Return to main Vanishing B.C. page Return to home page
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.
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
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,
Update from Sharon Syrette
(November 2006): I thought it was overdue for me to be
in touch. First, a few changes -
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