Spirit of the City

I just came back from my weekly lunchtime yoga at work, and as I sat down for a dose of 102tF, it got me thinking about the role that the spiritual life, and churches in particular, have played in our Royal City. Without any real historical training or knowledge (Will and Peter Julian will have to help you with that), I figure that when New West was settled and in the decades after, churches likely played an important role in developing a sense of community in our city.

The first church to open in New West was the one that Will (of 102tF) and I attended as children (and played many games of floor hockey in its church hall), Holy Trinity Cathedral on Carnarvon Street. Founded in 1859 by the Reverend John Sheepshanks, its first building was destroyed by fire in 1865. It’s current stately building dates from the second structure built on that site which was lost in the great fire of 1898 – the surviving stone walls were found to be sound enough to support a rebuild, and so the current structure was built up from the ashes of the old (meaningful, no?). Though it is now an unsightly grey, crowded in on all sides by condo towers, it is a beautiful building on the inside and has unmissable stained glass windows. This parish was named the cathedral seat of the diocese in 1892, but the second in a series of “Capital Controversies” occurred in 1929 when Archbishop de Pencier named Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral the seat of the diocese (though New Westminster remained the diocesan title and HTC remained a “Cathedral” in name and beauty). It’s parish continues going strong today if parish activity can be measured by the sheer number of activity links on its website.

Knox Presbyterian Church set down its roots in the building it still occupies in Sapperton in 1891, as “The Wee Kirk on the corner” and has been an active member of the community ever since. Bringing it’s denominational history of sound education in Sunday School (aided by the opening of its “Christian Education Centre” in 1956), Knox has been the heart of Sapperton since it was founded and it’s distinct architecture make it one of New West’s most recognizable buildings.

The first Gurdwara in New West was started in 1919 by Sikhs who worked the sawmills dotting the Fraser River. Bhai Bisan Singh, a dedicated Sikh, formed the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar in his home, gathering others for meetings and readings of the Holy scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The New Westminster Khalsa Diwan Society (The local community of Sikh believers) formed when Singh purchased the lot next to his house in 1919 and donated it to the congregation (though formally incorporated in 1974). The present Gurdwara opened in Queensborough in 1975 and it’s tall red flame light is one of the many sights welcoming people New Westminster as they drive over the Queensborough bridge Northbound.

New Westminster has also been the home to the cemetery of BC’s oldest and largest Orthodox Jewish Synagogue, Congregation Schara Tzedeck, in Vancouver. I tried to pin down whether there was an active temple/synagogue in NW but haven’t found anything yet, though the contributions of many prominent Jewish people shaped New Westminster: Muni Evers, New Westminster’s longest-serving Mayor (see here and here); More recently, the Congregation Sha’rai Mizrah (Gate of the East)has served New Westminster/Burnaby/Coquitlam from a converted Kingdom Hall off of Lougheed Highway.

No discussion of religion in New Westminster could go without the introduction of Dr. Vasant Saklikar, who, after moving to Canada from India in 1959 and working in education systems across the country, became rector of Sixth Avenue United Church in 1976 and quickly became a community icon – his work on the School Board and as an advocate and activist made him a frequent sight in local papers. Saklikar raised his family in the West End and was named Citizen of the Year in 1998. The now-named Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United remains a politically and socially active parish to this day, where newbie New West council member Jamie MacEvoy is director of their Hospitality Project, bringing comfort and aid to New Westminster’s vulnerable people.

Another United church has a prominent place (and role) in New Westminster’s history – the venerable Queen’s Ave United Church building sits just up the 6th Street hill from City Hall, and has hosted a faith community there since 1859 (not to mention the piano recitals and music day camps Will and I went to as kids!), tying HTC for first church in the new colony though the building wasn’t built until 1860, as Queen’s Avenue Methodist Church. When the Wesleyans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists merged in 1925, its name was changed to it’s current. Another congregation which was tested by fire, QA lost it’s first church building to New Westminster’s Great Fire in 1898, and its second building was replaced by the current iconic stone block building across from the Armoury in 1959. I didn’t know this until now, but QAUC also owns Grace Hall, a small building in the Queen’s Park area which was once used for sunday school and is now home to community groups (such as the Brownie group I went to as a kid!). I have certainly always associated QAUC with music, and the congregation has a reputation in the community for great musical events and performances.

New West has played host to spiritual communities of all kinds, but there simply isn’t room to do justice to them all. Many are small but in their own way left their imprint on the community – who can forget the Foursquare church and the Evangelical Free church (both on 10th, and technically in Burnaby) who maintain an active, and often clever, dialogue with the community via their church signs. We can’t leave out the orthodox churches (of which there are 4), and several intentional religious communities in New West currently and historically, such as the Sisters of St. Anne, the Loyal Protestant Home (now Royal City Christian Centre) and the Russian Orthodox convent on 5th Avenue (anyone know the name of this one?). I’ll leave these for a later post. In our “geeked out” discussions of New Westminster’s politics and history, we can’t leave out the rich history of many different faith traditions that have shaped and advanced New Westminster as the community it is today.

6 Replies to “Spirit of the City”

  1. I especially like the illustration of St. George and the dragon above the door of St Gheorghe Romanian Orthodox on 8th ave near 20th Street. My memory tells me there was a mini cemetery to the side of that building. Any one remember if that is true?

  2. There are so many churches in New West, many of the new ones are in office space rather than in traditional buildings. @Polysigh, good call on St.Mary's Sapperton. That is an historical parish for New Westminster for sure. What about the newly renovated (great job btw) St. Peter's Catholic Church. Besides making a great hiding spot for the police giving tickets for illegal right hand turns on to Royal Ave, it is a very important spiritual house in the city. I bet we are missing so many more, we should consult a hotel community directory.

  3. I also really like the architecture of the Jehovah Witness Hall, on 10th Street, with the copper roof. Nice looking building.

  4. You can’t forget about St. Mary’s in Sapperton. It dates back to 1865. Although historically built at the start of the road leading out of town (North Road/E.Columbia) it is now an unfortunate location.
    There’s also Olivet Baptist which was just featured in a recent article in one of the local rags.

  5. There are just so many – methinks it would be good to expand the article to a resource page and post it on the sidebar. Or maybe do a vol. 2. Or pitch to the NewsLeader? 😉

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