Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

St. B Cathedral towers over Manitoba history

  • Print
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

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Winnipeg Jets Bogosian-Little-Ladd

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • May 22, 2012 - 120522  - Westminster United Church photographed Tuesday May 22, 2012 .  John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press
  • JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Local- A large osprey lands in it's nest in a hydro pole on Hyw 59  near the Hillside Beach turnoff turn off. Osprey a large narrow winged hawk which can have a wingspan of over 54 inches are making a incredible recovery since pesticide use of the 1950's and  1960's- For the last two decades these fish hawks have been reappearing in the Lake Winnipeg area- Aug 03, 2005

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you support Canada's involvement in the fight against Islamic State?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google