Man with a gothic eye

Hans Rollmann
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

This year, we mark an anniversary in the religious and architectural history of Labrador.

On July 8, 1857, Bishop Edward Feild consecrated a modest but beautiful gothic church in Battle Harbour.

The building with the pyramidal roof had been finished and waiting for the bishops blessing for more than two years.

At the occasion of his visit, Feild also confirmed five Inuit who had moved from the north coast and worked in the southern Labrador fishing community.

Assisting Feild in his ecclesiastical duties were the local priest, Rev. George Hutchinson, a nephew of the celebrated English poet William Wordsworth and himself a man with literary sensibilities, and the architect who had designed the new church, Rev. William Grey (1819-1872), a gentleman of noble ancestry, but exceedingly humble demeanour.

Greys family had been ennobled by Richard the Lionhearted and its most famous member was Lady Jane Grey, The Nine Days Queen. Rev. Greys Newfoundland-born son, William, would become the ninth Earl of Stamford and a member in the House of Lords.

Grey had accompanied Feild on his visitation in 1857 at the bishops request, although the Church of England clergyman had left the colony for England in 1853 because of his wifes ill health.

While in Newfoundland, the talented Oxford scholar had served as the bishops chaplain and secretary, as principal of the recently established Queens College and, finally, as Anglican priest of Portugal Cove, which at the time included also Broad Cove (todays St. Philips) and Lance Cove on Bell Island.

While at Portugal Cove, Grey had begun to build a new church, St. Peters, which was to serve as a perfect model of a Gothic Church, and which his successor, Rev. G.M. Johnson, would complete.

Greys lasting legacy in Newfoundland would emerge from his position as diocesan architect, as he translated Feilds high church ideals into wood and stone. In England, Grey had been the Oxford Architectural Societys corresponding secretary for Wiltshire, and on coming to Newfoundland he had served as the societys first colonial secretary.

Common goal

Grey and the society had a common goal: to spread the knowledge of the principles of gothic architecture.

For him, as for Feild, gothic architecture expressed most closely the devotional and liturgical ideas of tractarianism, or the Oxford Movement, to which both men had pledged their allegiance.

Although the Anglican Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist was the movements most demonstrative architectural achievement in Newfoundland, Grey also designed a series of mission churches in the gothic revival style, which once could be found from Portugal Cove and Burgeo to Forteau, Labrador.

Today, only one of Greys churches survives the Church of St. James the Apostle at Battle Harbour.

This summer, St. James celebrated its 150th birthday with a special service conducted by Bishop Cyrus Pitman of the Anglican Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador.

In his programmatic 1853 essay, The Ecclesiology of Newfoundland, Grey discussed some of the challenges that he had to meet when transposing European gothic architectural ideas into a Newfoundland key.

The interior design of the churches promoted predictable tractarian sacramental emphases by giving the altar and baptismal font prominent positions, while the church exteriors often exhibited creative yet inexpensive innovations, such as geometric variations in the churchs clapboard or colour schemes that set off the frame from its panelling, as well as dignified roofs made from local timber and windows set in inexpensive, weather-tight, wooden casements.

Sought input

To find new ideas Grey approached fellow members of the Oxford Architectural Society, and to pass on his experience to others in Newfoundland, he educated his fellow clergy and theological students. The clergy must be architects was his motto.

When holding the office of principal of Queens College at St. Johns, he wrote, I used to give architectural lectures to the students twice a week, as also a course of lectures on the same subject to the clergy assembled at the bishops last visitation.

This method paid off, as Shane ODea and Peter Coffman point out in a fine article on William Grey: Missionary of Gothic in Newfoundland in the most recent issue of the Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada.

For the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the authors write, the ecclesiological principles pioneered by Grey proliferated throughout Newfoundland.

Pointing to churches in the Grey tradition, from St. Stephens in Greenspond and St. Marys at Birchy Cove, as well as later churches such as St. Peters in Catalina, St. Pauls in Trinity and Saint Lukes in Winterton, ODea and Coffman conclude that by educating the clergy to look at architecture with an informed gothic eye, he fostered an interest in and commitment to good design that also produced some quite remarkable structures.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious

studies at Memorial University and can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Queens College, House of Lords, Church of England Gothic Church Oxford Architectural Societys Oxford Movement Anglican Cathedral of Saint John Anglican Diocese Society for the Study of Architecture

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Battle Harbour, Portugal Cove England Oxford Southern Labrador Stamford Broad Cove Canada Greenspond Trinity Winterton

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page