Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Houses of the holy

Travelling photo exhibit features Prairie churches

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For a self-described non-believer, Winnipeg photographer Tyrrell Mendis has deep faith in the power of photography.

He also believes that his collection of 724 photographs of Manitoba's houses of worship is a witness to the province's spiritual as well as architectural history.

"It's nothing to do with religion," the Wolseley-area resident says of his nearly three-decade-long weekend hobby of travelling Manitoba's back roads to photograph more than 700 houses of worship.

"It's a question of preserving and sharing what is going to be lost."

Four-dozen of those photographs of Prairie churches are now on display until March 29 at the Pavilion Gallery Museum in Assiniboine Park, the last scheduled stop for this three-year-old travelling exhibit.

Mendis, 74, and his wife Doreen, a faithful attender at Winnipeg's Holy Trinity Anglican, have spent hundreds of weekends racking up the kilometres on their 1999 Chevy Venture van in order to capture the images of far-flung churches.

Shooting with colour slide film in his 35 mm Minolta camera, the retired provincial civil servant has created a visual record of both humble and huge churches, choosing to photograph buildings constructed before 1930, with a few exceptions.

"Some of them are old and falling apart. I took (pictures) because I knew I would not see them again," says Mendis, born in Sri Lanka to a Buddhist mother and a Christian father.

With photographs dating back to the early 1980s, he knows that a significant number of those buildings are no longer used for worship, and may even have been demolished, although he hasn't kept a record of closures. Many of the buildings in the exhibit are designated heritage buildings, and based on the province's list, Mendis estimates he has another 300 churches to capture on film.

That impermanence of these houses of worship is what motivates the longtime photographer to get the best possible shot when he's on location, no matter what the weather or light. His experience of visiting the St. Boniface Cathedral shortly after he arrived in Winnipeg 41 years ago has strengthened his resolve to record what he sees through the lens.

"I went to the grounds of the cathedral and it was a hot day," he recalls of taking photographs of the grand limestone basilica on July 22, 1968. "I said to myself, 'Why am I doing this? I can come back.' That night it burned."

A shot of the cathedral ruins is included in Mendis's exhibit, titled Testaments of Faith: Manitoba's Pioneer Churches. But many of the buildings aren't nearly as grand, instead depicting small frame or stone churches, built by the faithful who settled farming communities and small towns all over the province.

A plain, weathered-frame Roman Catholic church in Churchill is the most northerly building in the exhibit, which also features large and small domed houses of worship such as tiny St. Michael's Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Gardenton, a Russian Orthodox church in Sifton and Dauphin's grand Church of the Resurrection Ukrainian Catholic.

After decades of photographing sacred spaces all over Manitoba, Mendis is ready to pass on his large collection to an appropriate place, where it can be appreciated by the public.

"I certainly would like to give it away to someone," says Mendis, adding a university has expressed interest in acquiring the collection for its archives. "This is not a money-making project. I've spent a lot of money (on it.)"

Mendis does sell the framed prints for $300 or unframed photographs for $40.

Although he's rarely ventured inside the churches he's photographed, Mendis has come to some conclusions about the faithful who do worship there.

"I think the local people are very connected to their churches," he says. "Sometimes they are torn between maintaining a building for very few people and trying to keep a congregation going."

That's a dilemma familiar to Rev. Cathy Campbell, priest of the inner-city St. Matthew's Anglican Church. The huge brick building already houses community groups in its basement and for the past two years, the congregation has been making plans to reconfigure its huge worship space into 24 low-cost apartments in order to be good stewards of the building. She says the congregation at the corner of St. Matthews Avenue and Maryland Street is waiting to hear whether government funds will be available for the project.

"Our built environments shape us," says Campbell of why sacred spaces carry meaning for people of faith and the larger community. "They can squeeze us into tight little places and stress us out and they can give us a sense of the transcendent through beauty, through space, through the shaping of space."

brenda@suderman.com

More on Mendis

Check out the photographs in the Testaments of Faith exhibit at www.impressionists.ca

Meet photographer Tyrrell Mendis at the Pavilion Gallery, 2 to 4:30 p.m., March 22 and March 29

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2009 a9

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