One fine summer day, your intrepid National Historic Site adventurers headed to Brantford, the “Telephone City” to take in all four of the sites there: Chiefswood, the childhood home of Indian poetess Pauline Johnston; the Bell Homestead; Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks and St. Jude’s.
By the end of the day, while we judged all sites worthy of their designation, it was little St. Jude’s that caused our eyes to open in awe—and our hearts to break. It is St. Jude’s that remains deep in our memories months later.
Stay awhile to find out why.
In Brantford’s downtown core, we came across St. Jude’s unexpectedly. Modest and diminutive, the yellow brick building rests unpretentiously on a quiet, residential street.
“Are you sure this is it?” I ask the navigator, my spouse Louis. “It hardly looks like a National Historic Site—at least from the outside.”
“Well, the sign says it is,” he answers, dubiously. We’d called ahead to make sure that the building was open, so we pressed on. Opening the wooden door, we stepped into the church’s office area.
From inside her cramped and cluttered office, the Church secretary invited us to wait in the common room until Pastor Bill Graham was free. There several members of the congregation were working on a table that had seen better days, preparing for a church event.Children’s drawings were taped to the walls.
“Well, if this is a National Historic Site, I’ll eat my hat,” Louis whispered to me. I couldn’t help but agree.
One hour later, sitting in our vehicle after a tour of “the heart” of St. Jude’s, Louis took a bite of his Tilley hat. He offered it to me, and I bit too.
“That was spectacular,” said my hard-to impress spouse. Lost for words, I could only nod my assent.
Conforming to most of the other “low-Anglican” places of worship in the Diocese of Huron, circa 1871, St Jude’s was modest indeed. It had been architecturally designed in typical cruciform shape, with central nave and two shallow transepts forming the arms of the cross.
The little church’s only structural “flair” was its nautical design, a tribute to patron Saint Jude. The ceiling resembles the inverted hull of a ship.
Although various modifications and additions were made to St. Jude’s in the decades after its construction, not until 60 years later was the “wow factor” added.
In 1936, one Peter Charles Browne, a Canadian mural artist, with offices in Toronto, but trained in Scotland was hired to add some religious artistry to St. Jude’s.
Browne had been highly-influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Led by designer William Morris and given voice by writer Oscar Wilde, “Arts and Crafts” had swept the United Kingdom in the late 1800’s. Its effect reached “the colonies” sometime later.
Arts and Crafts artists—-painters, textile and furniture designers, as well as architects–had reacted against societal industrialization and mechanization across Great Britain. They advocated instead the “natural” world in the decorative arts. As such Arts and Crafters favoured pastel colours, as well as floral and vegetative motifs such as trees, leaves, vines and flowers. simplicity was all.
In North America, much of the Arts and Crafts influence had come about as a result of the flamboyant Wilde’s North American publicity tour of 1878.*
(*See http://www.nancyshistoricsites.com blog #1-3. National Historic Site Annandale House in Tillsonburg owes its extravagant interior design to Wilde’s whistle-stop Arts and Crafts talk at the Woodstock Town Hall. Details of Wilde’s talk (and the reaction of the townsfolk to the eccentric novelist) can be read in blog entry “No Ordinary Oscar: Shaking up the Good Folks at the Woodstock Towne Hall” )
The artistic Browne and his sons were ardent disciples of the Arts and Crafts movement. Since 1905, they had travelled from coast to coast, adding their lyric style to churches and public buildings.
By the time the Browne business closed in 1968, some 480 churches had come under their artistic influence. Most observers believe Browne used the very best of his gift for little St. Jude’s.
A series of biblical scenes, set within graceful Gothic arches decorate the walls of the nave of St. Jude’s. They include: the Cross and the Trefoil—emblems of the Trinity; the Pelican: a bird that pierces its own breast to feed its young, hence a symbol of sacrifice; the Peacock—a symbol of immortality; and the Three Fishes—to represent the Trinity.
Linking these religious scenes one to the other are the Arts and Crafts “natural world” motifs: vines—to indicate Christ and the Church; the rose—Martyrdom and Divine Love; the pomegranate—The Resurrection; the olive—Peace and Healing, and the jasmine—Hope. All have been deftly painted free-hand.
In 1996, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board recognized the paintings of St. Jude’s Anglican Church as being of national architectural significance.
Indeed the unassuming Brantford church is designated as “being the only known example in the country so clearly reflecting the designs of the movement’s founder William Morris.”
The murals of St. Jude’s Anglican Church are at risk. Age has taken its toll and the Browne family’s exquisite work is beginning to peel from the walls.
The situation causes Pastor Bill Graham considerable heartache.
“With the congregation shrinking—sometimes there are no more than 40 worshippers here for Sunday Service—there is barely enough money in the collection plate to cover expenses, let alone foot the bill for restoration of the murals.”
Reverend Graham estimates that repairs to the bell tower and murals will run in excess of $250,000.
Designation as a National Historic Site often brings more headaches than benefits. Little or no money flows from Ottawa for such rehabilitation work. The burden remains on the Sites themselves to “keep up appearances.” And so the faithful of St. Jude’s busy themselves with revolving fund-raising events.
Pay a visit to St. Jude’s before it becomes too late. And if you feel generous, pass that $20 bill you were planning on spending for coffee and doughnuts at Tim Horton’s to the collection plate. Reverend Bill will be grateful.
St Jude’s Anglican Church
81 Peel Street,