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Mission Infrastructure Development in the Canadian North, c.1850-1920

PhD thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Dr. Alex Bremner and Professor Stewart J. Brown, The University of Edinburgh, March 2018
Emily Turner
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Mission Infrastructure Development in the Canadian North, c.1850-1920, PhD thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Dr. Alex Bremner and Professor Stewart J. Brown, The University of Edinburgh, March 2018

Entrées d’index

Indice de palabras clave:

arquitectura religiosa, cristianismo, misioneros

Index géographique :

Amérique, Amérique du Nord, Canada

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1In the late nineteenth century, missionaries entered the territory that is now northern Canada to establish missions and convert indigenous people to Christianity. While conversion to Christianity was, in theory, their primary aim, the two organizations that operated in the region, the Anglican Church Missionary Society (cms) and the Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate (omi), also aimed to change indigenous culture, both economically and socially, in fundamental ways that more closely reflected the dominant understandings of how they believed Christians should live and behave. Central to this strategy of major cultural change was the erection of permanent buildings through mission stations. This thesis, entitled Mission Infrastructure Development in the Canadian North, c.1850-1920, examines how missionaries used buildings to develop a programme of evangelization based on the “convert and civilize” model prevalent among many nineteenth-century missionary organisations. Within this programme, architectural spaces, specifically the mission station, were used as a frontier location where indigenous people and missionaries interacted, providing a location for missionary teaching, a didactic place to demonstrate how Christians lived, and a method of transforming what was viewed as the non-Christian “wilderness” into a Christian “garden” through construction of buildings and control of the natural world.

2The research in this thesis focuses on both the importance and limitations of using built forms as a tool for missionary activity, within arctic and sub-arctic environments during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Building on existing scholarship which recognizes that architecture had specific ramifications within the mission field beyond its practical applications, this study analyses how buildings were used in missionary contexts in attempting to communicate Christian ideology to indigenous people and to change their culture to one that aligned with European norms understood by missionaries as being representative of an ideal Christian society. These strategies were not always successful: the environmental conditions of the territory were unlike that of Western Europe and, as a result, missionaries were forced to adapt their preconceived understanding of how architecture functioned as part of evangelization to suit the realities of the northern field. This study demonstrates how those ideas were modified and discusses the architecture that resulted from those changes as missionaries came to grips with what they wanted to achieve in the built space of the mission station, and what was actually feasible.

  • 1 Robert Hood in John Franklin, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years (...)

3The geographic scope of this project covers a wide area of northern Canada and eastern Alaska, known collectively in the nineteenth century as “the Arctic Zone,”1 a vaguely defined area which, from a modern perspective, covers portions of the boreal forest, the Sub-Arctic and Arctic. This area was viewed in the nineteenth century as a unique frontier that was ripe for evangelization due to the biblical call to spread the gospel to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It fostered a millenarian urgency to convert indigenous people which drove the cms and omi to expand rapidly throughout the area, in constant competition with each other to gain the most converts. The area took on specific and added significance because of European understandings of the Arctic in the nineteenth century, drawing heavily on narratives of Arctic exploration which were ingrained in the European psyche at this time.

  • 2 Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier Thesis in American History, New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co (...)

4Part of the uniqueness of this area was also due to the relative lack of non-indigenous people entering into it. While many other mission fields, both in North America and elsewhere, were forced to confront a colonial presence, that factor was extremely limited in the northern mission field where the only non-indigenous presence were the missionaries themselves, explorers, and the small staff of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had operated the region since the seventeenth century. As a result, missionaries viewed the region as a persistent frontier. In the late nineteenth century, Frederick Jackson Turner defined the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,”2 an accurate description of the missionary view of the northern landscape. At the same time, the “frontier” was viewed as a place where transformation, both of the landscape and people occurred, from what missionaries viewed as pre-Christian and “uncivilized”, pursuing a wholesale transformation in indigenous culture and landscape along European lines inculcated through Christian teaching.

  • 3 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 2007, p. (...)

5Within this context, architecture had a specific role as a communicative tool. Missionaries viewed it in terms of what Mary Louise Pratt has called a “contact zone”,3 where indigenous and non-indigenous communities came into contact with one another, a specifically spatial understanding of missionary expansion and interaction. The mission station as a whole, along with the individual buildings within it, were understood as spaces where that encounter would take place, and, for missionaries, the place where they would inculcate indigenous people with Christian ideology. This included ideas of Christian doctrine and moral principle, as well as notions of “civilization”. Patterns of work, leisure, and society developed from the European models were imposed, with little understanding of how indigenous communities functioned intrinsically or within their own landscape. On one hand, missionaries communicated directly with indigenous people in these spaces, through catechetical teaching, worship, and education; but, on the other, they believed that architectural space could itself transmit Christian ideology through things such as the external and internal layout of space, architectural style, decorative elements, and their use.

  • 4 John West, The Substance of a Journal during a Residence at the Red River Colony, British North Am (...)

6Architecture was also viewed as playing a role in the transformation of the wider landscape. Viewing the northern environment as “wild” and “unknown”, missionaries drew on a scriptural understanding of wilderness which characterized uncultivated lands as ungodly and sinful. Their goal was to transform the landscape into an Edenic “garden”: a cultivated and settled landscape similar to what they were familiar with in Britain and France. This necessarily included the architecture that would form Christian settlements within this envisaged landscape. However, it was clear that this ideal was not realistic within the context of the northern environment which, for the most part, would not support agricultural settlement. As a result, architecture took on additional importance as the marker of Christian civilization within the landscape because of the prevailing belief that buildings brought the landscape to completion by subduing nature and representing the beliefs of the people who created it. In other words, buildings of this kind were considered markers of “civilized” Christian existence. John West, the first Anglican missionary in the region, called architecture “a landmark of Christianity in a vast field of heathenism”4, and the mission station became, in the minds of missionaries, a lone Christian enclave surrounded by wilderness.

7The thesis is divided in three sections, each of which looks at a specific aspect of mission architecture and its use in the Canadian north. Chapters 1 through 3 examine the contextual background of mission and its geographic scope, examining how the Arctic was perceived in the nineteenth century imagination, the initial entry of missionaries into the region and the creation of wider geographic networks of mission where territory was claimed for Christianity through the erection of buildings. Chapters 4 and 5 address three specific structural types: the mission house which was usually the first building constructed at the mission station; the church; and the school, in both its day and residential components. Chapters 6 through 8 focus on specific case studies that illustrate unique aspects of northern mission infrastructure development. Chapter 6 focuses on the decoration of Catholic worship space and its role within the OMI’s wider mission. Chapter 7 examines the use of indigenous architectural forms at two missions in the High Arctic at Hershel Island and Blacklead Island by the cms in the 1890s. Chapter 8 looks at the Klondike Gold Rush and its ramifications on mission architecture and strategy in the southern Yukon. Together, these chapters provide a broad overview of how architecture was used in the region as an integral aspect of evangelization. What this thesis does not do is examine the perspectives of indigenous people within the missionary context. While these perspectives are vital for a full understanding of the contact narrative between northern indigenous people and missionaries, such work is beyond the scope of this study which focuses on how missionaries perceived the northern landscape, indigenous communities, and the role of the built environment in the spread of Christianity.

8The importance of this study derives from its exploration of how architecture shaped the approaches taken towards the conversion of indigenous people to Christianity and the attempts to change their culture by missionaries in the late nineteenth century. In particular, it focuses on how missionaries adapted the dominant understanding of architecture and landscape within the Christian context to the “frontier” environments in which they were working, and where the development of Christian agricultural settlements was not feasible. While this thesis focuses on a regional context, that of northern Canada, the approaches and strategies undertaken there can be seen in other frontier areas across the late nineteenth-century global mission field as missionaries grappled with how to adapt European Christian understandings of space to remote and unfamiliar environments.

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1 Robert Hood in John Franklin, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1819, 20, 21, and 22, London: John Murray, 1823, p. 175.

2 Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier Thesis in American History, New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1947, p. 3.

3 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 2007, p. 6.

4 John West, The Substance of a Journal during a Residence at the Red River Colony, British North America and frequent, London: Seeley and Son, 1824, p. 91.

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Référence électronique

Emily Turner, « Mission Infrastructure Development in the Canadian North, c.1850-1920 »ABE Journal [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2018, consulté le 05 août 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Emily Turner

Heritage Researcher, City of Peterborough, Canada

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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