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  • Canadian Churches: An Architectural History
  • Jane Irwin (bio)
Peter Richardson and Douglas Richardson, editors. Canadian Churches: An Architectural History. Photographs by John de Visser. Firefly. 2007. 440. $85.00

Canadian Churches is a substantial visual feast, with more than four hundred full-colour illustrations, printed on high-quality stock, in a generous page size. Most of the photographs are by John de Visser, whose atmospheric images of historical architecture and landscapes have illustrated dozens of books since Harold Kalman's Pioneer Churches, published in 1976. The superb production values achieved thirty years later are best shown by comparing several images that appear in both books (one inexplicably reversed). Evident throughout is the artistry of the designer, Bob Wilcox, whose creative alterations enhance the context: for example, when the title-page image of the Old Order Meetinghouse in St Jacobs, Ontario, originally appeared in print, the patient horses and black-upholstered buggies were cropped out.

Church interiors offer splendid surprises: capacious vistas, especially in the Quebec section, compete for our admiration. The photographer's eye sees beautiful proportions in every interior, even those as contrary as the Children of Peace Temple, Sharon, and the Jarvis Street Baptist Church, Toronto. De Visser's afterword expresses his gratitude 'to everyone along the way who graciously opened doors and turned on the lights.' Visiting churches to which one does not belong is, unfortunately, too often restricted to weddings, funerals, or annual Doors Open days. (Such occasional visitors should generously contribute to the building maintenance fund.) Churches are designed to be welcoming spaces; even non-members are meant to sense the Psalmist's feeling: 'I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.'

The initial attraction to the photographs is enriched by a comprehensive text by Peter and Douglas Richardson. Some forty sections are grouped geographically: Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, and West and North. The authors, who refer to themselves as 'two academics,' are professors emeriti of the University of Toronto, in the departments of Religion and Fine Art, respectively. Their text is packed with documentation and expertise acquired over decades of study and shared with many generations of students. Canadian Churches is a grand lecture course, absent only the lecturer's laser pointer, for off-campus readers.

At times, broader cultural and spiritual insights are wanting. Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, Midland - surely a place of martyrdom defined by its spiritual essence - is introduced with shocking words: 'The [End Page 466] routine torture of enemies.' It should be noted that the Richardsons' churches are Christian denominations only. Unlike Marian MacRae's history of the ecclesiastical architecture of early Ontario, Hallowed Walls (1975), which included pre-European-contact Amerindian structures, First Nations faiths are represented here by mission churches. Jews are excluded, except where their buildings are shared with or adapted by Christian congregations. An odd reference to 'visible minority groups' reflects the omission of places of worship built in recent decades by non-Christians who, like all immigrants, have brought with them their religious traditions. Not so long ago, Protestants seldom entered Catholic churches, and vice versa. How valuable it would be for people of all faiths to see the interiors of synagogues, temples, and mosques of great world religions, here in Canada.

Modernism is well represented, although the proposed link between Quebec modernist churches and the anti-Catholic manifesto 'Refus globale' of Paul-Emile Borduas is tenuous. It must also be doubted that parishioners of Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Nicolet, Quebec, share the opinion of an unnamed guidebook that their church is 'frightening in its modernity.'

This history concludes with a brief prospect of future changes in 'Canadian Christianity.' Canada's churches of all ages are endangered structures. Many have been demolished as their congregations grew too large to fit them comfortably, or too small to maintain them. Five of the 250 churches featured in this book are said to have been lost since its publication.

Within its chosen limits, this is a magnificent compendium, which achieves its grand ambition to introduce a wide variety of churches across the country 'to people with little knowledge of theology as well as to committed...


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pp. 466-467
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