Raising the roofs: Saturna churches

St. Christopher's Church, Saturna Island BC


Mike Davis

The settlement of Saturna began in 1869 when Peter Frasier became the first landowner.  In 1884 Warburton Pike and Charles Payne bought 1400 acres from Charles Trueworthy (in the area that is now the winery and the Campbell farm.)

Charles was the first member of the Payne family siblings to settle here, but in 1886 his brother Gerald came and he worked on the ranch with Warburton and Charles for six years before buying his own 900 acres where he built the house now known as the Breezy Bay B & B.  Brother Harold came to visit in 1891, returning in 1894 to run the store at Saturna Beach.  Later he bought the acreage that included the Veruna Bay property where he built the home now owned by the Sewells.

Harold’s twin Hubert St John trained as a Church of England priest and was ordained in 1895, after which he did some curacies in the London area before coming to be a chaplain at the British Naval garrison at Esquimalt.  He visited Saturna in 1900 and promptly bought an acreage that stretched from Winter Cove to the area that became the shale plant, now the ball park.  Sister Catherine came married to Major George Bradley-Dyne.

Hubert decided a family chapel was needed on Saturna and with George’s help moved what had been a work shed for a Japanese man from one side of his property to the area now known as Church Cove.  They fixed up the shed converting it into a space suitable for worship and George had the necessary supplies sent from England including a harmonium that is still here.  This was the first roof raising for the chapel Hubert called St Nicolas.

The British decided the Esquimalt garrison was no longer need and closed it in 1903.  It seems Hubert started his own Gulf Islands ministry.  Church archives show that on January 8, 1905 he baptized two Bradley-Dyne children and one Payne at St Nicolas.  The chapel welcomed any Saturna residents and many more children were baptized there over the years.  His mission ministry included South Pender and he travelled in an ex-naval pinnace named “Gazelle” which, apparently, wasn’t always as speedy as he would have liked.

Archival records show that in 1897 Warburton Pike and Gerald Payne were appointed as the delegates from Saturna to synod in the diocese of BC in Victoria.  Hubert continued his ministry until 1921 when he returned to England for a short time.  However, a last baptism is recorded at St Nicolas in 1926 and the chapel was formally closed in 1933 and its furnishings were donated to the S. Pender church and also to the church at Masset.  It seems likely that around this time is when most of the Payne family members moved off Saturna, many to Victoria.

Fortunately, the Community Hall was built in 1933, the harmonium was stored there and worship was held in the cool weather months, while it was often under the trees in what is now Thomson Park in summer.

By the time Geraldine Payne Dick wrote for the book, “A Gulf Islands Patchwork” in 1951, she referred to the chapel as St Christopher’s but it is a puzzle as to where she got that name from as all Hubert’s entries in the parish register name it as St Nicolas’ Church.  However, St Christopher was the patron saint of travellers and all had to travel by water to reach the church.  In the 1970s and 80s when the Gillespie family restored the chapel, there was a dedication service naming it St Christopher.

Different Christian denominations sent ministers and priests to lead worship on Saturna, and during the 1950s there was some rivalry.  A letter sent by retired Qu’Appelle diocese Bishop Michael Coleman to a BC diocesan meeting stated that if they didn’t hustle , they’d lose the opportunity to establish an Anglican church on Saturna to the Pentecostals or the United Church!

So the land that had been set aside for a community church was bought by Columbia diocese and funds were raised, even in the United States, to build the current St Christopher’s – for this poor little island in the Pacific that had no church!  The primary builder was Norman Wilson, a machinist and artisan, recruited by Coleman – who in response to Wilson’s protests that he’d never built a church before, was told to just build it like an upside-down boat.  It was completed and dedicated in 1963, the roof having been raised the previous year after the complicated construction of the arched beam supports.  The Bishop of Columbia consecrated it in 1964.

Only once has St Christopher’s been served by a full-time resident priest – the Rev Jack Dangerfield who lived here from 1966-76.  This time of independence ended in 1983 with a return to being part of the joint parish of the Penders and Saturna.

The church always was used ecumenically with Roman Catholic priests conducting masses and various other denominations’ ministers coming to lead worship here, and often for funerals.  In 1991 I was asked to conduct a monthly United Church service as Parish Warden Woodcock recognized that Anglican worship alone wasn’t meeting the needs of island residents.

It has also been obvious that many people find the spiritual nurture they need through nature and time spent quietly on a mountaintop or by the water.  However, St Christopher’s sanctuary has often been the choice of place for marriages and memorial services, and it serves as some kind of icon for the community.  A few baptisms have taken place, though not as many as Parson Payne conducted at St Nicolas.

These days the first and third Sundays are dedicated to the universal practice of meditation, the second Sunday is an Anglican Eucharist service, while the fourth (and fifth) are hosted by a variety of retired ministers or lay people.

Originally, the basement did not exist; it was dug out by hand by James and Hilda Yates and they wheelbarrowed the rocks and soil away.  The space was soon put to good use housing a thrift store ca 1970-75.  In the 80s it was used for the Sunday School after a renovation by Walter Warlow, soon housing four classes.  During the mid to late 80s, the green storage room off the stage at the Community Hall was deemed to be too small for the Book Room and the Library Committee requested to use space in the church basement.  The Lions Club helped with the cost and the remodelling and a member served on the committee, as did other interested community members.

The Community Club continued to sponsor the library operation, making an annual donation to the church to contribute towards heating and other costs.  Ca 2004 there was a CRD referendum to decide whether or not Saturna would become a Reading Room of the Pender library (this was to make Pender eligible for more provincial funding):  only two Saturna residents voted in favour of this as we thought our library was just fine, but Pender’s population carried the vote.  Afterwards there was a strong lobby of the CRD director to get a proportionate share of the tax revenue gathered from Saturna residents for Saturna use, as that had not been part of the original proposal.

However, the Library Committee has made good use of the funds. They have made improvements to the building as they have expanded and now use the whole space formerly used by the Sunday School and for church storage.  Recently, they have been established as an independent society, so no longer function under the umbrella of the Community Club.  The congregation uses the space on alternate Sundays after worship.

Three years ago some rot was discovered at the base of one of the main arch supports of the church.  Last year Tony Simmonds found the cause of the problem and repaired it, but he also discovered some faulty construction at the roof line where more of an overhang would have prevented the seepage of water down under the siding, which had caused the plywood sheeting underneath to rot.  He pointed out that after 53 years, the roof didn’t owe us anything and we should plan to replace it.

Hence our current roof raising project.  An upside-down boat shape is not the simplest to repair and replace; our estimates range from $30,000 to $40,000.  We will receive some money from the parish and some from the diocese, and we have approximately $12,000 in our Special Projects account, but we do need to raise funds to be able to complete the job.

If you would like to help, donations for a tax receipt may be made to the Parish of Pender & Saturna, with “St C’s roof fund” on the memo line of your cheque.  We are grateful to the various community groups who have offered their talent: there will be a Rock Concert at the church on September 3, the Saturna Singers on September 18 and Father Robbie McDougal later in the month.  We also have a donation of 20 paintings by former resident Jean duPlessis to help us raise the roof.   Please assist us with this project by attending an event or however you can. 

by Dawn Wood