St. Paul's (Middlechurch) Anglican Church

If you are driving north of Winnipeg on highway 9, you might just miss seeing St Paul’s Middlechurch.  You wouldn't be the first person to do so and it’s probably a regular occurrence.  The fact is, this little church tucked away down a dead end road in the country has more ties to Manitoba’s rich history than one would think at first glance.

In the fall of 1812, exactly 200 years ago this year, Lord Selkirk’s settlers arrived in the Red River Valley to colonize the area.  We have all heard of the major events that took place during this time of growth for the area, including the Pemmican Wars and the Battle of Seven Oaks.  These events are usually the more entertaining stories to keep school children interested in a local history lesson, or for those enthusiasts of historic battles and weaponry.  The event that helped shape the future of St Paul’s Middlechurch and a large portion of Winnipeg’s current religious worship was a meeting with Lord Selkirk and his settlers in 1817.  It was then he promised them “a minister of their own faith” which was to be a Presbyterian who spoke Gaelic.  Instead, in 1820, Rev. John West came to the Red River Settlement.  He was an Anglican and spoke no Gaelic, but made great strides to include the Presbyterian beliefs.  He omitted several parts of the Book of Common Prayer that were offensive to them and began building a community of faith by holding regular prayer meetings.

His successor, Rev. David Jones, came to the settlement in 1823; it is this man who is credited with the building of the first church.  Aid in this work was received from Governor Simpson, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the local settlers.  A small wooden church was built and opened for its first service January 30, 1825 in the district that was commonly referred to as Image Plains.

Success of the new church in the settlement was short lived.  In 1826, the newly built church was decimated by the flood waters of the Red River.  Rev. Jones recorded the extent of the damage as follows:

                “The glass windows were driven out by the current, the seats were shattered and mostly carried away, the pulpit was swept from its foundation, the doors were battered down and all the plastering was washed off, in short the desolation was complete.”

Despite the damage sustained during the flood, the shell of the building still stood.  Parishioners still worshiped at St Paul’s after the flood and Rev. Jones recorded that “the Gospel will sound as well from behind a table as from my handsome pulpit.”

The church was patched up and used for another 18 years until 1844 when a new, larger church was built.  The Middle Church at Image Plain became the second largest church in the area.  This church was much sturdier and survived the flood of 1852.  Many of the local residents stored their belongings in the gallery of the church while they fled to higher ground.  Rev. Chapman, who was the minister at the time, refused to be evacuated and stayed in the gallery of the church.  He would row to Bird’s Hill on Sundays to hold services there.

While the church still stood, it did sustain some damage from the flood.  By 1867 the church had to be torn down because of a weakened structure.  It wasn't until 1876 when a building committee was formed for a new church.  A professional architect was hired to design the building which had to be approved by the Bishop.  It was the wish of the vestry to build a stone edifice.  Some stone was collected for this purpose, but later sold.  It was presumed to be a question of economics that caused a wooden church to be built instead.  It was not built on the site of the old church, but facing the road leading to the Ferry on the Red River.  It is estimated that the church was completed in 1880, although no documents exist to prove this exact date.  This was the same year that “The Indian School” was opened.  The two incumbents of St. Paul’s were school masters there; the Rev. Coombes and the Rev. W.A. Burmon.  The “Lych Gate”, which still stands today, was built by the boys of the Indian School.  It is a rarity in Western Canada and has quite an interesting past.  In the early days of the settlement when a death occurred, the body rested at home till the day of the funeral.  The pallbearers carried the coffin on their shoulders to the church followed by family and friends.  On arrival at the church, the coffin was rested in the ‘Lych gate’ before being brought into the church for burial service.

Life was very quiet for the Middlechurch for many years.  After WWI, St Paul’s was the only church open in the Winnipeg area during the 1919 Spanish Flu epidemic.  In 1925, St Paul’s celebrated its 100th Anniversary.  However, only a few short years later during the depression, the congregation had dwindled.  On some Sundays, only two or three would be gathered.  After WWII, the population of the congregation began to increase once more.  The church was so fruitful between 1958 to 1966, that not only was the church moved onto the current basement, but the interior was completely redone.  Like Rev. David Jones back in the early 1800's, Rev Fairclough worked on the building with his own hands to help complete the construction.  Rev. Canon Fairclough is buried in the cemetery next to St Paul’s.

Aside from minor cosmetic changes inside the church, there were no structural changes made between 1966 and 2003 when an addition was built onto the back of the church.  This addition allowed for a new office and the future possibility for a lift to be installed for wheelchair access.

The history of St Paul’s cannot be complete without mention of the pioneer families in our midst.  John Pritchard brought the Rev. John West to Red River in 1822.  John Pritchard’s descendants have always considered St Paul’s as their parish Church.  Sam Pritchard, school master at the early school became Professor of English at St John’s, was ordained and served as incumbent of St Paul’s for years.  Sam Pritchard Matheson was brought up in Middlechurch and became Archbishop, Primate of Canada.  Hugh Pritchard served on the vestry, was Rector and Church Warden for many years.   Up until 10 years ago, descendants of the Pritchard’s still worshiped at St Paul’s.

Although the congregation remains small, St Paul’s continues to thrive 192 years after the first church was built.  Even though the rest of the world speeds by on a daily basis, barely glancing at the tiny church down Balderstone Road, there lays a rich history hidden just off highway 9.

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