Pioneer churches of Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea, a new book from Liz Bryan. (Liz Bryan photograph)

Pioneer churches of Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea, a new book from Liz Bryan. (Liz Bryan photograph)

Author chronicles churches built by pioneers in the Salish Sea

B.C. author Liz Bryan preserving a little bit of pioneer history in her latest book

Pioneer churches hold memories, stories and “something of the spirit of their times,” Liz Bryan writes in her new book, Pioneer Churches of Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea.

The uncertainty many churches are facing inspired Bryan to collect their stories, drawing attention to what these buildings — many which still have active congregations — can tell us about the early communities who built them.

She acknowledges the violent history in Canada from Christian churches imposing their beliefs on Indigenous peoples.

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“This conflict, yet to be fully resolved and accounted for, is one sad result of colonization and its mission to make others exactly like ourselves,” she writes.

As she chronicled the pioneer churches on the Salish Sea, Bryan tried not to address actions of the missionaries, but focused on the pioneers who built churches for their own use, “with a simple desire to practise their own religion in the new communities they founded.”

It is nearly impossible to separate colonial strategy though. Many of the churches were founded by missionaries who also ran residential schools, and many of the pioneers were lured with promises of free Crown land, a.k.a. unceded Indigenous territory.

Her book is written as a sort of travel guide, including architectural descriptions and brief histories of each.

In the north Island, Bryan identified three pioneer churches: Christ Church in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, St. Olaf’s Anglican Church in Old Quatsino near Port Hardy, and St. Pius Catholic Church on Nootka Island off the western coast of Vancouver Island.

Christ Church was founded in 1892 by a missionary to Cormorant Island. Rev. Albert James Hall, arrived one year before the first residential school was built in Alert Bay n 1882. While Christ Church still offers services – in English and Kwak’wala – St. Michael’s residential school was demolished with ceremony in 2015 under the oversight of the ‘Namgis First Nation, who live on Cormorant Island. It stopped operating as a residential school in 1975.

In Old Quatsino, St. Olaf’s Anglican Church was established in 1896 by Norwegian and Swedish families who were recruited with promises of Crown land grants and financial incentives by the B.C. government. The families had been trying to homestead in flat, arid North Dakota, and were told at Chicago’s world fair in 1893 that Coal Harbour “had a climate and landscape similar to the fjords of their homeland.” The settlers established the community now known as Old Quatsino, reached by boat from Coal Harbour. The Quatsino First Nation reserve is nearby.

St. Pius Catholic Church was established in 1890 on Nootka Island, but the church building that remains was built in 1956. It’s not a Christian church anymore – it was ‘de-consecrated’ in the ‘90s. Nootka Island received missionaries as early as 1770, but they did not last. More arrived 100 years later, and built a church, which was destroyed in a fire and replaced with the current building. It remained, but the Christian beliefs have not.

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“Rather than being demolished, as one might have expected of a rejected symbol of Christian belief, the building has been accepted by the Mowachaht/Muchalaht people as a piece of their history, too. Inside the church, far older spiritual symbols are superimposed on the Christian presence, and the building will soon become part of a planned new cultural centre.”

Byran’s book was published by Heritage House in 2020.

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