"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- St. James Church

St. James Presbyterian Church, circa turn of the 20th century

Anyone who has gone to Great Village will tell you that, in addition to the enormous tides in nearby Cobequid Bay, the most immediately impressive thing about the village, as one approaches and passes through, is St. James United Church. As it did in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood, when it was the Presbyterian church, so it continues today to loom large over the community, its 112 foot steeple, still topped by a lightning rod. The steeple and lightning rod are visible from all elevations surrounding the village, looking, as Elizabeth Bishop wrote in “In the Village,” “like one hand of a clock pointing straight up.”

Invoking the startling and electric image of the lightning rod (which is, after all, a conduit between the wildly elemental and the solid dark earth – a way to channel mysterious and dangerous power) in relation to the deep tragedy of her mother’s illness and breakdown, Elizabeth Bishop sets the tone – a singular note – of her aesthetic universe, as she transforms her mother’s scream into art: “Its [the scream’s] pitch would be the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.”

The Bulmer home sits diagonally across the road from the church, literally in its tall shadow. Bishop had quite a lot to say about this church and its parishioners. She remarked that she was as familiar with the structure as she was with her grandmother. She admired its Gothic architecture, regarded it as “dazzling” and “high-shouldered and secretive.” She remembered playing hide-and-seek among its non-flying buttresses and swinging on the double chains that hung between white wooden pillars that surrounded the grassy yard (the buttresses still invite hide-and-seek, but the pillars and chains are gone). She heard its bell, which had been cast in Boston, ringing for worship and as a fire alarm. That bell still startles and impresses when it is rung on Sunday mornings to call the congregation to service. She watched her Baptist grandmother sit by her kitchen window on Sunday mornings watching her Presbyterian neighbours arrive and leave, and later gently gossiping with her Baptist neighbours about them at afternoon services. When her playmate Gwendolyn Patriquin died, the eleven year old Bishop was not allowed to go to the funeral, but she secretly looked through the parlour window, watching the mourners dressed in black. Suddenly, she had a vision, tied subconsciously to her struggle to understand her mother’s own mourning and disappearance, of Gwendolyn’s tiny coffin abandoned in front of the church. This waking dream triggered a flood of grief and a “howl” that echoed her mother’s scream.

In 1962 Bishop received a copy of the recently published History of Great Village, put together by the local Women’s Institute. She was fascinated by many things in this wonderful community history and she read it cover to cover, though she was already familiar with much of it through family stories and oral tradition.

The section on “Church History in Great Village” reveals that the first Presbyterian Church in the village, built in 1845, was even more impressive than the current one: “The new church was 75 feet long, 50 feet wide and would seat 1200 people.” Its opening on 30 July 1845, drew “the largest crowd of strangers ever seen at a religious gathering in Great Village.” It received its bell, cast in Boston, in 1871.

In 1882 this grand edifice “was destroyed by fire with all its furniture, including its sweet bell, its lamps and beautiful chandelier and the Bibles and Hymn Books and Pulpit and pews.” In an unfinished poem now collected in Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke Box, Bishop remembered that the church had been struck by lightning. Is that what caused the fire? It might explain the prominent ornate lightning rod on its replacement.

Undeterred, the congregation immediately constructed another church, slightly smaller but still grand, which opened in 1883, “The main building is 55 feet by 40 feet, with a wing on each side and gable 4 feet from the pulpit, projecting 9 feet by 20 feet.” The bell was sent back to Boston, repaired and returned.

In the 1880s, Great Village, and many communities along the shores of Cobequid Bay and Minas Basin, were shipbuilding centres. One of the remarkable features of this church, designed by the architect J.C. Dumaresq, is that the roof of the sanctuary is in the shape of the inverted hull of a sailing ship. It also has unusual painted walls.

When interest in Elizabeth Bishop began to coalesce in Nova Scotia in the early 1990s, one of the first gestures the community made was to erect a plaque in her memory. In thinking about where to put such a commemoration, public access being a primary consideration, the unanimous decision was to place it on St. James United Church. The unveiling ceremony took place one sunny summer afternoon in 1994. The bronze plaque was cast at the Lunenburg Foundry, which had probably made the fittings for some of the sailing ships built in Great Village. While the gathering was not as large as those for the openings of both churches, the Bishop commemoration drew people from all over the province.

Elizabeth Bishop was fascinated by churches and church architecture her whole life. Ultimately, she bought a house of her own in Ouro Prêto, Brazil, a city with thirteen baroque churches. She said that she could see six or seven of them from her balcony. Sitting in St. James’s beautiful sanctuary on that now long ago day, listening to readings of Bishop’s work and talk about her deep connection to the village, it was easy to see why St. James so impressed the little girl. It loomed not only over her literal village, but loomed large in her imagination. In a very late poem, “Santarém,” the Brazilian city’s “church, the Cathedral, rather,” deeply impressed her. The fact that it “had / been struck by lightning” found its way into the poem, one of her most beautiful Brazilian works. And, by the way, “dazzling” also appears in this poem (“such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off / in that watery, dazzling dialectic”), something I only just this moment realized as I put St. James Church and Santarém Cathedral together in my own mind.

Memorial plaque on St. James United Church. Photo by Laurie Gunn. To see some of Laurie’s wonderful photographs of Great Village and the surrounding landscape, visit her website: www.lauriegunnphotos.com.

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