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The Old Kildonan Church and Cemetery: "Where the Selkirk Settlers Sleep"

Have you been to Old Kildonan;
Seen the Red, with gentle sweep,
Guard the little, rude God's acre
Where the Selkirk settlers sleep?
From "Old Kildonan", by John Mackay, D. D.

The Selkirk Settlers, the very first wave of immigrants coming to settle purposely on the banks of the Red River, came from Ireland and Scotland, seeking stability, prosperity, and safety, escaping the  Highland Clearances of the early 19th century. Of course, the legendary volatility of the Red River made that a little harder than what was originally advertised by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk. First the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816 caused the Selkirk Settlers to flee upriver, then the flood of 1826 turned the eventual site of Winnipeg into a small lake, the echo of great Agassiz - stability wasn't exactly the right word to describe the experience.

Nevertheless, they persisted. More settlers had arrived in 1814, from Sutherlandshire in the Highlands - specifically, from the parish of Kildonan. They managed to survive with the help of local Metis families, living on pemmican and sheer force of will. After spending more than 30 years attending the Anglican Church, the Scots were able to build their own Presbyterian church at 201 John Black Avenue. Stonemason Duncan McRae, who built Upper and Lower Fort Garry, lent his talents to the construction of a symbol of stability for the Selkirk Settlers. And stability indeed - the walls were three feet thick, built using the rubble stone method for most of the wall while incorporating cut stone for surrounding the doors and windows. In 1853, Kildonan Presbyterian Church was finished, named after the parish in Scotland that many of the settlers had left. The associated cemetery then became the peaceful final resting places of many of the Selkirk Settlers, as well as members of prominent Anglo-Metis families like the Rosses and Bannatynes.

Kildonan Presbyterian Church, 1882. Source: Manitoba Historical Society.

The church went through a few aesthetic alterations over the years. About 20 years after it was first built, the interior was slightly reorganized in that the pulpit was moved forward, the pews remodeled and a space added for a choir. In 1921, the north wall was covered over with stucco, and a few years later four of the plain glass windows were replaced with stained glass. Years later, in 1983, the balcony was reinforced with steel beams.

The north wall of the church encased in stucco. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

The interior of the Kildonan Presbyterian Church in 2017, with one of the stained glass windows visible on the right. Source: Manitoba Historical Society.

The old Church faithfully had served the congregation of Kildonan Presbyterian for over 130 years when in 1988 a new church was built. The Old Church, as it was now called, fell into disuse - and because the heating was cut off, also fell into disrepair during harsh Winnipeg winters. The first steps towards preservation were taken in the early 90s - heritage designations for the Old Church in 1993 from the province, and in 1994 from the City of Winnipeg.

The first engineering study of the building with restoration in mind was completed in 2004 by Eshmade and Associates, and was updated in 2010. It was clear the the building required some significant repairs. The north wall was showing the result of a century and a half of wear - a large crack had appeared, running down the length of the wall. The roof and other walls also required work to keep them functional, although the report notes that structurally, they still appeared solid. 

A group of community members was formed to organize the conservation of this historic church, called the Friends of Historic Kildonan Presbyterian Church. By October 2012, the Friends had raised over $66,000 for the conservation of the Church, with help from Heritage Winnipeg to facilitate grant applications from various bodies. Conservation work was started in September 2012 with the current Lord Selkirk in attendance for the ceremony. One of the most urgent areas that the conservation needed to address was the destabilized north wall. The 2013 feasibility proposal notes that:
Movement has caused a gap to form up the extent of the masonry portion of the northern wall... Once sources of differential movement has been eliminated repair of the heritage wall assembly should occur. This would involve removal of the stucco finish, stripping the assembly back to its stone face, repointing and repinning where needed, and may include laying of reinforcement bars...
The repair and stabilization of the northern wall is shown below:

Stucco fully removed from the roof making wooden structure visible. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

As the stucco is removed the crack in the wall becomes visible. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

With the old mortar removed for repointing, it becomes clear that the crack is above an old doorway that has been filled in - the cut stones that once framed the door remain, indicating its position. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

The fully conserved north wall, repointed and stabilized. Source: Heritage Winnipeg

The renovations left the building with its original stone facade, minus the stucco that was added in the 1920's. The efforts of the Friends of Historic Kildonan Presbyterian Church in persisting are much like those of the Selkirk Settlers when they arrived on the banks of the Red River, working hard to see the job through even in the face of adversity. Heritage Winnipeg is proud to have worked with this committed group of individuals to assist them with their efforts to restore the Old Church. Today the Church is again a symbol of stability for the community, where the Selkirk Settlers can rest peacefully for many years to come.

The cemetery at the Historic Kildonan Presbyterian Church. Source: Kildonan Presbyterian Church.

Written by Natassja Brien for Heritage Winnipeg

Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre