The old church in the cemetery across from Polo Park Shopping Centre is not just a quaint place to visit, it is also an important piece of Winnipeg’s (and Manitoba’s) history. It is from this church that the community developing around it took its name.
The Parish of St. James was founded June 17, 1851 when the Hudson Bay Company gave the Diocese of Rupert's Land a provisional land grant. The military pensioners, retired HBC personnel, and the next generation of the original Selkirk Settlers, who lived west of the junction of the two rivers ("The Forks"), had petitioned the Diocese to build a place of worship near them ... the 'Upper Church' (St John's Cathedral) was too far to travel to every Sunday. Early notes indicated that the land grant extended for seven miles along the Assiniboine River, but according to the maps it actually started four miles from the Forks, and it covered 284.4 acres.
The site of the church is reputedly near an ancient Indigenous Burial Ground. This spot was chosen because there was a ford nearby, allowing people living on the south side of the Assiniboine River to cross over, and it was recommended by the First Nations and Métis parishioners: this high point had never been flooded. In fact, during the great flood of 1852, settlers camped here to escape the waters, and the rectory that had already been built acted as a refuge for others. The original timbers were washed away, and new lumber had to be rafted down from Baie St. Paul (near Portage la Prairie), to be hand-hewn and fitted into place by volunteers from the parish. When the church had been built, and was ready for use (1855), the HBC gave the Diocese the Deed to the land.
Originally, there was a tower at the front of the church, but it was removed in 1871 due to structural problems with its foundation. During the ‘Riel Rebellion’ of 1869-70, it had been used as a Watch Tower from which riders could be seen approaching from Portage la Prairie to attempt to free Riel’s prisoners.
This original church served as the centre of parish life until November 26, 1922 when the new church opened. In 1936 the Heritage Church was condemned; annual services were held on the cemetery grounds to fulfill the spirit of the original land grant and to keep the ground as an ecclesiastic site. The City of St. James and the parish restored the building in 1967, as a Canadian Centennial project, and it was re-dedicated on June 21, 1967. ( For the many visitors who’ve been asking: restoration mainly involved the structure beneath the church, to make the foundation sound, as well as general repairs and appearance. The ceiling and the hardwood floors are ‘original’ in that they were added as improvements while the church was still in use, in Victorian times, probably around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries.)
The Heritage Church was designated a Provincial Heritage Site on June 25, 1978 (and again in 1998 as the government updated its system. In 2019, it was added to the Historical Resource list of the City of Winnipeg.
Heritage Church hosts our services every summer, welcoming visitors always. For our opening service, every second year, we dress in period clothing (see Brenda's photo below). In 2010, a talented group of volunteers started holding weekly Concerts in the Cemetery throughout the summer, and in 2011, we joined Doors Open Winnipeg for a weekend in May, winning the Hidden Treasure award! And we have celebrated our Indigenous–settler connection by holding an evening service on June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada.
Summer of 2020 was the first in 5 decades that our Heritage Church held no services ... spatial distancing would keep our parishioners and visitors safe, but the wooden pews are 130 years old, and the logs 165 ... we didn't know what sanitizer would do to their surfaces, so we had to keep our building safe, too! We're hoping to open for 2021 summer services.
An historical timeline for our parish and church can be seen here.
Our beloved log church is the oldest wooden church in western Canada that is still used for worship.
Also ... it was not built in the Red River frame construction method!
(These logs are stacked and held in place by a vertical log stud inside with a matching one outside ... the horizontal logs for the walls are sandwiched between the inner and outer studs.)