Book depicts some of Canada’s finest churches

Published October 1, 2007

The rather dry title Canadian Churches: an architectural history only hints at the riches within this enormous, comprehensive, stunningly beautiful survey of Christian houses of worship in this huge northern country.

The oversized (10″ x 11 1/2″ or 25 cm x 29 cm) volume contains 400 commissioned colour photographs and reproductions of architectural drawings and paintings that illustrate a broad sweep of theology and worship styles – from ornate Orthodox churches to plain Mennonite and Moravian chapels.

It is a dangerous book to open if the reader only has a few minutes to spare, since the text by brothers Peter and Douglas Richardson – both university professors, the former in religion and the latter in architecture – and the photographs by John de Visser reward hours of fascinated wandering.

The story of why buildings dedicated to God look the way they do also serves as a history of the country, from the seventeenth-century Maritime churches to startlingly original twentieth-century edifices in many different locations.

One challenge for the authors was selecting the 250 churches for the book, out of the thousands in Canada. (As an example, the Anglican, United, Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches in Canada encompass a total of about 12,000 churches.)

“It was a huge problem. We started with the notion of a certain number of regions and five or six historical periods. We set ourselves a challenge and drew a grid six columns across and five down and we said, ‘You and I will each put one church in each box as the most outstanding example within each period, say 1750 to 1850 in Atlantic Canada. When we compared lists, we had a high degree of overlap,” said Peter in an interview, describing his work with Douglas.

The brothers then expanded their lists. “We tried to get variety. We knew we would end up with urban churches, so we had a little section representing the (rural) Annapolis Valley (in Nova Scotia). We also looked for interesting stories, such as how the (Anglican) Stoney Lake (Ont.) church was built for the needs of cottagers,” said Peter, who taught religion at the University of Toronto and is now retired.

The brothers traveled across Canada to visit many of the churches, and Douglas, who is retired from teaching architecture, also at the University of Toronto, said that “it was a thrill to turn to material you’ve never had a chance to do anything with, (such as) a chance to explore Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Context is everything in architecture – how the community fits into the larger community and this entity we call Canada.”

[pullquote]”The biggest surprise,” said Peter, “was the Cardston, Man. Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It was the first Mormon temple built outside the United States and was designed in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright by two of his students. It is hardly known.”

Important Anglican churches include St. Paul’s in Halifax, Holy Trinity Cathedral in Quebec City and Christ Church Cathedral in Fredericton, he said.

The project – four years in the making – was started by Lionel Koffler, owner of Firefly Books, said Michael Worek, associate publisher at Firefly. “We publish a large number of illustrated books about Canadian buildings and landscape art and we’re always kicking around new ideas,” he said.

Canadian Churches may appeal to “anybody interested in Canadian history, architecture, religion, but you don’t have to be part of a denomination or faith group to enjoy it,” he said.

Mr. Koffler engaged the Richardsons and Mr. de Visser, who has contributed pictures to more than 60 books. “I am interested in any aspect of civilization, high or low. I like the architecture and history associated with churches. (In terms of photography) there are a lot of details you don’t see in a house. They are frequently more ornate, but in some even the simplicity is photogenic,” Mr. de Visser said in an interview.

He estimated he took roughly 10,000 pictures, using a Nikon film camera (he hasn’t gone digital yet), and endured bitter cold while shooting Christ Church (Anglican) Cathedral in Whitehorse. “The camera froze to my face. I had to go inside,” he recalled.

Possibly thinking of another book idea, Mr. de Visser said there was one thing he regretted about the project. “I regretted excluding certain religions. I would have liked to have included some synagogues. We also didn’t have mosques or Hindu temples.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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