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"You could feel the presence of God”

Historian Philip Lavallee reflects on legacy of St. Jean Baptiste Church

Few people alive today know more about Morinville’s oldest church than Philip Lavallee. The longtime town resident wrote a history book on the building and would often give tours of it to visitors. He claimed to know its layout so well he could almost navigate it blindfolded.  

The church’s end by fire last week hit him particularly hard.  

“That was like a second home to me,” he said. 

“That was like a death in the family when it went up that way.” 

Morinville residents are mourning the loss of the St. Jean Baptiste Church, which was destroyed in a fire June 30, 2021. The 114-year-old wood-and-brick building was for more than a century the physical and spiritual hub of the community, host to countless weddings, funerals, baptisms, and other events.  

Mayor Barry Turner said he could count on one hand the number of Sunday services he missed at the church growing up, and to this day looked forward to seeing its shining steeple on return from a long trip. 

“Seeing that steeple in the distance just helped bring (about) that feeling of coming home.” 

Its interior was also impressive, what with its elaborate murals, chandeliers, high-domed ceiling, wine-red carpet, and 108-year-old solid oak pews that could seat upwards of 500. Lavallee said many tourists would audibly gasp at the view when he threw open the front doors, with some moved to tears. 

“You could feel the presence of God.” 

In light of the building’s passing, The Gazette presents this look at the history of the St. Jean Baptiste Church. 

Storied structure 

The St. Jean Baptiste Church was actually Morinville’s third church, Lavallee explained. The first was a one-story wooden chapel/house built in 1891 about two miles west of town — there’s a cross marking its location today.  

The second was what historian Alice Trottier described as a “very modest” structure with gothic-style windows located near the current church site. Made of squared logs, the building had a mostly-complete tower and bell donated by the town’s namesake, Father Jean-Baptiste Morin. By 1902, residents deemed this ramshackle affair too modest for their growing community and started work on the third church, tapping famed architect J.A. Sénécal to design it.  

Work began July 1, 1907, and almost immediately ran into problems, as the parish’s vision vastly exceeded its budget, Lavallee said.  

“They cut corners all over the place,” he said — builders used feeble finishing nails and wood from apple crates, and didn’t bother with support ties for the columns. Trottier wrote that a portion of the church later blew over due to the shoddy construction.  

Trottier wrote that the church’s large windows (which were supposed to be stained glass images of the 12 Apostles — budget cuts again, said Lavallee) and its Stations of the Cross would have come in during the tenure of Father Alexis Gauthier (1912-1921), as would the murals on the domed roof and gallery walls. Donors who funded these and other additions had their names painted in gold on wooden plaques around the church.  

Those 18 canvas murals were the work of Louis-Eustache Monty of Montreal in 1918, Lavallee said — a professional church painter who had reportedly been healed of paralysis by Saint André of Montreal a few years before. While the illustrations most residents would recall depicted the life of John the Baptist, Lavallee said his research suggests these were actually painted over a different set of Renaissance-style illustrations, the nudity of which presumably offended some parishioners. 

Lavallee said the two side-towers to the church likely popped up around 1919, which was when the church acquired its vintage plaster nativity figures. The intricate and expensive communion rail was made possible by an anonymous donation around 1924.  

The year 1925 saw the addition of the church’s $6,100 12-stop Casavant organ. Lavallee, who played the instrument for 35 years, said the organ had an unusual tubular pneumatic action that today was found in just five other organs of this type in Canada. 

“Many times, it was like the voice of God up there,” he said of playing it, especially when he used the couplers to crank up the volume. 

“You could just about blow the roof off that place!” 

The year 1926 saw the arrival of the church’s four bells, Trottier wrote. Weighing 150 to 890 kilograms, the bells were inscribed with the names Pius XI, Henri Joseph, Saint-Jean-Baptist, and Saint-Boniface, and would for decades afterward ring out at special events or specific times of day. The final part of the church’s modern look, its brick exterior, was finished in 1929. 

Lavallee said the church was so run down by the 1970s there was talk of tearing it down. Father Georges-Henri Primeau used his political connections to fund a massive renovation instead — one that led to the installation of the church’s red carpet — and convinced the province to designate the place as a historic resource in 1974. 

The province also chipped in for the 2013 renovation to the steeple, which prior to then was so leaky you could take a shower under it when it rained, Lavallee recalled. Those repairs helped patch many bullet holes in the tin structures on the roof — the work of a man in the Morinville Hotel who used them for target practice. 

History and memories 

Morinville Historical and Cultural Society president Paulette Houle said she had many memories of the church — her wedding, her son’s graduation, the interdenominational Christmas concerts.  

“I always felt the church was open to anybody,” she said. 

Lavallee said the church had been a part of so many lives for so long that you could talk all day about it.  

“All the history of that town was between the walls of that building. The pioneer history, it’s gone now, nothing left of it.”  

That’s not entirely true. By July 2, fire crews had recovered several artifacts from the church, including a cross, the building’s blue historic resource marker, and the four bells, which parish council chair Noreen Radford said would be restored to working order. A time capsule buried under the wheelchair ramp in 2015 also likely survived the blaze. 

Radford said church members had temporarily moved their services into the Morinville Community High School gym as they began plans to build a replacement building. She thanked fire crews, town residents, and Alexander First Nation for their support.  

“You can burn a building, but you cannot burn faith,” Radford said, quoting parishioner Lil Boddez. 

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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