Housekeeping task turns up treasures

By on December 1, 2003

One steaming hot summer day in 1996, Jennifer Iredale, a curator with the British Columbia Heritage Branch, arrived at the 140-year-old, now-desanctified, St. John the Divine church in Yale, B.C., to vacuum more than 100 aging liturgical textiles stored away in the damp vestry. She and Bev Kennedy, executive director of the Fraser Heritage Society, were concerned that the hanta virus (carried by mice) might show up at provincial heritage sites. That day, they made an historic and unexpected discovery that has opened up a whole new area of research into the work of Anglican women in B.C. between the 1850s and 1920s.

As Ms. Iredale and Ms. Kennedy pulled the old altar frontals, banners, hangings, veils, corporals, palls, fair linen cloths from the cupboards, they began to get excited. The hand-made linens were far more colourful and beautiful than they had expected. Some were simple and plain, some were unfinished samplers, while others were exquisite, finished pieces. Realizing they had found something of real historic significance, they developed a theory that the linens were not imported from Britain like most liturgical textiles of the time. Rather, women in British Columbia had made them.

The linens ignited Ms. Iredale’s and Ms. Kennedy’s imaginations. How did such fine embroidery make its way to a church built by early settlers in a rough, gold-miners’ town like Yale? They submitted a research proposal to the University of Victoria Community-University Research Alliance and received funding to study and exhibit the textiles. Working with Diane Tolomeo, an English scholar and student researchers, they’ve now nearly completed the project. An exhibition entitled Enduring Threads is now on display in Yale at St. John the Divine and a 40-page exhibition catalogue will soon be published. Not only do Ms. Iredale and Ms. Kennedy hope the exhibit will travel to Kamloops and Victoria , they’re dreaming of one day displaying it in England .

While it is still not possible to attribute each piece from the Enduring Threads exhibit to its individual creators, it is now clear that they were made by First Nations and European students together with the nuns at All Hallows Anglican girls’ school, which operated in Yale from 1884-1920. Three nuns from All Hallows convent in Ditchingham, England (an order known for its fine ecclesiastical embroidery) arrived in British Columbia in 1884 to establish a school for First Nations girls from Lytton, Spuzzum and Yale, with a sum of money First Nations people had earned on construction of the railway, which they turned over to the Anglican church, says Ms. Iredale, quoting from newspaper articles of the time. A school for European girls was soon established next door at the request of settlers.

Ms. Iredale said she is now ?deeply into tracking the story? not only of the Yale textiles, but of the work of Anglican women’s guilds in B.C., which were deeply influenced by the arts and crafts movement in Britain . She and Ms. Kennedy hope to receive funding to continue their research, and deepen their understanding of the artistic work of Anglican women. The women welcome info rmation about liturgical textiles made in B.C. before 1920 and can be contacted at [email protected]. Stephanie Gould is a freelance writer in Chilliwack , B.C.

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