One of West Kootenay’s most picturesque churches is turning 100. The aptly-named St. Francis-in-the-Woods, tucked in the trees just off Highway 3A in Queens Bay, is today a community centre, used for weddings, memorials, dances, craft fairs, exercise classes, parties, and other social events.
“It’s a great old building,” says Nancy Corrin of the Queens Bay Residents Association, who has lived there since the 1970s. “Certain parts of the bay have their neighbourhoods where we connect more closely, but this gets us all together. That’s what I really like about it.”
She admits, however, the ongoing maintenance is a lot of work and relies heavily on volunteers: “You can see so many things you’d like to do. Keeping up a place that’s this old is difficult.”
Formerly All Hallows
Queens Bay was part of the Anglican parish of Kokanee, formed in 1909, which also included Balfour, Procter, Longbeach, and Crawford Bay. According to the book Kootenay Outlet Reflections, almost all of Queens Bay’s early settlers were Anglicans, who worshipped in their homes or at the Balfour church until their own church was completed.
Construction on what was originally called All Hallows Church began in 1914 on land deeded by the Bashford family. A history compiled by Haroldine Copp says Harry Scott Lauder was “chiefly responsible for its design and construction.”
“One evening when a meeting was held to discuss the erection of the church someone brought up the question of its design,” Copp wrote. “Harry Lauder took an old church calendar and in a few minutes drew a sketch on the back of it and said ‘It will look like this.’ From that point it progressed under his direction without the need of any blueprint, the builders working as a team in complete harmony of mind and purpose.”
Hubert Mahood donated cedar for the foundations from his property, a considerable distance from the site, while Nelson merchants donated most of the other building materials.
Nearly everyone in Queens Bay was involved somehow: prominent residents like the Aylmers, Attrees, Symonds, and Porteus family all helped provide for it, while Stephen Hollingworth handcrafted the altar, font, and pews in his mountainside workshop.
Despite this seemingly sterling example of community co-operation, Kootenay Outlet Reflections says there was actually a lot of bickering: “First they couldn’t agree what to call the church, then they argued how to build it.”
Then the work stalled for lack of volunteer labour due to the enlistment of many Queens Bay men in World War I. It wasn’t until April 4, 1915 — Easter Sunday — that the first services were held, under the auspices of Rev. Francis Peyton-Hughes.
Despite the donated materials and volunteer labour, the building apparently carried debt until its official dedication by Bishop Alexander Doull on May 13, 1927, whereupon it was renamed St.-Francis-in-the-Woods.
One of the best-remembered figures associated with the church was Rev. John S. Mahood, who came to Queens Bay in 1909 after serving as a missionary on various reservations in Saskatchewan.
Kootenay Outlet Reflections says his service “terminated abruptly when a band of dissident Indians set fire to his dwelling, endangering the lives of himself, his wife, and their three small boys.”
In poor health, he moved to Queens Bay. By 1920, he’d recovered sufficiently to serve four years as vicar of Kokanee Parish. Mahood was known for composing hymns, playing his coronet while standing in his rowboat, and performing “spectacularly on the tiny reed organ” at St. Francis-in-the-Woods. In 1937, a sanctuary seat was dedicated in the church in his memory.
Electricity arrived the following year, but the church continued to be heated with a huge stove.
Rev. William Edington, who arrived in 1956, recalled the stove “used to get red hot and then it would start to waltz. I am sure if it had not been wired down it would have traversed the whole length of the church. The last time I saw the old tin stove from Queens Bay it was resting in the ravine behind the church, after many years of faithful service.”
In the 1970s, music teacher Haroldine Copp became the church’s patron, paying for a new foundation and cedar shake roof, thanks in part to annual tea fundraisers held on her front lawn.
Copp’s family owned the Copp Stove Company Ltd., once a key industry in what’s now Thunder Bay, Ont. She spent her early years in England and took piano at the Royal College of Music in London. Without her, St. Francis-in-the-Woods might not be standing today.
“Great simplicity is a feature of the building,” Copp wrote. One day two Scottish construction workers visited and Copp saw them “gazing up into the roof, entranced by its beauty. They remarked to me that one never saw such timbers any more or such workmanship.”
In 1971, a belfry was erected as a memorial to Pte. Thomas C. Ough, killed in a car accident at age 20 just before his parents settled permanently in Queens Bay. The large military procession was reportedly the first actual funeral held in the church. The bell was also dedicated in Ough’s memory.
Becomes community centre
The church’s use declined in the 1980s to the point that it was rarely used except for weddings and Christmas services. It was deconsecrated on May 15, 1994 — afterward discovered to be the Feast Day of St. Francis.
The Queens Bay Residents Association began talking to the Anglican Diocese about acquiring the building and eventually bought it for $1 on the promise it would never be sold to anyone else — if the association ever folds, the property reverts to the church.
The building underwent extensive repairs. “About 1999, we really went to town,” Nancy Corrin says. “The floors and front porch were rotting. It’s not supported underneath very well. People crawled under that space and insulated the floor.”
Master cabinet maker John Burton made new moldings where needed, closely matching the originals, while the porch was pulled up, the altar area redone, and the building rewired. In 2000, the former church officially reopened as a community hall.
Since then, the floor — which gets a good workout — has been refinished a second time. A new alcove and kitchen were built, and in 2013, the building finally gained running water. (The washroom, however, remains in an outhouse next door, which the residents association built to match the church.)
The wood stove was replaced with electric heating, a new asphalt roof was added, and a shed was recently built to free up the present storage space for other uses. Further plans include a sprinkler system along the eaves to reduce the risk of an interface fire and additional landscaping.
The area is blessed with several carpenters who have offered their time, Corrin says, though the residents association tries to pay people when funding is available.
These days, the church hosts about 15 activities per year, as well as community meetings.
“It’s generally open to the community,” Corrin says. “Kids come in and play the piano although it’s very out of tune. We want to see it used and used a lot.”
The church’s quaintness caught the attention of moviemakers: in 2012, A Christmas Miracle was filmed there. In the movie, the church is the refuge of a group of strangers caught in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. Set decorators dressed the building to look decrepit but had it repainted afterward. (The church doesn’t have a basement as depicted in the film — those scenes were filmed elsewhere.)
When the church sold the building to the residents association, it left the original pews behind but took the various plaques and sacred objects. Corrin is hoping to get some of them back and replicate others. At the moment only the memorial plaques on the windows remain.
The community association will mark the building’s centennial with a tea on Saturday, June 6, from noon to 4 p.m. that will feature the church’s history. “This building generates a feeling of peace and protection,” Corrin says. “It is the heart of our community.”
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the centennial tea.)