Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

St. B Cathedral towers over Manitoba history

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Just a few weeks ago, one of the most historic cemeteries in Winnipeg was vandalized. Undoubtedly, those responsible did not appreciate or respect the sanctity or the history of what lay upon those grounds.

It was almost 200 years ago in November of 1818 when the very first church in the Winnipeg region went up on the east banks of the Red River, the historic site of St. Boniface Cathedral. In all, this site has been home to six churches.

The population of the Red River settlement was only a little over 200 people in the fall of 1817. In 1818, swarms of grasshoppers descended on the strip farms along the Red River, resulting in the farmlands producing virtually nothing for two years. Survival was difficult in this isolated community, a wilderness actually, save for about 150 Scottish settlers, 45 de Meurons, and about 26 French-Canadians and aboriginals.

This was the settlement that awaited Father Joseph-Norbert Provencher when he arrived from Quebec in the summer of 1818 to provide for the spiritual needs of the Catholics. A large man, standing six-feet-four inches tall, he arrived at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers by canoe and soon recruited workers to build a small log chapel. This chapel was dedicated to St. Boniface, the English missionary monk who spread the Catholic faith throughout Germany and France in the 8th century. It was the first mission west of the Great Lakes.

This little log structure was replaced soon after by a larger building and when Provencher became a bishop in 1822, his church became a cathedral.

In 1832, a third church with twin spires was built by Bishop Provencher to serve the growing community. According to a census taken in Red River at this time, there were about 2,751 people -- over 1,500 of whom were Roman Catholic.

The community grieved when this church burned to the ground in December of 1860. A pot of melting buffalo tallow meant for Christmas candles had boiled over and the flames from the grease had swept through the bishop's quarters, the cathedral and other adjoining buildings.

Replacing the former church, a more modest stone cathedral was built in 1862 under the direction of Bishop Taché, who became the second bishop of St. Boniface in 1854, a year after Bishop Provencher died.

A fifth structure, an even larger stone cathedral, was built on the site in order to meet the needs of the growing French community in 1905 and was completed in 1908. Archbishop Langevin blessed the cornerstone of what soon became a magnificent landmark in the western prairies. Designed by the Montreal architectural firm of Marchand and Haskell, it was an impressive example of French Romanesque architecture, known as the St. Boniface Basilica. The bells of St. Boniface, which had been ringing out over the Prairies since 1840, were reinstalled in this church and rang once again but, sadly, not for long.

This striking cathedral also was shockingly destroyed by flames on July 22, 1968. Shortly after a crew of workers had stopped for a break while working on repairs to the cathedral's twin towers and roof, flames were observed shooting from the roof of the cathedral. Reportedly, the church was gone in less than an hour, leaving only the front and an outside shell.

It was a terrible loss for the St. Boniface community as very few items survived the flames. And, sorrowfully, the once historic bells of the cathedral were also damaged beyond any repair.

Reconstruction work on the sixth and present St. Boniface Cathedral began in the early 1970s with local Franco-Manitoban Etienne Gaboury as the architect. Built within the ruins, its design includes the sacristy, façade and walls of the former basilica.

It is much smaller than the 1908 church but is still able to seat 1,000 parishioners. Within the façade lie the tombs of the bishops and priests of St. Boniface, J.N. Provencher, A.A. Taché and L.P.A. Langevin.

Buried here in Western Canada's oldest Catholic cemetery are many of Manitoba's key historic figures such as Louis Riel, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, Marie-Anne Lagimodière as well as the graves of family members of the popular St. Boniface writer Gabrielle Roy.

The Grey Nuns who arrived to aid Bishop Provencher and Taché and to do great work in the 1840s occupied a house alongside the site and their long white log house is now a museum and the oldest occupied house in Winnipeg.

The present site of the St. Boniface Cathedral built within its imposing ruins is one of the most historic landmarks in Winnipeg and attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2009 H13

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