An old stone church, a landmark in the western Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay, celebrated its 60th anniversary — and new roof — with a barbecue Sept. 12, just two days shy of the anniversary date of its first mass: Sept. 14, 1954.
Father André Pierre Marie Steinmann, an Oblate missionary much better known for his years in northern Quebec, built the church, which had fallen into disrepair.
But this past summer Cambridge Bay Coast Guard auxiliary was able to carry out $100,000-worth of renovation work, which is still not complete.
And they undertook the project with no government assistance — raising the needed money only through fundraising.
“Rocks and mortar — we knew we could do it on our own,” said Wilf Wilcox, a local businessman and member of the local Roman Catholic congregation. “We had the blessing of the community and the church.
And we didn’t want any red-tape.”
Wilcox’s mother, Bella, who attended the Sept. 12 BBQ, is among those who still remember when the church was used.
Nine parishioners attended its first mass on Sept. 14, 1954.
After Father Steinmann’s arrival in Cambridge Bay from northern Quebec in 1953, he worked with local parishioners and two fellow missionaries, Fathers Lemer and Menez, to build the church.
Their materials: seal oil and clay as mortar and broken rocks for the walls — plentiful around Cambridge Bay.
Built for warmth, the church retained heat with an insulating layer of caribou fur between two layers of stone walls.
But soon after its completion, Father Steinmann left the western Arctic.
After several attempts to reconstruct the crumbling structure — not easy because of the original mortar used, vandals set fire to the church in 2006.
While the roof and interior burned completely that day, snow still clung to the outside as the fire blazed and didn’t melt, due to the insulation from the double walls and fur lining.
The stone church isn’t the only legacy of Father Steinmann to be found today in Cambridge Bay.
In 1954, Father Steinmann purchased the Eagle, a small longline fishing boat, said to have been towed from Tuktoyaktok to Cambridge Bay, leaking all the way.
When the Eagle arrived, Steinmann had left for northern Quebec, where he had already spent the years between 1938 and the early 1950s, in Wakeham Bay (now Kangiqsujuaq), Sugluk (now Salluit) and Koartak (now Quaqtaq).
There’s no record of what he intended to use the Eagle for, so the boat stayed on the beach, not far from the semi-submerged hulk of the Maud, once sailed by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first European adventurer to successfully voyage through the Northwest Passage.
In the Nunavik community of Puvirnituq, then called Povungnituk or POV, Father Steinmann and Pitaaluk, the tall, Inuktitut-speaking Hudson’s Bay Co. manager Peter Murdoch, worked with Inuit living in camps around today’s community to set up a new way of trading and buying goods — which would eventually grow into today’s co-operatives in Nunavik and serve as an inspiration to those in Nunavut.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Father Steinmann encouraged artists, such as the great artist Davidialuk Alasuak, to portray Inuit legends and humour in his carvings and prints.
Father Steinmann himself was said to have owned “the best examples of erotic Eskimo carvings to be found in the world,” according to an article on Inuit art and co-operatives by anthropologist Nelson Graburn, which was published in the journal Museum Anthropology in 2000.
Father Steinmann’s cramped quarters were said to be crammed with “mythological carvings and humorous nudes.”
Some say Father Steinmann’s earthiness was intended to draw Inuit away from the strait-laced Anglicans towards Roman Catholicism.
But others in Puvirnituq have told me that Steinmann, like some other Oblate missionaries and Roman Catholic priests, including Eric Dejaeger, sentenced this Sept. 12, was banished from northern Quebec after he had abused youth there.
This practice he picked up again on his return to the region, according to many in that Hudson Bay community, and one which produced a legacy of child sex abuse.
Cambridge Bay Catholics now worship at our Lady of the Arctic, built in the 1970s. They hope the old stone church will be used for special events, such weddings or baptisms.
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Parts of this post were previously published in a Nunatsiaq News feature from 2011.