Restoration of St. Thomas ‘aims to restore the very best aspects of the Indigenous-European relations it represents,’ says historian overseeing anniversary project
Located in northern Ontario at the southern tip of James Bay, Moose Factory is a community rich in historical significance.
The first English-speaking settlement in what is now Ontario and one of the first trading posts set up by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the settlement today has a population of approximately 2,500, predominantly Cree. Cecil Chabot, executive director of the Moose River Heritage and Hospitality Association (MRHHA) and a historian of the region, describes Moose Factory—first established as Moose Fort in 1673 on an older Cree gathering site—as “probably sub-Arctic North America’s oldest continuous hub of Indigenous-European relations.”
At the heart of this community from the mid-19th century onwards was St. Thomas’ Anglican Church. Commissioned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which completed the building in 1885, St. Thomas was “built by Cree and Europeans,” Chabot says, and brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous worshippers until the building was closed in 2006 due to needed repairs.
Now, residents of Moose Factory are coming together to restore St. Thomas as a multipurpose community space as part of More Than 350—an MRHHA-led initiative that seeks to use the settlement’s 350th anniversary as a catalyst for “cultural and language revitalization” and reconciliation.
“What we’re trying to do in restoring St. Thomas’ Church is not just restore a building, but restore the very best of the relationships represented by those who helped build it, restore it, maintain it, and who lived and used it; who were born in the community and baptized there, who are buried there, who got married there,” Chabot says.
“That’s the essence of why St. Thomas is important. It’s restoring the very best of the relationships represented by that church at the site of North America’s oldest continuous Indigenous-European middle ground.”
A volunteer committee set up by the MRHHA is now organizing consultations to gather community input on how people would like to see the church used to serve the community, Chabot says. The committee is working with the Trinity Centres Foundation, a charitable organization that aims to helps congregations repurpose church properties into “community hubs and affordable housing,” according to the foundation’s website.
Since the closure of the old St. Thomas, the parish has worshipped in a renovated, formerly Roman Catholic church it purchased in 2000. Chabot says the goal is for the restored church to host Anglicans as well as other Christian and non-Christian faith groups, while expanding its scope for use by various community groups and programs.
“If [Anglicans in Moose Factory] can come back to the original Anglican church and use it alongside other community groups, then that ensures a better survival of the building,” Chabot says, mentioning that it could be used on Sundays and special days for Anglican and other Christian liturgies.
For other community groups, he says, “the use has to be compatible with the character of the building and respect for sacred space. We’re not going to do a rock-climbing gym in the church.” Chabot says the emphasis will be for a multipurpose community space that supports “families and intercultural, intergenerational connections; that supports language and language revitalization, that supports culture, art, music, all of these things.”
“We’re waiting to see what the specifics of those things are going to be,” he adds. “But that’s the scope—try to maximize the ways in which this building restored can serve the community in a way that’s open to its historic uses, if that’s what the community members want, but also expands well beyond those uses.”
St. Thomas has a long tradition of forging intercultural connections.
John Horden, later first bishop of the Anglican diocese of Moosonee, was a schoolteacher when he arrived in Moose Factory in 1851 for missionary work at the request of the diocese of Rupert’s Land. Learning the Cree language, Horden translated parts of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer and held worship services in Cree at what became St. Thomas’ Church.
The church building itself is a notable form of cultural expression, being one of the few Carpenter Gothic churches in the world—inspired by the 19th century Gothic Revival in England, but using wooden structures based on the abundance of timber in North America. Meanwhile, the prevalence of Cree parishioners and worship services held in both English and Cree shaped the character of the church.
MRHHA communications director Jane Scanlon—also part of the fundraising committee for the restoration of old St. Thomas, and who formerly worked as director of communications and stewardship development for the Anglican diocese of Ottawa—lived on Moose Factory Island with her family from 1964 to 1969. Her father, the Rev. James Scanlon—who died on March 23 at the age of 95—served during this time as archdeacon of James Bay and priest at St. Thomas’ Church.
Jane says her father “really cared about the Cree and their culture and heritage, and he made a point of speaking [Cree] and writing in their language using syllabics … The altar was adorned in moose hide, beautifully decorated by some very talented Cree artisans.” During his time in Moose Factory, James Scanlon also helped create the northern newspaper Ministikok. Jane says he delivered the newspaper “running from place to place on the island in all kinds of weather to make sure people were connected with their own news and stories.”
In 1967, the 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, James Scanlon “was really wanting the Cree to showcase their own culture, language, and heritage during Canada’s centennial,” Jane says. She recalls then prime minister Pierre Trudeau “criss-crossing the country encouraging Canadians to learn about each other and to sample the cuisine of the places in Canada.” In her family’s backyard on church grounds, she says, James asked local Cree residents to build teepees or wigwams. One local resident moved into the wigwam with her grandchildren and prepared bannock there to sell to tourists, with Jane and her brother running around the island encouraging people to try the bannock.
At the time, Jane says, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a “stranglehold” on the community in that no commercial activity was permitted outside the company. But an exemption applying to church lands allowed food and handicrafts to be purchased from the wigwams.
While Jane says her father championed Cree cultural expression, he did so at a time when the Anglican Church of Canada was still running residential schools, in which Indigenous children were taken from their families and prevented from practicing their own cultural traditions. At the time her family arrived in Moose Factory, Jane says, the rectory was in such poor condition that they could not live there. As a result, the family moved into the local Anglican-run residential school, Bishop Horden Hall.
During their time there, Jane says, her father invited Cree to come into the school and teach students their language. He also asked children to draw pictures of their experiences and what they saw around them. “It turned into this big thing where Cree art was just everywhere—in school, in the church hall, in the church itself,” she says. “It really tied in with the centennial celebrations.”
Jane acknowledges the horrors of the residential school system. After numerous discoveries of suspected graves at residential school sites in recent years, Jane says, she experienced a crisis of faith.
“From my perspective, I see in part that the More Than 350 celebrations are continuing the traditions and focus started by my dad during Canada’s centennial with the Cree,” Jane says. “These events are emphasizing their heritage, language and culture and it’s really about reclaiming those.”
Today, the congregation at St. Thomas is made up largely of Cree elders, according to Frances Sutherland, president of the St. Thomas Anglican Church Women (ACW). Elders are “keeping the [Cree] language there … A local elder does all the readings in Cree,” Sutherland says.
The ACW has been involved with the MRHHA in the restoration initiative, Sutherland says, being kept informed about the latest developments in community consultations.
Based on the consultations, she says, “People want to still have [the church building] being utilized” as a gathering space, especially for elders, as well as community “activities that need to be looked into to have a full-capacity use of the building.”
Mike Wood Daly, a community engagement associate with the Trinity Centres Foundation, says the consultation process has included a variety of methods. Working with the MRHHA, the Trinity Centres Foundation has invited Moose Factory residents to share their visions for the restored St. Thomas building through online and paper surveys—the latter distributed by mail, as well as in person everywhere from grocery stores to youth basketball tournaments. TV and radio advertisements have also drawn attention to the broader More Than 350 project.
Wood Daly himself attended a worship service at St. Thomas to speak to the congregation, with a time set afterwards for parishioners to offer their input. The Trinity Centres Foundation also hosted a luncheon for local elders, and is planning to hold Zoom meetings with community service providers such as the local hospital, schools, and police. Wood Daly hopes to soon have a summary of community input and priorities.
“Some people have been talking about this as an example of a reconciliation project, and I think that’s a difficult label to put on the project,” Wood Daly says. “I think our hope through the Trinity Centres Foundation is that it will become an example of how faith communities and First Nations and other Indigenous communities can work towards reconciliation. But there’s still a real lack of definition around what that means in the communities themselves.
“Elected leaders are referencing it as a move towards reconciliation, but within the community itself, it’s not necessarily understood as that yet,” he adds. “There are some difficult challenges around the relationship that the church had with the residential school that was there. One of the things that we’re discovering from the consultations is that there’s still a lot of work to be done around what it means to work together towards a reconciliation project.”
Cheryl Tomatuk-Bagan, MRHHA associate community coordinator who is also working on the consultation process, shares Wood Daly’s caution around the word “reconciliation” in describing the St. Thomas restoration. Instead she describes it as “steps toward reconciliation.”
Born in Moose Factory, Tomatuk-Bagan describes herself as half-Cree with Indian status. While noting there have been talks about using the church building as a cultural centre, she says, “the priority for our community is space … A lot of [First Nations] have housing issues—not enough housing, too many people. Sometimes there’s two, three, four families in one place. There’s nothing to rent up here. It’s very hard to find housing.”
At the same time, she says, “We’re talking about space to breathe, space for creativity … I believe the feedback we’ve gotten primarily is that it should be a community space that’s multipurpose. Within that is included cultural activities. We don’t need another museum. We need a space to be able to do our traditional crafts and arts.”
While Moose Factory residents continue to deliberate on how the old St. Thomas building will be repurposed, Jane Scanlon is helping lead fundraising efforts to finance the restoration of the church.
The total budget required to restore and repurpose the old St. Thomas is $2 million, Jane says. The MRHHA is working to raise $1.5 million through government grants.
A major donation came from relatives of the late Anglican dean Sharon Murdoch, an honorary assistant in the parish of St. Thomas Kingston’s in the diocese of Ontario who had known James Scanlon. A $100,000 donation has been made through the Sharon Murdoch Memorial Fund for the Restoration of Old St. Thomas Church. The Moose Cree First Nation later matched this donation.
Other fundraising efforts have included the 12 Apostles Campaign to Save St. Thomas, which in 2020 raised nearly $35,000 through GoFundMe. Before his death, James Scanlon himself donated $5,000. Outside of government grants, Jane says, the fundraising goal is $750,000, which includes $500,000 for renovations and $250,000 for programs that will take place in the old St. Thomas.
Donations for the St. Thomas restoration can be made at mrhha.ca/contribute.