If the walls of Holy Trinity Anglican Church could speak, they might murmur a hymn or a blessing or a humbled "amen." They might sigh, feeling their age and the weight that rests upon them: for 132 years, they’ve held up the arch of the ceiling.
Or, they might sing with all the voices of the 4,200-pipe organ that still bellows its glory, a century after it was born.
It is the Tuesday before Christmas, and just after noon. Inside the church, which has stood at the corner of Graham Avenue and Donald Street since Winnipeg was new, the lamps are turned low. Garlands of holiday lights weave over rows of box pews.
Even those wooden pews are a legacy, worn smooth by generations of hands. Tiny brass plaques commemorate parishioners who came before: "In loving memory of Montague Anderson," one reads, "who worshipped in this pew from 1898 to 1985."
Now, as church organist Richard Greig settles in to deliver his Christmas recital, the sound he musters is one the departed Mr. Anderson would have known in his youth. This is the sound of Holy Trinity, and it has rung for 104 years.Greig’s repertoire for this Pipes Alive Christmas
recital is elegant. The congregation will meet for carolling on another night; this afternoon, the festive sound of Holy Trinity is found in nuanced classical compositions: Noël sur les Flûtes by Louis Claude D’Aquin, Noël (IV) Récit de Flûte by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Paul Manz’s What is this Lovely Fragrance.
The flute sounds come first, gently. Air breathes through tiny pipes that warble like birds in the trees. Then the bigger pipes begin to speak, a deep brassy bass marching under the melody. It swells until the whole church is flooded with sound.
Sometimes, reviewers comment on the "darkness" of the organ. This vexes Greig, a little. After 17 years at the keyboard, the veteran organist knows all of its voices, all of its moods. He knows better than anyone what the grand old lady can do.
"It is a really fine instrument," Greig says. "This instrument is much more complete than people think it is. If you know what you’re doing, you can be as bright and light as you wish to be... there’s all sorts of contrasts and colours you can use."
Downtown Winnipeg has changed in the last 104 years, but the heart of Holy Trinity’s organ hasn’t. The instrument was here before almost everything around it: before the arena, before the old Canada Post tower, before bumper-to-bumper traffic.
It was the pride of Holy Trinity in 1912 when the church bought it. At the time, the Free Press announced the instrument, built by a Quebec company, was the grandest pipe organ in the West. It was introduced with a festival; hundreds came to hear it.
At rest, the organ sleeps like a lion, hulking and golden and silent. When it wakes, it can whisper lightly like rain or bellow like thunder. It is one of just a handful of its kind in Winnipeg, and to the congregation that keeps it, this legacy is precious.
In the church vestry, there even is a stained glass homage to Greig’s predecessor, Ronald W. Gibson, who served more than 50 years as the church organist. In the portrait, he is seated at same four-tiered keyboard Greig now commands.
"People really do enjoy it," says Rev. Karine Snowdon, who came to Holy Trinity last year as interim priest. "For a lot of people, it helps them to sing, because they’re hesitant singers. They can sing more boldly because they have that organ."
Over the years, the organ was refurbished. In the 1950s, it was electrified and fitted with a new console, which means the keyboard that makes it sing. (That console is also creaking with age; the church is fundraising to have it replaced.)
In 2012, the church bought the pipes from St. Matthews Anglican Church in the West End. They are currently in storage, to be installed after the new console is in place. Eventually, pipes will rise above the main entrance on the church’s west side.
The sound then will be enormous. The new pipes will resonate through the nave, responding to the original organ that dwells in a section of the church’s northwest corner. "When that happens, I shall be dancing for joy," Greig says.
By now, the church is as familiar to Winnipeg as a stately old elm on the corner. It is part of every Winnipegger’s mental portrait of downtown, but less often a destination. One parishioner, Barbara Tiller, hears words to that effect all the time.
For instance, when the church offers public tours as part of Heritage Winnipeg’s Doors Open Winnipeg, dozens attend. Often, Tiller says, those visitors make the same comment: "Oh, I’ve walked past this church dozens of times. But I never come in."
Like many parishioners, Tiller’s connection to the church stretches back generations. Her parents were married there in 1934; a photo of her great-aunt, a deaconess, hangs in its vestry. Tiller got married at the Holy Trinity, as did all of her siblings.
So Tiller’s drive to protect the church and its organ, to keep it healthy and thriving, is personal as well as historic.
"It’s like a home for us," she says. "You just have to preserve these iconic things, don’t you?"
Already, this building has lived a full life. In 1879, a Holy Trinity parishioner announced he’d secured eight plots of land on the waving prairie, at the dirt-rutted corner of Donald Street and Graham Avenue. He thought it might be a good spot for a new building.
"Why did you go so far out?" some of the parishioners asked; but, eventually, they signed off on the plan.
By then, Holy Trinity was already on its third physical incarnation. The parish, which was founded in 1868, had filled up in the latter half of the 19th century; the city was swollen with young merchants and workers, flooding in from the East.
So what began as an Anglican service in the courthouse outside Upper Fort Garry soon moved into a squat log building at Portage and Garry. That plot of land was loaned by the Hudson’s Bay Co.
Within two years, the church was far too cosy, so they hammered on an addition that brought its capacity to 350 people and opened it for worship on Christmas Day. In 1875, they tore that church down and built a bigger one, seating 450.
Again, by 1880, that building was too small, so they tacked on an addition of 60 by 42 feet. It "practically doubled the capacity of the church, but even then the accommodation was very soon insufficient," the church reported in a 1928 retrospective.
"The influx of people from the East was enormous, and at all the services many stood at the door, unable to find seats."
So something new was needed. For this one, the young parish wanted to make a statement. From a pool of more than 40 proposals, they settled on a design from a Winnipeg architect Charles H. Wheeler, who had learned his trade in Rome.
(Wheeler would design other historic Manitoba buildings, including what is now Dalnavert Museum.)
The design called for an imposing Gothic revival church, clad in regional limestone and capped by a soaring pine ceiling. In spring 1883, they broke ground for the new building; 16 months later, the structure was ready for worship.
Even before the church was finished, Winnipeg buzzed. In August 1883, the Free Press gushed about the design, highlighting the "noble proportions" of the stained glass that held court over the altar, or the carved cherubim that danced on the ceiling.
The church "looks like a cathedral," the paper reported, but with the charm of a parish church. "Every detail has been so carefully considered that there is nothing which the more fastidious taste could wish either to add or remove."
Winnipeg continued to explode, and Holy Trinity’s status as "so far out" on the prairie didn’t last long. Indeed, by the time the church published its 60-year retrospective in 1928, its presence in the city’s heart was already a subject of debate.
"Downtown churches are big problems – difficult to maintain," parishioner Dawson Richardson wrote, paraphrasing critics. "Our problems are different, our work is unique — more concentrated and yet, more far-reaching than a regular parish.
"But we gain from the leaders of the past, inspiration to work — work harder for greater things."
What Richardson could not have foreseen is how Winnipeg’s downtown would change. For one thing, by the second half of the 20th century, the city’s demographics were shifting, with newcomers arriving from much farther away than Ontario.
At Holy Trinity, that change breathed new life into a historic parish. In the 1970s and ’80s, the congregation was bolstered by new arrivals from the Caribbean. Among them was Rev. Canon Henry Falconer, who today runs the church’s charity mission.
When Falconer arrived in Winnipeg from Jamaica 28 years ago, he was not yet a member of the clergy. Like many Jamaicans, Falconer says, one of his first orders of business was to seek out a "big Anglican church" for worship.
With its striking architecture and central location, Holy Trinity was an obvious destination. The congregation was welcoming, and underneath the grand wooden vault of its ceiling, Falconer and many other then-newcomers found a home.
Joan Lloyd, who grew up in St. Vincent and Trinidad, still remembers her first impression of Holy Trinity, 44 years ago. "It was so beautiful," she recalls. "You just felt like, God has given people these beautiful gifts, to create such beauty."
Almost five decades later, Lloyd is an active parishioner. Her three children were baptized at Holy Trinity, continuing the tradition. Now, she helps welcome others: today, parishioners hail from 25 different countries and indigenous nations.
"I feel like, when I’m leading worship, I’m looking at the whole Anglican communion being represented," says interim priest Snowdon. "I find that really inspiring. All of God’s creation is represented here, and it’s really quite lovely."
Meanwhile, the need in downtown Winnipeg was also growing, and the church stepped in to help. Today, Holy Trinity’s mission quietly holds a regular lunch program, feeding 150 people five days a week.
"This place has really evolved," Snowdon says. "I don’t get the feeling that people feel chained to the history. I think they’re proud of the history, but they also recognize the challenge in the parish life now. Which is why they started that mission."
This year, under Falconer’s direction, the parish distributed 75 Christmas hampers. Over half of those were delivered to recent refugees. That work is the pride of the parish. "People feel like it’s the heart of this place," Snowdon says.
It’s hard to say when the cracks began weaving through the south wall of Holy Trinity’s sanctuary. It’s only certain that they’re there, and they have grown. As far as anyone knows, the church was built without footings and nothing pinning it down.
So each year it settles into the Manitoba clay, its weight shifting just a little more with each passing day. The construction of the MTS Centre next door likely didn’t help, as heavy equipment shuddered the block and delved deep in the earth.
This is not a matter of blame. It’s just that a modern downtown sprouted around Holy Trinity, but the church wasn’t built for that sort of change. "Quite simply, the building is moving," Greig says. "It’s been a long time."
For churches around the world, this is a mounting pressure. Congregations often inherit some of the most historic buildings in their community’s collection, magnificent structures of architectural significance. But old buildings cost money to maintain.
In this, Holy Trinity is showing its age. In 2014, the church replaced its entire heating system at a cost of $629,000; the congregation has so far raised about two-thirds of that cost. Tiller is confident they can collect the rest.
Now, a bigger issue is looming, the one evidenced by the dark cracks spidering through the wall. Next year, the church plans to commission an engineering study to find out exactly what’s wrong; the cost to fix it could make the boiler bill look small.
There is some hope. In 1990, the federal government declared the church to be a national historic site; eight years ago, the city named it a landmark heritage structure. These designations could offer avenues to fund future stabilization efforts.
Worship will keep going, though. One way or another, the pipe organ will play on. It’s survived challenges before.
Shortly after Greig arrived at Holy Trinity in the late 1990s, there was a fire near the entrance. It was an arson. Afterwards, crews set up scaffolds to scrub the vaulted ceiling clean. Along with smoke, they washed away the dust of over a century.
When it was finished, Greig remembers, he was chatting with someone in the church. He noticed that, for the first time, their voices truly echoed. The natural sound of the church, it turns out, had been muffled by the detritus of time.
Sometimes, small blessings come from unexpected directions. "Oh, thank you, fire," Greig says. "They cleaned the ceiling, and it started to reflect again. It was a humongous difference. Absolutely amazing."
And so it is on the last Sunday before Christmas. About 80 people are in the pews for the second of two services.
In a few hours, the Jets will host the Colorado Avalanche at the MTS Centre; already, cars are prowling the streets, their cold engines purring past snow-crusted curbs. A parking spot close to the arena is a coveted prize in a frigid December.
Soon, fans will spill through downtown and into the MTS Centre. They’ll sing the anthem and cheer. Pop music will blast from the speakers, and the goal horn will blare. This is what downtown sounds like on so many days, now: big and brassy and new.
But on their way to the game, or on their way out, some hockey fans will stream by the Holy Trinity Anglican Church across from the arena’s southeast corner. Maybe they’ll gaze at its rugged limestone bricks, or its steeple, and wonder what lies inside.
For now, it sounds like peace. It sounds the same way Christmas did in Winnipeg over 100 years ago. As Greig’s fingers pour over the keyboards, the organ rises up to lift the voice of the choir. The walls of the church seem to hum with the sound.
In one of the pews, Tiller’s eyes sparkle. She knows the gems that they have in the organ and in Greig, an accomplished musician who learned his trade the old-fashioned way, back in Scotland. There aren’t many who can do what he does.
"He just has command of that instrument," Tiller says. "It has so much to offer, and he just knows how to handle it. It’s like handling a team of horses by an expert driver. So we’re lucky to have him. He just brings that instrument alive."
Tiller pauses. "He will retire some time," she adds. "I just hope there’s somebody out there that can replace him."
Surely, they’ll find someone. After all, Holy Trinity has seen 132 years of ebbs and flows, and this Christmas, it’s still singing.