Sask.'s oldest building turns 150

Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Stanley Mission, Saskatchewan's oldest building, is marking its 150 anniversary this summer.

Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Stanley Mission, Saskatchewan's oldest building, marks its 150 anniversary Thursday.

The Anglican church in Stanley Mission is 150 years old. (David Shield/CBC)
The wooden structure, which took six years to build and was finished in 1860, is a national historic site and provincial heritage property.

Stanley Mission, a community of about 1,500, is 80 kilometres northeast of La Ronge, Sask., on the Churchill River.

Of course, 150 years ago the river went by a different name — it was called the English River — and constructing a significant church in the remote outreaches of Rupert's Land was a challenge.

Joe Roberts has been the caretaker of the church since 1972 and knows its history well.

"The doors, the window hinges all come from England," Roberts told CBC News in a recent interview. "[During] the first pass that they brought up, the York boat swamped on the Montreal river and they lost all the glass, so they had to do another order."

While some elements of the building were transported in, most of its materials were supplied locally. Wooden beams, for example, were cut from local trees.

The Anglican church in Stanley Mission was designated a national historic site. (David Shield/CBC)
And the carpenters of the day had a problem unique to the mid-19th century: a shortage of nails. To cope, the builder — Rev. Robert Hunt — improvised.

"The story goes that Robert Hunt brought along a big iron bedstead," Roberts explained. "He took that big iron bedstead and forged it into nails. Square nails."

Still, the iron bed would not yield enough nails, so the design of the building included interlocking logs, a feature that is evident when it's windy.

"You can hear the walls creaking when the wind comes up, and it'll sway a bit," Roberts said. "But that's how it was made."

For decades, the church was the heart of the community, but in the 1930s people starting moving to the other side of the river.

For a time, the church fell into disrepair and sat empty with broken windows and a future that might have seen it consumed by the elements.

The church took six years to build and was completed in 1860. (David Shield/CBC)
However, local elders were determined to preserve the building.

"We've always tried to maintain it," Roberts said. "The elders say it always has to be looked after."

For many in the community, the church is more than a local landmark. It is also a tangible link to a bygone era.

"People used to be out on the land in the old days, but on Christmas everybody always came back to Stanley Mission," said Brian Hardlotte, a member of the band council from the neighbouring Lac La Ronge First Nation.

"The main thing was to get supplies from the Hudson's Bay Company," Hardlotte explained. "The other thing was to celebrate Christmas and have the church services in the old church. So it meant a lot to the people."

Hardlotte says much of the money for the upkeep of the building comes from the band, with occasional support from the provincial and federal governments.

Roberts notes that it has attracted attention, and affection, from people around the world who have made special visits to see the special building.

He said that when Stanley Mission was threatened by a forest fire a few years ago, he received dozens of calls.

"We had people calling from all over, right across Canada, the States, England, and they would ask, 'Is the church still standing? [and] 'We heard the church burned down'," Roberts said. "And we said, 'No. It's still there.'"

The Thursday anniversary celebrations, set for 1 p.m. CST, include a church service and fish fry.

With files from the CBC's David Shield