Historic Cathedral of St. John’s to be designated provincial heritage site

by Rene Jamieson

On a crisp fall day on October 14, 1820, a York boat moored close to the foot of what is now Anderson Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End and a man stepped ashore. He looked nothing like a rugged pioneer, but on that day and by this man, history was made. 

The man was John West, a 41-year-old Anglican priest from England, sent to work among the indigenous peoples and to serve as the chaplain to the Hudson’s Bay Company. West was sent to Rupert’s Land by the Church Mission Society which sought to establish the Anglican Church in the vast territory. In those days, Rupert’s Land stretched from the eastern shores of Hudson’s Bay west to the Rockies, and from the Arctic Circle south to the Canada-U.S. border.

The land onto which John West stepped had been designated as a suitable site for a church and a manse by no less a personage than Lord Selkirk, who had so decreed the property’s use in 1817. The site was chosen primarily because a graveyard had already been established there.

By 1822, John West and his parishioners had built a church and a manse on the site and was holding regular Sunday morning worship services for the Selkirk settlers, Hudson’s Bay employees and the indigenous people of the area. The original bell that called the people to worship now hangs in St. Clement’s, Mapleton.

West dedicated his mission church to St. John and it was the first of four buildings on this site, the most recent being the present Cathedral of St. John, built in 1826. His congregation numbered very few Anglicans, the majority of his flock being Presbyterian. It was not until the arrival of John Black in 1852 that the Presbyterians had a minister of their own denomination.

During the week, West’s wood-frame church served as a day school. One of the students was a young Cree, whom West renamed Henry Budd after a priest he had served under as curate in England. Budd was later ordained by Bishop David Anderson, the first Bishop of Rupert’s Land, and became the first native North American priest in the Anglican Church.

West served the Red River Settlement and the surrounding area for three years. ln that time, he made several long journeys in winter — twice to Pembina and once to Beaver Creek. He also made annual trips to York Factory to preach the gospel to the indigenous peoples. 

His diary, which is in the archives of St. John’s Cathedral, records one trip he made on foot. He walked from York to Churchill and back to York in the summer of 1823. He makes many disparaging references to mosquitoes. (Some things never change.)

West returned to England in 1823 and never came back to Red River. It has been suggested the Sir George Simpson, then governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was responsible for this turn of events. But T.C. Boon, in his book These Men Went Out, asserts that it is more likely that West missed his wife and children, and knew that his wife would not be able to withstand the rigours of pioneer life. 

In 1825-26, John West returned to North America at the request of the New England Company. He was sent back to report on the company’s work among the Mohawk of Ontario and New York as well as the indigenous people of Nova Scotia. He remained in England after 1826 and later became rector of Farnham, Dorset and personal chaplain to Viscount Duncannon.

Interesting]y, West’s son, John Rowland West, who followed his father into Holy Orders, served for a time as vicar of Madingly in Eng]and. One of his successors in that post was the Rev. Robert Machray who later became the second Bishop of Rupert’s Land and the first Primate of All Canada.

On October 17, 2004, the people of the Parish of the Cathedral of St. John will celebrate the legacy of John West and 184 years of mission and ministry in Rupert’s Land. As the oldest Ang]ican parish west of the Great Lakes, St. John’s is the birthplace of the Anglican Church in Western Canada.

Stained glass

Centuries ago, when universal education was not the norm, the Church told Bible stories with frescoes and windows. The illiterate majority learned the stories of Jesus and about his life, death and resurrection from colourful wall paintings in the parish church. Later, as glass-making and staining technology developed, the wall paintings were replaced with the radiant beauty of stained glass. Anglican churches still install stained glass, a mediaeval touch in even the most modern church buildings.

The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the mother church of the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, is a treasure house of stained glass. The running joke at the cathedral is that the only windows that don’t have stained glass pictures are those in the main floor bathroom and the choir room (presumably because one requires seclusion even from the saints during one’s private moments, and choirs tell the story in song, so don’t need the prompting of stained glass!) Every other window in the cathedral is a riot of colour and a diversity of subject, telling the stories not only of Jesus but also of the history of the cathedral and the Anglican Church.

The oldest windows in the cathedral proper are by McCausland of Toronto, and were installed in the late 1920s when the present cathedral was built. The nave windows are traditional stained glass and depict the stories of Jesus — the baptism, the annunciation, the nativity, Jesus with the children, the calling of the disciples, the crucifixion and the resurrection. 

Only two of the nave windows are not by McCausland: the John West window (1946) is by Cakebread and Robey of England, and the crucifixion window is by Jones and Willis of London, England.

The Great East Window, over the high altar, was also designed by Cakebread and Robey of England and features the coats of arms of the dioceses that were extant in the Province of Rupert’s Land in the late 1920s, along with the coats of arms of Manitoba and the Hudson’s Bay Company, with which St. John’s was connected in its early years. 

The four main panels depict the parable of the sower and the Good Shepherd. The window is dedicated to the memory of Archbishop Robert Machray, whose portrait is included. Interestingly enough, when we were conducting research into the windows at the cathedral, we contacted Cakebread and Robey, and discovered that they no longer make stained glass windows. All their efforts these days are confined to bathroom and kitchen fittings!

The window in the south transept was designed by Western Art Glass and is a history of the Anglican Church, with everybody from St. Alban to Queen Elizabeth portrayed. The window in the north transept was installed in 1975 and is dedicated to the men and women who served Canada in conflicts ranging from the Northwest Rebellion to Korea. 

The Great West Window was installed in 1970 to mark the 150th anniversary ofthe parish, and the figures in the window are bishops and clergy connected with the cathedral 

throughout its history. The lone lay person depicted is Colin Inkster, the first sheriff of Manitoba, who was rector’s warden from 1870 to 1934.

The Tower Entrance lobby has four small windows, each one dedicated to one of the four churches that have stood on this site. In the Main Street entrance lobby, you will find four small windows showing four cathedrals in the Province of Rupert’s Land — Brandon, the Arctic, Saskatchewan and Athabasca.

The dean’s office has five small stained glass windows, and the small window outside the choir room is a portrait of St. Francis in stained glass. The oldest piece of stained glass in the cathedral is in a small window on the stairway leading up to the choir room. It is the panel showing a stained glass mitre that once graced the front door of the first Bishop’s Court.


Andrew Marvell wrote, “The grave’s a fine and private place...,” but that’s a line that doesn’t apply at St. John’s Cathedral. The cathedral is surrounded by a park-like cemetery, and it is a hive of activity. Neighbourhood residents stroll through the cemetery on their morning walks, visitors from other parts of Canada come looking for the graves of their ancestors, history students do research on notables in the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the founding families of Winnipeg, and people come from all over the city to plant shrubs or flowers on the graves of their loved ones. In short, the cathedral graveyard is a very lively place.

The oldest marked grave in the cathedral cemetery is that of eight-month-old George Simpson, son of the then governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Sir George Simpson, who died in 1832 . 

Little George is not the only child buried in this graveyard. Wandering through the precinct, one comes upon small grave stones marking the final resting places of whole families of children —  children who died in infancy and early childhood, a poignant reminder of the hardships and heartbreak faced by parents in the days before miracle drugs and the eradication of diseases like smallpox and diphtheria, whooping cough and measles.

Many Winnipeg street names can be found on gravestones in St. John’s Cemetery since many of the founding families of the city are buried here. 

Monuments run from the grand to the simple, and there are grave markers of unique design, like that of the men of the Winnipeg Rifles, nicknamed the Little Black Devils, who died at or from wounds received at Batoche and Fish Creek during the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. The military connection is reinforced with the grave of Sir Sam Steele, who became famous as a member of the  North West Mounted Police and as a member of military operations in the Canadian West in 1870 and 1885, the Boer War and the First World War.

There are headstones that give merely the name of the person buried there, and others that list the entire life story of the deceased.

In one section of the cemetery, in the area close to the Tower Entrance to the cathedral, you’ll find the graves of leaders of the Anglican Church, such as Archbishops Machray, Pritchard, Shennan, Stringer, John Ogle Anderson, and a little further over, Archbishop Malcolm Harding. Many of the clergy of Rupert’s Land are buried here, along with former deans of the cathedral.

Several of Manitoba’s notable public servants are buried in St. John’s Cemetery, including Sir John Norquay, a former premier of Manitoba, who was the equivalent in the English-speaking settlement to Louis Riel in the French-speaking settlement; Colin Inkster, high sheriff of Rupert’s Land; Sir Hugh John Macdonald, son of Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald; and John C. Schultz, William Tupper and Errick Willis, former lieutenants-governor of Manitoba. 

Here also you will find the graves of James Thompson, chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company; W.F. Luxton, pioneer journalist and editor; William Alloway, whose generosity lives on in the work of the Winnipeg Foundation; Sir Sam Steele, late commander-in-chief of the Lord Strathcona Horse; Paul Kane, son of the famous frontier artist; Margaret Scott, a pioneer nurse who worked with the poor in the slums of Winnipeg; James Ashdown and Augustus Nanton, pioneer businessmen; and James Richardson Sr. and H.E. Sellar, giants of the grain trade, to name only a few.

 Here, too, lie Thomas Bunn and his wife Phoebe, the first couple married by an Anglican priest in Rupert’s Land. 

Nearby is the grave of Mary Jones and her infant son. Mary was the wife of the Rev. David Jones, second rector of St. John’s. She was a teacher at the Red River Academy and a plaque to her memory was given by her students who loved her as much as she loved them. The plaque is still in the cathedral.

One of my favourite graves is that of Captain Colin Sinclair, who was born in Oxford House, Keewatin in 1816 and died in 1901. As a boy, he was sent to England to be educated and his heartbroken Cree mother Nahoway never saw him again. Years later, Sinclair returned to Rupert’s Land and lived with his Inkster cousins at Seven Oaks House. His tomb is in St. John’s graveyard, and on one side there is an inscription in loving memory of his mother from “her wandering boy.”

Every spring, a group of enthusiastic gardeners drawn from the Cathedral congregation gathers to plant flowers on selected graves. For an annual fee of $30, families can arrange to have the flowers planted on graves of their loved ones. The fee not only buys the flowers but also augments the fund that supports and maintains the care and upkeep of the graveyard.

Consider the inscription on a gravestone that marks the grave of Lt. Col. Ernest Mermagen and his wife Harriet: “He went before. She, for a little, tried to live without him, liked it not, and died.” That’s a short love story in stone, and just one of the hundreds of stories that make St. John’s Cemetery more than just a graveyard.

The cathedral graveyard is open to the public between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. To make arrangements for your personal or group tour of the cathedral and cemetery, call Shirley Collicutt, office manager, at 586-8385, or e-mail the cathedral at stjohns@mts.net