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Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 7.

The Stone Church of St. Stephen

by Karen J. Watson

In the Quebec Gatineau Hills, just twelve miles outside Ottawa, in the village of Old Chelsea, is the stone church of St. Stephen, built between 1879 and 1883.

First called St. Étienne-de-Chelsea, the parish was created in 1840 by the Bishop of Lower Canada, Monsignor Bourget (of Montreal). A small wood frame church, approximately 30 by 40 feet, was built about 800 feet north of the present church for a congregation of 130 families, primarily of Irish origin, who lived on both sides of the Gatineau River.1 The priest at Aylmer, Quebec, Father Hughes, went regularly to say mass for the communities of Old Chelsea and Wakefield. In 1857 the parish became part of the newly-created Diocese of Ottawa under Archbishop Joseph Eugène Guigues. Between 1864 and 1872 episcopal visitations regularly noted the disorganized and inadequate handling of church books and accounts, which nearly led to the closing of the parish. By 1875, however, a new spirit of organization and determination was evident in the community; at a meeting of the parishioners on the 4th of February 1875, it was decided to ask permission to build a new stone church on the hill to the south of the wooden mission church. The Act of Episcopal Visitation of July 30, 1875, states:

A petition signed by over 50 Freeholders of the Parish of St. Étienne of Chelsea asking permission to build a stone church . . . [is granted] . . . We order that every Freeholder and everyone otherwise bound should contribute for building the church according to his valuation . . . [The Church] should be at least 80 by 50 feet.

The parish priest, Father Foley, was also granted permission to use the pew rental money for the building fund. The community began the necessary preparations, as the minutes of a wardens' meeting on June 30, 1877, shows that a sum of $298.59 lay in the "fabrique" (church fund) and "good quantities of stone and lumber had been drawn onto church property for the new church... The Catholics have considered it their duty to draw the material gratuitously." Most importantly, the Bishop notes:

It will be the duty of the parish priest [Father Foley] and the wardens to get a plan to be drawn by an architect, which must be approved of by Us [the Bishop] before they begin to build the church.

In August 1879 actual construction of the new church was begun, and on June 6, 1880, the ceremony of laying the cornerstone was witnessed by prominent members of the diocese and representatives of the province, and by the parishioners.

Keeping in mind that a skilled labourer received $1.00 per day, the master mason $2.50 per day, and that 20 lbs. of nails cost $1.00, the following entries in the Minutes of wardens' meetings take on special significance:

"25 Sept. 1880. . . . Paid E. A. Mara, architect . . . $62.50"
"27 Nov. 1882. . . . Paid Father Meacheaw for plans of the new church . . . $90.00"

Edward A. Mara was an architect working for the Department of Public Works in Ottawa. His role in the construction of the church is not clear, but was obviously not insignificant, as shown by the fee he received. Less mysterious is the other entry. Father Foley, the Irish parish priest, had entered the name "Father Meacheaw" incorrectly. The correct name, Révérend Père Joseph Michaud, appears in the documents of the Archives of the Diocèse de Hull:

M. Foisy, maître de maçonnerie, et M. Tobin, maître de charpenterie . . . devaient suivre les plans du Révérend Père Michaud de la Congrégation de St. Viateur, l'architecte de la Cathédrale de Montréal.

In order to make clear the importance of Michaud's having provided the plans, it is necessary to start with the Bishop of Montreal at the time, Monsignor Bourget. By 1850 Mgr. Bourget, in reaction to the increasing power of the English Protestant "conquerors" who were making their presence felt, (not least, architecturally through the Gothic style), had become a passionate advocate of the Baroque style of architecture. To him, Baroque expressed the essence of what was truly Christian and Catholic in architecture. At the same time, the roots of the Québecois building tradition had also been partly derived from the Baroque style of the Counter-Reformation, brought to Canada by the Jesuits in their churches based on Il Gesù in Rome.

After the 1854 fire that destroyed most of east Montreal, Mgr. Bourget was determined to build a new cathedral; not just any cathedral, but a reduced replica of St. Peter's in Rome (by Bramante, Michelangelo and others, begun 1506 and finished 1626). Victor Bourgeau, who had worked up (through the craft tradition) to the status of architect for most of Mgr. Bourget's Baroque-influenced churches, refused to build the cathedral due to his conviction that a copy of that massive building would be totally inappropriate. As a result, Mgr. Bourget eventually ended having Father Joseph Michaud prepare the plans in 1869 and complete the building in 1885, with the expertise of a reluctant Victor Bourgeau. Alan Gowans describes Michaud later as being active "dotting" the countryside around Montreal "with variations on the Roman Baroque Theme."2 St. Stephen's is one such variation.

A first glance at the façade shows clearly the influence of the Baroque Revival. This is seen in the striking similarity to the façade of Il Gesù (1568) in Rome by Della Porta (drawings 1 & 2), especially when only the essential lines are considered (drawings 3 & 4). Despite the difference in size, both have two storeys and are based on a square; the side volutes swing out over the lower sides; the façades are crowned by a classical pediment (St. Stephen's has a segmental pediment, while Il Gesù has a triangular pediment); the round-headed shape of the central door is echoed in the main window above, in the smaller flanking doors of St. Stephen's and in the segmental pediments of Il Gesù; and the slight forward thrust of the middle segment allows an ever changing definition by cast shadows.

However, behind the façade, St. Stephen's basically also expresses the earlier Quebecois parish church tradition of the Maillou Plan (circa 1715). The church is a latter-day example of the synthesis of the medieval craft tradition and the academic erudite tradition. A typical rural church of Quebec, it stands on the top of the hill on the Old Chelsea Road, dominating the village and landscape. The side walls are of two-foot thick rubblestone. For the front façade, the original specifications called for smoothly-finished ashlar; however cost considerations dictated the use of shaddy stone with rock-faced rustication and square bedding planes. Behind this surface stone of approximately 4-inch thickness, the inner 1 1/2 feet of wall is rubblestone.3

St. Stephen's drawings
Drawings prepared by Karen J. Watson.

The gable roof is steeply pitched. The clocher, or bell tower, is composed of a tall slender spire, below which is a small lantern over a larger one, super-imposed on a square drum extending from the inner structure. The keystone-arch-surrounds of the roundheaded windows and doors are of the same rough-surfaced bush-hammered stone as the quoins of the corners. The plan has a rounded apse and the church's length is approximately twice its width.

Although the stone church was started in 1879, it was under construction until 1883. In 1894 the new priest, Father Poulin, proposed the immediate building of a clocher, and later a sacristy and presbytery. Reference is made in the minutes of warden's meetings of 1895 to the erection of a spire by Richard Tobin costing $700.00.4 The bell in the clocher was ordered from Annecy-le-vieux, France, and bears a latin inscription from the 44th Psalm, part of verse 2: Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum; dico ego opera mea regi; in English, "My heart overflows with a goodly theme; as I sing my ode to the King."5

A scored metal roof replaces the original painted wooden shingles. Beneath it is sheathing of 1- by 12-inch pine across rafters on 4 foot centres. At the north end of the roof, the rafters splay out from the ridgeboard to form the half-rounded apse of the sanctuary below. In the construction of the church, the heavier timber connections are mortise and tenon, the lighter ones nailed. Nails and butt-joint connections, circular-sawn beams and columns were used throughout the construction.6 Supporting two enormous beams that nearly span the length of the nave, are 12- by 12-inch heavy pine columns (boxed in to become 16- by 16-inch panelled columns in the nave of the church), 16 feet on centre that enable the width of the nave to be approximately 50 feet. According to John Bland, imitations of the use of columns in the Anglican Cathedral in Quebec, employed to reduce spans of excessive length, sometimes led to architecturally displeasing forms because of unsuccessful experimentation.7 Fortunately the proportions of the tall slender columns of St. Stephen fit in well with the overall design.

The church interior is painted and the windows are of stained glass. There are ceiling and upper wall frescoes - on canvas, over plaster and lath - of the assumption of the Virgin Mary, and individual ones of Christ, the Apostles, angels and cherubs. Just inside the central door of the façade, within a triangle (symbol of the trinity), is the ceiling fresco of the "eye of God," a familiar motif in many rural churches. These frescoes and the painted-in mouldings around the whole interior were probably done by Giovanni Orler in 1910. He was paid $100.00 for decoration work in the church, a huge sum at that time.8

While the church interior was being decorated in 1910, two stained-glass windows were installed, bought from Luxfer Prism Co. of Toronto for a total of $400.00. By 1914 a total of $2,200.00 had been paid for the ten large round-headed stained-glass windows in the nave, the two in the apse, and the recessed-fan windows over the three front doors. Donations for these were made by members of the parish, as they were for the Stations of the Cross, lithographs "d'après les dessins de Wattier" from the firm, Turgis of Paris, France.

Around the church are statues of saints, of members of the Holy Family and of angels. These statues of wire and plaster were made by T.Carli-Petrucci Ltée of Montreal.i A particularly moving one is the Pietà. As with the other statues in the church, the colours of the paint (following the craft tradition) are very naturalistic with only a slight amount of gilding to follow the line of a robe or to accentuate a detail. The expression on the face of the Virgin and the positioning of the figures convey anguish in a way that owes little to the academic tradition of a stiff and ceremonial portrayal of saints (as seen in the reredos of the Ursuline Convent in Quebec City). This same non-formalistic approach is evident in the sanctuary of St. Stephen's and in the style of the reredos, the ornamental screen behind the altar.

The sanctuary is the focus of a Catholic church. Here the mass is said, the sermon is given. In line with each side aisle is a side altar. The stark white of the main altar and reredos stand out against the muted colour of the faded walls and the rich colour of the surrounding red carpet. The painted wooden altar is set three steps above the sanctuary floor on a carpeted rectangular platform. With modified Ionic columns, a Tuscan-like entablature and Gothic-style "blind window" panels, the altar is (like the reredos) a mixture of styles. The tabernacle is very simple, framed by carved modified Ionic pilasters, Gothic arches and gables. Above is a crucifix in a small elaborately carved baldacchino, surmounted by a large wooden crucifix. The reredos projects forward from the back of the apse. Its only complexity is the intricate carving of the border in the fleur-de-lys pattern. Even with such stylistic heterogeneity, the reredos and altar are more simply done than the usual tradition for ornate gilding and decoration. On each side of the altar, on a small pedestal bracketed to the reredos, is a statue of an angel holding a lamp. Perched above, on the top corners of the reredos are the simply-dressed figures of Mary on the left and of Joseph with the child Jesus on the right which are as large as the baldacchino itself. Also on the altar are finely-worked brass candlesticks on a narrow ledge at the back. Reference is made in the wardens' reports of 1882 to the purchase of the altar for $250.00 and of the crucifix and candlesticks costing $35.00, but at present the designer(s) of the altar and reredos are unknown.

Investigation in 1980 indicates that the church needs extensive renovations and repairs to the roof. Water damage (from a roof leak) has weakened the ceiling above the main aisle. An obvious and very sad sign of this damage is the warping and loosening of the ceiling boards and the consequent tearing of the canvas of the (now darkly stained) painting of the Assumption. Something as beautiful as this ceiling fresco should most definitely be restored and preserved. But what should be done about the painted walls, darkened now by dirt and age? Here are the seeds of a serious controversy between newer parishioners and long-established Old Chelsea families. Although the newer people are reluctant to destroy the original character of the church, they would like to redecorate the interior as part of the drive to invigorate parish life. However, members of the families whose grandparents hauled stone from the nearby fields and contributed to the actual building of the church feel strongly the wish to preserve it as close to its original state as possible.

Leaving aside the vital question of cost, we can see the essential problem facing restorers. How much emphasis does one put on intrinsic artistic value when faced with the importance of preserving a building that forms a strong part of the heritage and history of a village community and of the tradition of Quebec church architecture?


1. Information about the first church from parish priest Maurice Théoret (interview with author, March, 1980). Parish description from Courtney C. J. Bond, The Ottawa Country: a historical guide to the National Capital Region. (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1968), 75.
2. Alan Gowans, "The Baroque Revival in Quebec," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. No. 3 (Oct. 1955), 8-14.
3. The façade consists of 4-inch cut stone (most of it sandstone, with limestone trim), 1 1/2 feet of rubblestone, 6-inch wood frame of white pine, then lath and plaster on the interior.
4. Richard Tobin was also the master carpenter of the church.
5. On the bell is printed "G. & F. Pacard, Foundry-Annecy-le-vieux, Hte. Savoie, France."
6. For a detailed analysis of the construction, see Marc Dagenais' "Project on the architectural technology of St. Stephen's Church" (unpublished), prepared while Marc was an architectural technology student at Algonquin College, Ottawa, Ontario, in 1979-1980.
7. Pierre Mayrand and John Bland, Trois Siècles d'Architecture au Canada: Three Centuries of Architecture in Canada. (Montreal, Federal Publications Service, 1971), 69.
8. The church had been "artistically decorated interiorly and two stained-glass windows installed." Archbishop C. H. Gauthier, episcopal visitation of Aug. 25, 1911. Minutes of wardens' reports.
9. The manufacturer's name is visible on some of the statues. The Pietà is marked "T. Carli/ed. Mtl.-92."
Other statues are marked "T. Carli-Petrucci Ltée, 40 Notre Dame E. Mtl."
Lovell's Montreal Directory for 1858-59 does not list a Carli as manufacturer. In 1859-60, there is "Thomas Carle, Manufacturer of Statuary," corrected to Thomas Carli in later directories. In 1923-24 the company name changes to Carli-Petrucci.

This article by Karen Watson of Ottawa was awarded First Prize in the ninth annual Essay Contest sponsored by the GVHS, in 1980. When she wrote it, she was taking a course on Canadian architectural history at Carleton University. Her parents were married in this church and she was christened there.

(This article has been edited in order to incorporate the original footnotes into the text itself, wherever possible.)


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