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dave obee A little church with a big history

By Dave Obee

St. Paul's Church in Esquimalt was built in 1866, the fourth Anglican church built on Vancouver Island, and it is known today for the trip it made up the hill.

It was built at the foot of Signal Hill, on the site of a schoolhouse, erected in 1858, in which services had been held for a few years. (Before that, navy chaplains conducted services aboard ships.

The early years of St. Paul's were covered in detail by the Daily Colonist, which had been started just eight years earlier. More information on the church comes from Esquimalt historian Sherri Robinson.

"Yesterday afternoon the interesting ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the new Episcopal Church about to be erected at Esquimalt was performed in the presence of a great concourse of people -- many of whom were ladies," the Colonist reported Aug. 30, 1866.

"The site (which was generously presented by Hon. Donald Fraser) chosen for the new edifice is on a level spot exactly at the foot of the road leading into Esquimalt from the city, which commands a fine view of the waters of the outer harbour and Straits, and is situated not a stone's throw from the rocky beach."

On Dec. 12 that year, the church was consecrated.

"The people of Esquimalt are gratefully sensible of the obligations they are under to the friends of religion for the erection of the first church in their neighbourhood," the Colonist said the following day. "We hope that other sacred edifices will soon spring up in their midst until every denomination shall be represented."

St. Paul's served naval and army families as well as all who lived in the district up to the Point Ellice Bridge, the Gorge and Craigflower roads, the Highlands, the Goldstream district, Colwood, Metchosin, Rocky Point, East and West Sooke and Otter Point.

The site of the church was scenic enough, but it was hardly perfect. Vibrations from guns broke the windows on the land side, and gales broke windows on the ocean side.

In 1876 the church was heavily damaged by a gale, and the wardens repaired things as best they could. The admiralty in England provided 50 pounds to help the cause.

In 1878, the Colonist reported on the arrival of stained glass windows from London. They were brought to Vancouver Island on the City of Chester, and the newspaper said they arrived in excellent condition.

By 1879, more comprehensive repairs and a full restoration were needed. The work was done that summer and fall, with the church re-opened on Dec. 13, almost exactly 13 years after its consecration.

Members of the church had to come up with the money to pay for the work, which cost about $5,000. They raised some of the funds with the sale of clothing, "fancy work," and other items.

"As the Church of Esquimalt will be in every way a beautiful building all ought to attend the sale and help," the Colonist reported. "This district may be considered the bright corner of the diocese."

A bright corner it might have been, but the problems posed by that scenic location finally proved to be too great. In 1904 the federal government bought the church site, and new property was acquired on a site formerly known as the Hermitage. Ottawa gave $5,700 for the site and the removal of the building.

Over the years, a legend has grown about the church being moved intact -- rolled along on logs, presumably -- from one site to the other. It didn't happen that way. The old newspapers, old diaries as well as church histories published in 1926 and 1966 all refer to it being dismantled and rebuilt.

The church was officially St. Paul's from the start, although many early references referred to it as, quite simply, the Esquimalt church.

Until 1910, St. Paul's was known as the Church of the Bluejackets, but after 1911, when the soldiers arrived at Work Point Barracks, it served their garrison as well. The soldiers were seated on the right and the sailors on the left, and small brass plates marked pews of the commanding officers.

In 1911 the name of the church was changed to St. Paul's Royal Naval Station and Garrison Church. It has also been called, at various times, the Admiralty Church, the Esquimalt Church, the Esquimalt Episcopal Church, and the Naval Church. Today, it's known as St. Paul's Anglican Church.

In 1912, the church started an appeal for a new organ. On Jan. 7, 1913, it was recorded that the 1891 organ from the St. John the Divine Church had been installed at St. Paul's. St. John was of course the famous Iron Church, the prefabricated structure on Douglas Street that was torn down to make way for the Hudson's Bay Company department store.

Posted Feb. 17, 2008


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