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Losing the Nymark Touch: In Search of a Future for a Log-Built Heritage Landmark

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St. Francis of the Birds Church. (Photo - M. Farfan)June 10, 2008

The future of religious sites and structures has become a major concern, especially in rural Quebec and especially in regard to English-speaking communities. The overall decline in participation in, and support for, traditional religious denominations is only one factor. Even among church parishes that are still alive, even if not thriving as they once were, there appears to be a trend towards selling off any buildings that are perceived as economically challenging.

The recent sale of the St. Francis of the Birds Anglican Church hall in St. Sauveur-des-Monts serves as an example of this trend. This large round-log structure was built in 1958, six years after the construction of the church, which is on the adjoining lot. Both buildings are important Laurentian heritage sites that recall the Scandinavian influence on the region’s development during the last century. However, because the municipality of St. Sauveur declined to rezone the site of the church hall for commercial activities, the only persons interested in buying it were the owners of the Manoir St. Sauveur hotel. Their stated intention is to remove the building altogether and use the space for a parking lot.

This proposal, tabled in late 2006, led to a great deal of protest from the community, prompting St. Sauveur mayor Michel Legacé to voice his support for a local committee that is now seeking to preserve the striking structure by dismantling it and rebuilding it as a new building adjoining the church. Here it could continue to serve as a somewhat smaller meeting hall. The hotel owners, who offered to pay the Anglicans $695,000 for the building also seem favourable to this idea.

St. Francis Church was built in 1951 and was the product of a unique combination of people and circumstances. Canon Horace Baugh, who ministered in the parishes of Mille Isles, Morin Heights and St. Sauveur from 1950 to 1983, conceived of building a church in St. Sauveur early on in his Laurentians term to serve what was then a fairly large and mainly English-speaking population of seasonal residents, weekend skiers and tourists. In the early 1950s many wealthy Montreal families owned properties around St. Sauveur and Canon Baugh was able to receive more than adequate financial support for his project.

At first the idea met some resistance from the local Roman Catholic parish, which perceived it as signaling a possible “turf war,” but this was pleasantly resolved. Then the Anglican Diocese of Montreal itself objected, on grounds that the church’s proposed name, St. Francis of the Birds— a tribute to the 12th-century Christian mystic and legendary nature lover Francis of Assisi— sounded “too Roman Catholic” or what used to be called “High Church.” However, Baugh and his influential backers, including John Molson, won the day.

The first meeting of the planning committee was at Nymark Lodge. Victor Nymark, a builder and contractor, had come to Quebec come from Finland in 1924 and was a leading proponent of Scandinavian architectural traditions in Eastern Canada. He had already worked on the famous Château Montebello, the world’s largest log building, and his influence was evident in many smaller hotels and private homes across the Lower Laurentians, including the Mont Gabriel Club in Ste. Adèle. All of them were modeled on the classic Scandinavian round-log house.

Nymark had also bought some land in the mountain area behind St. Sauveur village where he established Nymark Lodge, near the present-day site of the Mont St. Sauveur Ski Centre. Here he and Fred Pabst installed St. Sauveur’s first cable ski-tow in 1932; the following year Nymark and Adolphe Bélanger founded the St-Sauveur Sport Club and fitted the hill with a ski jump. Nymark died in 1983.

Construction began in March and the church was opened on October 6, 1951. In his 1999 memoirs, My Father Before Me, Canon Baugh recounts that John Molson supplied the wood, donating some 600 pine trees that had been felled by a freak windstorm on the family estate. The architect was Erwin Bamberger and the building contractor, Victor Nymark. Volunteers did a lot of the work and most of the fittings were donated. Captain E.J. Rodgers gave two brass lanterns, installed at the front of the church. These were from the Isle de France ocean liner of which he had been the captain. The lectern was donated by John Molson and had been on the ship Nooya. The Molsons had owned and sailed on this ship in 1870. The wrought-iron lighting fixtures inside were from H.B. Bydwell and the two crucifixes at the head of the aisle were made at the Shawbridge Boys’ Farm, now called the Batshaw Youth Centre. Many other people, such as the Raffignon, Dinsdale, Fisher and other local families contributed.

Six years later the need for a church hall became apparent as there was nowhere at that time to hold large events in St. Sauveur. Again, the fundraisers, led by John Molson and Chipman Drury, went to work and again, the Bamberger and Nymark team settled on the Scandinavian round-log style. This time the logs came from the property of Matt Kirkpatrick, a farmer from the Morin Heights-Mille Isles area. Lucille Wheeler, famous Olympic skiing champion, laid the church hall’s cornerstone.

“The hall was a wonderful help in giving the community a social centre,” Baugh recalls. “Wonderful square dances were held, plays were performed, dinners were served, wedding receptions were held and a badminton group started by Barbara (Barney) Aylette. This group called themselves ‘The Badminton of the Birds,’ still active today. Some ladies who played in the 1950s when it opened are still playing in the 1990s.”

Today, the unique and very beautiful stained glass windows are probably the most notable feature of the log church’s interior. The large window over the altar, another gift from John Molson, shows St. Francis surrounded by twenty-one species of birds, all native to the Laurentians. The long narrow stained glass windows on the sides of the church show the four seasons in the St. Sauveur valley and were donated by various parishioners.

Over the years the St. Francis hall has been well used by groups not directly connected to the church, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, a cancer support group, the Laurentian Ski Museum and others. The Parish of Morin Heights and St. Sauveur has used the hall for youth activities and, until recently, operated a used-clothing market every Thursday. The large fieldstone fireplace, the soaring windows and the warm ambience of the logs create a welcoming atmosphere, even in such a huge space.

As time has passed the congregation has aged and numbers have declined. Costs for heating and general upkeep have increased. The windows require refitting, probably replacement, and even though logs are still one of the more easily maintained construction materials, they still need treatment for preservation as time goes by.

It is still hoped that the meeting hall can be saved and will continue, in some form, to provide a gathering place for remaining parishioners and the surrounding community.