I mentioned St Mary’s Indian River, William Critchlow Harris’s gem of a church at Indian River near Malpeque on the North Shore of the Island. Built by the members of the congregation in 1902 it served the community until it was deconsecrated in 2009. During the 1970s-80s the church had deteriorated to a sorry state and neither the parish nor the diocese had the funds to make the necessary needed repairs and restoration work. The possibility of the church being torn down loomed and the thought of losing this historic and architectural treasure spurred Island folk and businesses to create a “Save St Mary’s” campaign in 1987.
Amongst the fund raising efforts was a series of Sunday Summer concerts in the church. The popularity of these concerts and the management of the programme itself became so enormous that the Indian River Festival Association was formed and incorporated in 1996. The Association is dedicated to the presentation of fine music at the Indian River Festival and to the upkeep and preservation of St Mary’s. The church was deconsecrated in 2009 and in 2010 the Association purchased the building and lands from the Diocese.
As well as the charming farmland setting and the beautiful exterior design, the church bears a Harris trademark – exceptional acoustics. As well as being an architect Harris was a musician – a violinist. He understood the use of woods and form to produce an interior that serves as the perfect setting for voices and instruments.
This year’s concert season is well under way and on Sunday we made our way up to Indian River to hear a choral and instrumental concert presented by the Festival and the PEI Symphony Orchestra. The chorus is amateur but under the direction of Kelsea McLean produces a sound that many professional choirs would envy. I was particularly struck by the men’s section – not always the strength of any amateur choral group.
Their central offering was Frostiana: Seven Country Songs. A cycle of poems by Robert Frost set by Randall Thompson which premiered October of 1959 in Amherst, Massachusetts where the poet made his home. Composed to commemorate the bicentennial of the town, Thompson had been urged to set The Gift Outright but found the piece was not appropriate to the occasion. He asked to be able to choose the texts himself and choose seven poems from Frost’s vast catalogue. Knowing that the male and female choruses rehearsed separately, he structured the work so that they sang together in only three of the seven movements. The other four movements are set for either male or female voices alone. Though perhaps a trifle lengthy for a Mercoledi Musicale I found it an interesting piece that I certainly wanted to hear again and wanted to share.
This performance comes from a concert by Harvard University Choir under the direction of Edward Elwyn Jones with Christian Lane accompanying. I’ve provided the time each movement begins in the video stream as well links to each of the poems should you wish to read them.
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.
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.
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.
The interior was left largely untouched by the reforms of Vatican II.
This reed organ, disguised as a pipe organ, was made in Woodstock, Ontario by the Thomas Company.
Made locally in wood the high altar reflects the Gothic style that was popular on the Island in earlier times.
The church retains much of its original decorations.
He was also kind enough to include two photos of the lovely stain glass along with a possible explanation of their iconography.
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.
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.
Telling the stories of the history of the port of Charlottetown and the marine heritage of Northumberland Strait on Canada's East Coast. Winner of the Heritage Award from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation and a Heritage Preservation Award from the City of Charlottetown