If you’ve ever shopped at Polo Park Mall or taken the bus down Portage Avenue, you may have noticed a moderately sized old cemetery and the small, quaint St. James Church on the south side of Portage across from the mall. Crowds of people mill about at the busy bus stop across from the mall. Hoard of cars stop at the traffic light, just at the corner of the cemetery. But few, it seems venture into the quiet of the shady churchyard.
St. James Church: An Important Historical Church
The old church there is actually an important part of Manitoba history. In fact, it is the oldest surviving wooden church in western Canada. The whole community of St. James, just west of the mall, takes its name from this church. The church itself is the blue print for many of the churches built here afterwards. The first of its type, it exemplifies the formal Gothic Revival style.
A congregation formed in this area on the Assiniboine River about 1849 as settlers began to move west from the Red River Settlement at the Forks. On June 17, 1851, the Hudson’s Bay Company gave a provisional grant to the settlers allowing them to found the Parish of St. James, which was to serve settlers, military pensioners, and retired HBC personnel who lived in the area. The land was four miles west from The Forks along the Assiniboine River and consisted of 284.4 acres of land. The inhabitants chose the spot because it was near an old Aboriginal Burial Ground and served as an important meeting place.
The interior of St. James Church features hand-hewn log walls, original buffalo-fur kneelers, and stained glass windows.
Another plus, residents south of the river had access across the nearby ford so they could get across the river to the church. In addition, the land never suffered from flooding. People actually took refuge here during the great Flood of 1852, many staying in the rectory, which had already been built. Unfortunately, the original timbers for the church got washed away in the flood and new ones had to be shipped up from Baie-St. Paul in Minnesota. All the timbers for the church were hand hewn and fitted together by the parish residents. You can still see these original timbers in the inside of the church.
A tower that used to top the church at the front, but it had to be taken down 1871 due to structural concerns. The church also served as a watch tower during the Riel Rebellion of 1869-70.
The parishioners attended the historic church and it served as the centre of parish life until November 26, 1922. The old church was becoming structurally unsound and the parish built a new church west of the site. Unfortunately, in 1936 the church was condemned. However, because of the terms of the original land grant, as well as to keep the church an ecclesiastical site, annual services were held in the cemetery from that time onward.
In a fortunate turn of events, in 1967 it was resurrected as a Canada Centennial project and rededicated on June 21, 1967. The foundation beneath the floor was shored up and made sound again and general repairs were made. And on June 25, 1978, the provincial government designated the old church as a Provincial Heritage Site.
Parishioners still used St. James Anglican Church for services during the summer, plus a number of concerts and other activities.
It is a wonderful place to spend a quiet afternoon, if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle around the Polo Park Mall shopping area.