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The facts and people in this Manitoba legislature mystery are real; the events have been brought to life by writers Carolin Vesely and Buzz Currie.
In this, the ninth chapter of a special two-week series, Winnipeg scholar Frank Albo reveals the Ark of the Covenant to Carolin.

Chapter 9

THE Ark of the Covenant, Frank had told me, was hidden in plain view.

But as far as I could tell, there was no sign of it in the lieutenant-governor's reception suite. Frank had showed me that its dimensions were precisely the same as the Holy of Holies in Solomon's temple -- 20 cubits by 20 cubits. But he had agreed that without the Ark, it was just another square room.

And now he pretended not to notice that I was looking in every corner for the hidden Ark.

"Note the blue curtain, too," Frank was saying. "The Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the temple by an elaborately woven blue veil. Solomon's Holy of Holies was a windowless enclosure, and this room has a window, but if you pull the draperies, it's dark and exclusive, too. The reception suite is kept conspicuously dark."

I picked up Frank's Bible from the lieutenant-governor's desk and opened it to the same place where Frank had been reading.

I read verse 19 again. Out loud. "(19) And the oracle he prepared in the house within, to set there the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD."

The Ark, I knew -- mostly from watching the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark -- was the box that held the tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments Moses had brought down from Mount Sinai. The children of Israel had carried the Ark with them on their sojourn through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Solomon built the temple to house the Ark -- it was the symbol of the presence of God among the Israelites. Without the Ark, there was no purpose for the Holy of Holies.

But in the lieutenant-governor's reception room, the place Frank was trying to convince me was Frank Worthington Simon's representation of the heart of Solomon's temple, there was no box or container, let alone the two huge cherubims that 1 Kings said were fashioned to stand guard over the ark.

"There's no Ark of the Covenant here, Frank," I finally said.

"No, it's not here," he admitted. And then he broke out in a broad smile and pointed to the ceiling. "It's on the roof."

There was a sharp knock on the door and it swung open. It was a security guard. "Oh, it's you," he said, looking at Frank. "Listen, you have to leave the room. We've been cutting some corners for you, but you know the rule -- nobody is to set foot on this carpet."

"It's OK," Frank said. "We were on our way anyhow."

I followed Frank down the staircase and out the nearest exit, the east door. "It's up there," he said vaguely, "but give me half an hour. I've got to go back to my room and pick up my binoculars. It's best seen from back a ways, but we want a close look."

I was dying to know about the Ark, but it was obvious Frank was going to show me, not tell me, where Simon had hidden it.

"OK," I said. "Let's meet in the Village in 45 minutes and you can give me the preamble. You know that coffee shop on the corner of River and Osborne? The Second Cup?" Frank said he did.

He took the walkway to Kennedy Street on the east side of the grounds and marched purposefully up to Broadway. I had more time, and I took it, strolling across Assiniboine Avenue to Louis Riel's statue and then over to the Osborne Bridge.

With its highrise apartments and shops, Osborne Village is Winnipeg's densest -- and hippest -- neighbourhood, full of young professionals, rich seniors and some of the city's most creative panhandlers. I walked south on Osborne, stopping to peer into the funky shop window displays before heading back for my meeting with Frank. When I returned to the coffee shop, he was waiting for me, a binocular case around his neck.

We settled in the shade of the patio with our cappuccinos. Frank stretched out in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. It was the most relaxed I'd seen him since we met, so I seized the opportunity to ask some really nosy questions.

How did a U of W undergrad gain free run of Manitoba's legislature?

"Hey, it's a long story," he said, "but not nearly as complicated as the Fibonacci series."

That's a relief, I thought.

Frank explained that his University of Winnipeg professor loved his paper about the sacred marriage between Hermes and Ishtar -- the one he'd been pondering when his eyes first fell on those rooftop sphinxes. She arranged for him to give the class a tour on the last day of the course. The paper circulated among the U of W's anthropology department and created quite a buzz.

Shortly after that, he left for the University of Toronto to take a master's degree in Near Eastern religions and languages.

He was halfway through his second year at U of T when he got a phone call from Manitoba Premier Gary Doer, inviting him back to Winnipeg.

"So, I hear you think my building is haunted," was the first thing Doer said when Albo walked into his office.

"No, not quite," Albo told him. "Not haunted. But it is a treasure house of mysteries. Sir, the White House has nothing on you."

Their meeting ended with Doer turning to his secretary and saying: "OK, we have to find this kid some money."

The Manitoba government gave Albo a grant to continue his research on the building. Local Masons got wind of his findings and he soon found himself acting as an unofficial tour guide. Best of all, it gave him access to a building that had become, if not an obsession, at least the principal focus of his academic life.

He even recalled leaping out of bed one night and out the Fort Garry Hotel's front door to sprint over to the legislative grounds -- in his pyjamas and carrying a flashlight -- just to check out an inscription on one of its statues.

One name, he'd noticed, just didn't seem to fit with the others on the grounds. It was British Maj.-Gen. James Wolfe, most noted for his capture of Quebec during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, which led to British supremacy in Canada.

"I thought he was out of place," Frank recalled, "because he has no direct association with Manitoba, unlike LaVerendrye, Lord Selkirk, Lord Dufferin and Cartier. So there I was, three in the morning, bent over Wolfe, flashlight in hand, my face practically pressed into his butt. Then two guards showed up.

"I am looking for a secret sign, a mystical sign," I told them.

"They nearly escorted me off the grounds. Luckily, one of them finally recognized me. But there weren't any clues there anyway."

I laughed. Even from the short time I'd known him, this sounded like vintage Frank Albo behaviour.

"Did you ever find out why the Wolfe statue is out there with the other guys?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "A Masonic historian in Vancouver solved that riddle the next morning. It seems that within weeks of Wolfe's heroic death on the battlefield, six military lodges in his army formed the Provincial Grand Lodge of Quebec. That lodge, and its successors, helped Freemasonry expand into Western Canada."

The coffee was long gone by this time, and I happily picked up the tab. I'd waited long enough to see this Ark.

We walked across the river in the warm sunshine and found a place on the Kennedy Street sidewalk with a gap in the trees, where we could see the east entrance to the building.

Frank pointed up.

"See the carving at the east pediment? The official name for it is the War Chest."

Frank handed me his binoculars and I focused on the stone carving.

It appeared to be a large, oblong box flanked by statues of an Indian chief in full headdress and a soldier wearing a plumed helmet.

"It was like right out of Indiana Jones," Frank said. "I nearly fell off the roof climbing up on the plateau to measure it. I had to lie on my stomach to fling my tape measure around it. I should've had one of those laser gadgets."

"You wouldn't catch me dangling from the ledge, Ark or no Ark," I said.

"Yeah, it was scary," he said, "but I wasn't as freaked out as a construction crew that was working up there at the base of the dome."

"One of them shouted at me to get down. They thought I was nuts.

"I was going to shout back an explanation, and then I realized I would sound as crazy as I already looked. So I waved, finished my measuring as quickly as I could, and rolled back away from the edge.

"The War Chest is about eight feet long by five feet high.

"Exodus 25:10 gives the measurements of the Ark as two-and-a-half cubits long, a cubit-and-a-half wide, and a cubit-and-a-half high. We don't know exactly what kind of cubit that means -- a Masonic one of 14.4 inches, or something bigger. It doesn't matter.

"It's the proportions that matter, and the War Chest is almost identical in proportions to the Ark as described in the Bible, though on a bigger scale."

I gaped at this thing that Frank was so excited about. The Ark of the Covenant? Could it be? Even under the blazing sun, a chill ran down my spine.

The Ark of the Covenant had been flanked by two cherubim, guarding it. Not cuddly cherubs, like Cupid on a Valentine card, but winged warriors. This chest was flanked by an Indian chief and a soldier.

You're a cheeky one, Frank Worthington Simon, I thought admiringly, substituting two Canadian icons for angel guardians. But the allusion was obvious.

And, as Frank had said, it was hidden in plain view.

"Amazing," I said.

"That's what I thought, too," he said. "I guess I really thought this was my biggest 'aha' moment, the capstone of my research."

Then, staring at the stone chest, he slowly shook his head. "But it's old news, I'm afraid," he said thoughtfully.

"As The Smoking Man told me a few years ago, it's a red herring... just a distraction to keep the greater truth hidden."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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