by Rebecca Hall and Elana Zysblat
The Built Heritage Grants, funded by Columbia Basin Trust and administered by Heritage BC, are helping to restore some of Fernie’s most significant and historic buildings. One of these is the Holy Family Catholic Church.
Constructed in 1911 and 1912, the church is valued as the finest religious building in Fernie. Located on the corner of 4th Avenue and 5th Street across from the equally majestic Fernie Court House, the brick building’s high, distinct bell tower is visible throughout the city and against the dramatic mountain setting.
The church was constructed to replace its wooden predecessor, lost in the 1908 fire. The church’s brick design reflects the city’s conscious decision to rebuild using non-flammable materials in response to a series of major fires in its early days. The optimism and ambition of Fernie’s early residents is expressed in the size and grandeur of the Holy Family Catholic Church, the largest church in the BC Interior at the time of its consecration, with seating for up to 700.
The building was designed by Vancouver-based architect, Henry Barton Watson and adapted and constructed by local builder, Robert Kerr. The interior is ornately decorated with a sanctuary fresco, an altar of imitation marble and gold filigree, and a series of fourteen iconographic paintings. Perhaps the most striking interior features are the twelve art-glass windows made by the Luxfer Prism Co. of Toronto. Each window, which cost $200 to produce, features significant figures and events from Catholic history including The Last Supper, Delivery of the Keys to St Peter, Christ and the Angel at the Garden of Gethsemane, St Ann, and St Patrick.
Eleven of these windows date to the original building, with an additional three-piece window installed around 1980 in the bell tower replacing a former diamond-pattern window. This bell-tower window depicting the institution of the Eucharist — although blurred by a protective covering — is the only one that can be seen from the exterior, with the remainder covered by protective vacuum-formed panels. It is hoped that in time, these panels can be replaced by clear coverings so they can be enjoyed from the exterior. For now, the panels have served to preserve the windows — which underwent extensive re-leading and reglazing in 1963 — in very good condition.
Current restoration work is focused on the diamond-pattern windows situated around each corner of the building. It was established that these windows were in need of careful restoration by a professional historic glass conservator, and it cannot be understated how fortunate it is that Fernie has one of Canada’s few appropriately experienced artisans in Stephanie Rogers, of Stephanie’s Glass and Art Studio. Stephanie is overseeing the meticulous removal of each window for repair work. Each window is transported to her studio on 2nd Avenue, where she is carefully repairing the leading and cracked panels, and re-attaching the supporting re-bars to the window leading and frame. Being able to work on the windows on a flat surface is essential so that the solder doesn’t drip down the glass; it is a painstaking process as her professional soldering gun needs time to cool in between applications. Once complete, each window is reinstalled and secured. The work is expected to take several months; drop by the studio to chat with Stephanie about her progress.
Stephanie Rogers studied at the world renowned Pilchuk Glass School. Since moving to BC, she has been selected three times as a finalist and received an honourable mention at ‘Artsaround.’ Her work has been exhibited at Images and Objects, the Canadian Craft Museum, the Bowman Arts Centre, and The Annual BC Art Association/Simon Fraser University Glass Exhibit.
The Holy Family Catholic Church continues to be valued as a sacred site serving Fernie’s Catholic community since its construction.