ST JAMES CHURCH
Manitoba's Oldest Wooden Church
by George Siamandas
Just south from Polo Park and surrounded by modern commercial development lies one of the oldest buildings in Manitoba. St James Church was dedicated as the Parish's first church on May 29, 1855. It was built by Rev William Henry Taylor. Taylor had been born in England and came to Newfoundland in 1846 where he was appointed Bishop. Taylor came west to Red River in 1850 and was directed by Bishop Anderson to establish a new church. Taylor's work was funded by the Society for the Propagation of the Christian Bible. The church cost 323 pounds to build.
By the 1850s the north bank of the Assiniboine River was becoming settled with small farms and cattle grazed along what would later become Portage Ave. The are was populated by retired Hudson Bay men, military pensioners and farmers from Kildonan with names like the Fiddlers, the Hallets, Bourkes, Todds, McKenzies and the Isbisters. The population grew from 200 in 1855 to 500 in just a couple of years.
This oldest wooden church in Manitoba was built of oak logs that had been floated down the Assiniboine. The chosen church site was located four miles west of the Forks. On an elevated piece of land to which settlers had retreated during the 1852 flood, plans were made to build the area's first church. It was also located very near an old Indian burial ground and gathering place.
This high ground symbolized a safe haven. The land comprising several hundred acres had been granted to the church and its successors by the Hudson Bay Co.
Rev Taylor would travel to the church on horseback and sometimes had trouble getting through the thick sticky muck of Catfish creek now Omands creek. He named it St James and St James became the name for the entire area west.
The new church saw its first baptism on January 1853. Its first marriage was celebrated on August 11, 1855 as William McMurray and Mary Ann Ballinden took their vows. The first funeral was held for Jane Isbister, age 9 months on Dec 10 1856. In 1869, from the high viewpoint of the church tower, lookouts were able to watch the progress of Riel's forces during the Red River Rebellion.
But such an old church is always in need of repair. It required gradual improvements during 1871-1873 including a new foundation and the removal of its original tower. By 1909 the church saw the introduction of electricity. Another church sprang up in 1916 further west on Roseberry and the St James Church ran into disrepair and was condemned in 1936. In 1967 it was restored by the City of St James as a centennial project and declared a historic site.
Once a large land holding, this location has seen a series of developments and more than its share of neighbours. In 1881 in order to provide finances for the church's operations most of its original land grant was sold. Two hundred acres were sold for a song at $35 per acre. And more for just $30 per acre.
Today this land is the site of the Polo Park Shopping Centre originally the Polo Park race track, the arena, stadium, and all the residential, industrial and commercial land north of Portage Avenue. The land that was sold in 1881 for $7,000 might be worth $1 billion today.
Taylor served as minister for 15 years. Mrs Taylor was a hospitable rector's wife. They had no children. Taylor was concerned of the Indians' life style. He was there during the Indian was of 1855 a time during which there were worries about attacks from the Sioux. And everyone had seen examples of brutality. Taylor could see the end of the buffalo was near as he had witnessed many slaughters just for the tongues. Taylor tried to get the Indians to settle down and raise crops and stock. Taylor died Jan 19, 1873 in Bristol. Taylor was followed as minister by Cyprian Pinkham in 1867.