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Page last updated April 10, 2009

© Michael Kluckner

"It is totally unexpected, a cathedral in the wilderness accessible only by a rough logging road . . . Of all the early church buildings remaining in British Columbia, only one or two, such as St. Eugene's, Cranbrook, and St. Paul's Kitwanga, an compare with it in terms of elaborate decoration."--Veillette and White, Early Indian Village Churches, 1977.

Skookumchuck is perhaps harder to get to than it was in the 70s or the 80s, as there is less logging in the area and the road, especially the one coming north from Harrison Lake, has apparently deteriorated significantly. I went in from the north, down a rough 55 km. gravel road from Mount Currie.

The Skookumchuck rapids on the Lillooet River were a traditional Indian fishing site. "The village has about 20 buildings, some vacant and many of which are inhabited only part of the year. Residents of the village often stay in [Port] Douglas for seasonal logging employment. Census population (1976) is 7," according to the 1980 report (Lillooet-Fraser Heritage Resource Study. volume I, Heritage Conservation Branch, Province of BC, Ministry of Provincial Secretary and Government Services, 1980, page 65). Barry Downs, in Sacred Places, 1980, said there were six people there. There appeared to be a few dozen people there in the fall of 2002; according to the Canadian census, Skookumchuck had a population of 66 in 2001 in 19 private dwellings, up from 44 in 1996.

Although a modest building with the exception of its three extraordinary steeples, the Holy Cross Catholic Church dominates the village, which occupies a narrow strip of land below the road along the river. An equally extraordinary cemetery covers the bench between the road and the church. In the fall the air has the sharp crispness of the BC Interior, needing only a little moisture added to the hard air to produce snow, while dry yellow leaves from the aspens and cottonwoods along the riverbank rattle as they blow across the dormant grass and gravel roadway.

Built in 1905, the church is actually the third one built in the vicinity since the Oblate Fathers established a mission in 1861 (another was established at Shalath on Seton Lake). Barry Downs described it as "a masterpiece of hand-crafted folk art. Because of its isolated position, the building still stands, providing dramatic evidence of the lost splendour of its sister church at Pemberton (Mount Currie).

"The church, measuring 25' x 70', rests on large hand-hewn timbers set on great stone footings pulled up from the river. It boasts the richest and most elaborate interior in the diocese. All is handcarved: the priest's chair, the confessionals, the pews, as well as the tabernacle and side altars, which are painted white and trimmed with gold. Its stained-glass side lights and the brilliant rose window cast vibrant patterns on the white clapboard walls and undulating ceiling. The altars dominate the sanctuary--a dazzling display of niches, canopies and flat pinnacles, crocketed and topped with trefoil finials and crosses in true Gothic splendour. The delicate curved altar railing and the open latticework of the confessional complement and complete this exuberant display. The Church of the Two Thieves, although late in construction, represents the culmination of a well-tutored folk art tradition in the area."

The 1970s photographs in Barry Downs' book show the church quite freshly painted; today, much of the exterior paint has worn away, and I wasn't able to see the interior. (I have another couple of scenes in the sketchbook to finish and post here.)

Note from Sharon Syrette: A group of mostly First Nations people, descendants of the original builders of the church, have formed a not-for-profit society called Ama Liisaos Heritage Trust Society. The primary purpose is restoration and maintenance of the Church of the Holy Cross, along with preserving the history, memories, photos, traditions, etc. I am the volunteer Society manager - we have a membership of about 55 people, and everything is done by volunteers. We have a Cooperating Agreement with the Skatin Chief and Council, supporting our efforts and giving us the go-ahead for management.

Unfortunately, there's no money to go along with that - as you know from visiting the area, it is very poor economically, with few local jobs and no development. Everything comes from the Canadian govenment, and as you say, there is "no appetite" to provide funds for heritage restoration. We have a pamphlet about the Church, a newsletter (second issue coming up soon), attend a lot of community events to raise awareness of this remarkable site, and of course - fundraising.

We had a Condition of the Church assessment done by Ramsey Warden Architects in 2003, identifying the major areas of concern. I am currently working on a proposal to BC to try to access money to have the engineering specifics done, so that we can proceed with restoration (when we get enough money). Also in process of registering as a Canadian charity, as that will make us eligible for other sources of money. Right now, we are hoping to get a crew together to do some winterizing during the next month or so, hoping to keep any further damage till we can raise the money for restoration.

We would really welcome any ideas, suggestions, contacts, etc. that you can pass along. Also, any other sketches or photos that you might have.

If you would like any futher information, please contact me either by email or phone.

PS My mother-in-law, now 90, was baptised in the Church in 1914, my husband in 1945, my daughter in 1984, and a grandson in 2002. Lots of family ties, great stories, and passion in our family

Update from Sharon Syrette, 2009:  last fall we completed a new foundation under the Church; a documentary of that project will be broadcast on History TV, hopefully in the fall of 2009.  We are currently fundraising for the next stage - to repair the steeples, towers and windows, and hope that the broadcast will help draw attention to the site.  It was listed in 2008 as the top ten endangered heritage sites in Canada, and on the international endangered spiritual sites list as well.

Update from Sharon Syrette, Winter, 2008:

Last fall, we were finally able to start the conservation work on the Church of the Holy Cross.  We received a Heritage Legacy Fund of BC grant, a generous donation from a private trust, and on-going donations from our many supporters across Canada.  The conservation work on the foundations was filmed by PTV Productions, and a one-hour docuementary will be shown on History TV sometime in the fall of 2008.

After the initial work to stabilize the towers with internal bracing in the fall, the work on the foundations started.  Given our limited funds and the condition of the original logs that have supported the building for the past 100 years, the architect and engineer recommended concrete pillars under the main chapel and vestry. The building was not raised.   After bracing the logs, holes were hand-dug to a depth of over 4 feet (below frost line), sonor-tubing and rebar installed, and the concrete pillars then poured under the existing log support beams.  Some wood had to be trimmed, and replaced with solid wood.

When the front porch and steps were removed, we had a very unpleasant surprise - the 16 inch support beam under the front of the church was so badly deteriorated that it had to be removed; the front of the church now rests on a solid concrete wall.  The supporting logs under the two outer towers were also in very poor condition, and the decision was made to remove them and replace them with a concrete retaining wall under each tower.  Although not historically accurate, this approach was supported by the Elders, who point out that the original builders were a practical people; if concrete had been available back in 1905, they might have used it.  What is most important is that the Church will sit on a solid foundation, and hopefully will still be in use a hundred years from now.

Due to severe winter conditions and road condition, construction was halted for over 9 weeks, but the new porch, stairs and access ramp will be completed  soon, and  final inspection is  scheduled for  March 28th, 2008.

Total costs were over $178,000 - all raised through fundraising, donations and grants; the federal government is still  "extremely interested" but that hasn't translated into any money so far.

We hope to move into Phase 2: repair of the envelope, decorative woodowork, windows, and roof by mid-2008.  Our initial budget projection is $196,000.

On the personal side, our president Shirley Wallace passed away in February; Shirley was featured in the July 2006 Globe & Mail article by Mark Hume that resulted in over 135 people across Canada making donations to help conserve the Church.  A gentle and caring woman, Shirley was strongly motivated to save the Church which her grandfathers and other ancestors had built.  Her leadership and inspiration will be sadly missed by the Society, as well as her family and community.  A memorial trust has been set up to recieve donations to continue the work that she started.

Update from Sharon Syrette (November 2006): I thought it was overdue for me to be in touch.  First, a few changes -
address and phone

Ama Liisaos Heritage Trust Society, 33233 14th Ave., Mission, B.C.  V2V 2P7
Phone: 604 826-1629

So much has happened in the past year.

March 2006: Conservation Feasibility study completed by Ramsey Warden Architects and EnNova Structural Engineers.  This analysis gave us some specific goals for fundraising to conserve the Church of the Holy Cross.  Phase One: electrical upgrade, foundations and towers=$196,000 Phase Two: envelope, roof, cladding = $256,600  Phase Three Code compliance, safety upgrades, and interior finishing =$165,000 Phase Four ongoing maintenance $4,500 annually.

June 22, 2006 Commemorative Plaque ceremony co-sponsored by Parks Canada, Skatin Nation, and Ama Liisaos Heritage Trust Society - an exciting event for the community, attended by Veronica Strong-Boag, BC rep to the Historic Sites Board and Monuments Board of Canada, and John Aldag,Manager of Historic Sites, Coastal BC .  Having been designated a national historic site in 1981, the Church now has a tri-lingual plaque to mark the site.

June 22, 2006 - Seven babies/ children were baptised by Monsigneur Jerry Desmond, including my two youngest grand-daughters - continuing the tradition that started with the baptism of my mother-in-law, Margaret Ann Peters [Williams] in 1914!

July 2006 extensive media coverage in the Toronto Globe & Mail, BC Catholic Weekly, and various local/regional newspapers resulted in an outpouring of support and donations!  Over 140 people from across Canada, total strangers, and mostly people who have never visited the Church, made donations ranging from $5.00 to $400.  In total, we received over $16,000.

August 2006: Ama Liisaos Heritage Trust Society received our federal Charitable Tax Status, and can now issue official receipts for

September 2006: our book Spirit in the Land: Our Place Of Prayer was published.  Oral history and family photographs, and personal memories of a dozen Elders tell the story of how their grandparents built the Church, and what it has meant to the community over the past 100 years.  Sales are excellent so far, with $10 from each book going toward restoration.

October 2006: the Heritage Legacy Fund of BC approved a grant of $25,000 matching funds, to stabilize the towers and steeples -
distinctive character-defining elements that have been greatly 'at risk'

November 2006: Kindred Construction Ltd. and local volunteers will be working on the towers and steeples, before the difficult winter season causes greater damage.

So, our small team of volunteers has accomplished an amazing amount of work since we were last in touch with you.  Of course, there is still a long way to go - some would say we have only raised 1/4 of the total that is needed.  The federal government has yet to put any money into this historic site, and the present political climate doesn't give us much hope from them.

On the other hand, the amazing response of individuals has really given us new energy and we are re-assured that the work we do is of
lasting importance, not just to our family, but to all Canadians who value the heritage of our country.

2005 update: Our Board continues to be committed to the fundraising efforts; although very slow. We are hoping to hear any day from BC about receiving a matching grant to get the engineer and architect to prepare the drawings and costing for restoration work. The priority is the towers and foundation. We managed to do some winterizing last fall, but that is definitely only an interim measure. We are also working with Parks Canada to erect the commemorative plaque marking it as a Canadian national historic site. Hopefully, that ceremony will be October 14 or 15th; its a long and twisted route to get the text approved, translated, plaque made, dates agreed, etc.

The chain of lakes and rivers heading north from the Fraser and called the Harrison-Lillooet gold route provided the initial access to the goldfields and eventual settlements of the Interior. It was the most highly developed path to the Interior from 1858 to 1863, when the Cariboo Road opened. Port Douglas, at the northern end of Harrison Lake, is said to have some evidence of historic settlement. Most intact, according to the above-mentioned 1980 report, was the section between Port Douglas and 29mile house at the south end of Lillooet Lake; I saw nothingbut forest on either side of the narrow logging road on my run from Lillooet Lake to Skookumchuck. 29 Mile House once had a roadhouse which was the terminus of the Douglas Portage and the starting point for steamer travel to Port Pemberton. To the south, 4-Mile House was obliterated by 1980, but several old buildings were said to be at 10-Mile house, including what might be the old roadhouse or a rebuilt version of it located on Perrets Indian Reserve. To the north, the Long Portage between Mount Currie and D'Arcy had been pretty much obliterated by the construction of road, railway and hydro rights of way. D'Arcy is the site of Port Anderson on the trail, today the site of Holy Rosary Church, built about 1900 and, according to legend, featuring once in an Emily Carr painting. Locals I spoke to in the Pemberton area went down the road for the hotsprings at St. Agnes Well, a few miles north of Skookumchuck which, not surprisingly, was a significant stopping point on the wagon trail.

Map adapted from Lillooet-Fraser Heritage Resource Study, 1980

There is no appetite within either the provincial or federal government to provide funds to assist with restoration of churches such as these.

Holy Rosary, D'Arcy

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Artwork and text ©Michael Kluckner, 2001, 2002