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First Scandinavian Mission Church - The Heart of Winnipeg's Scandinavian Community

First Scandinavian Mission Church was built in the late 19th century as one of the first churches for the non-British immigrant community in Winnipeg, and stands at 268 Ellen Street. It is a municipally (October 26, 1987) and provincially (March 1, 1993) designated heritage building. 

First Scandinavian Mission Church, 2013.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society

Canada, as a largely immigrant nation, has a very diverse population. The earliest immigrants to Canada were Norwegian (at L'Anse aux Meadows), French, and British. Later, Ireland and Scotland were common origins for immigrants. In the late 19th century, after the purchase of Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company, the still-new Canadian government was trying to encourage immigrants, especially farmers, to move to the Prairies and settle there. People arrived in Manitoba from all parts of Europe, including from far north in the Scandinavian countries: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.

Although the majority of Scandinavian immigrants were from Iceland, Winnipeg was also home to a large Swedish community - becoming known as the "Swedish capital of Canada". The first Swedish immigrants had arrived in the mid-1870's, and had settled at Erickson, Manitoba; while the Icelanders had arrived in 1875 and settled in Gimli. Immigration from Scandinavian countries was fairly constant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and peaked in the 1920's. To show the volume of immigration into the newly-created provinces, the population of Scandinavian people in the three Prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta) increased around 450 times from 1901 to 1910. Some of the northern United States were also popular with Scandinavian immigrants, such as Minnesota and North Dakota. 

The first church on this site was a wooden church built in 1886. The religion of many Scandinavian immigrants, Lutheranism, was foreign to both the British Anglicans and the Scottish Presbyterians, and also the French Roman Catholics. Certainly, the Scandinavian population wanted to have their own church so that they could worship in their own way, just like all the other groups before them. Not much is known about the original church, except that it was built at a cost of $900, and demolished when the new church was built in 1897.

The church that now stands at 268 Ellen Avenue is a Romanesque Revival structure designed by architect Hugh McCowan, who designed the First Baptist Church a couple years prior. Still using a wooden frame structure, a brick veneer was added and the basement is stone. The church features a large square bell tower at the corner where Ellen meets Logan, as well as a smaller, characteristic polygonal tower along the northeast side of the building. The bell tower boasts paired Roman arched windows at the top, and two single Roman arched windows lower down. The interior design of the building is meant to focus attention on the pulpit, and hopefully on the person preaching from it. However, this design was different than what was commonly used for Roman Catholic or Anglican churches - no word on the Presbyterians. The floor plan is called Akron, after its use in the town of Akron, Ohio, and is an uncommon style. This historic church retains many of its original windows, as well as pews, light fixtures, and the apse railing.

Hugh McCowan in 1902. Source: City of Winnipeg.

The northeast facade of the main church wall shows triplet Roman arched windows: a larger centre window flanked by two smaller windows. This arrangement is mirrored on the southeast facade of the church. The windows also have elegant yet simple stone labels on both facades. The similarities in design between the two churches are striking, and the existing window arrangements on the First Scandinavian Mission Church are all the more valuable because the First Baptist Church was demolished (except for the bell tower) in 1985. 

First Baptist Church. Built 1894 on a design by Hugh McCowan, and demolished 1985. Note the triplet Roman headed windows on both visible facades.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society

The Church was built by a group called the Free Church Scandinavians, so called because they opposed the installation of state religion and instead wished to practice their religion free from legal control. In many of the Scandinavian countries, as well as Minnesota, Lutheranism was the state religion. This resulted in the Church and state acting together in certain cases, as in Sweden to oppose both emigration from Sweden, and sobriety. Clergy or priests who disagreed with the official stance could be punished for their alternate views. 

After the First Scandinavian Mission Church was built, it became a meeting place and community centre, particularly for those newly-arrived to Canada. From the church, they could meet others of their faith and nationality, who could help with finding places to live, finding jobs, and generally getting settled in Winnipeg or the surrounding area. The church flourished for the next fifty years or so, but with the growth of Winnipeg's Lutheran community along with general population growth, the move to a larger church was followed by lower and lower attendance at the small church on Logan and Ellen. In the late 1950's, the building was taken over by the Presbyterian First Reformed Church, which looked after the building until it closed in 1975.

The building was vacant for a number of years. After receiving municipal heritage designation on October 26th, 1987, interest in the building was revived. In 1990, it was saved from demolition by a development company called Intrepid Forme, who purchased the building for $50,000. Over the next few years, the building was renovated for use as an office space, and received provincial heritage designation on March 1st, 1993. More recently, in 2005, over $400,000 was invested in the building, which served as offices for Boge & Boge and now for GLOBAL Partnership Management Services. 

First Scandinavian Mission Church in 2017. Source: Google Maps.

The First Scandinavian Mission Church is one of only two remaining 19th century Romanesque Revival churches in the City of Winnipeg. It represents the history of immigration to Canada, which has been and continues to be a positive force for our society and economy. Moreover, it represents the Scandinavian community in Winnipeg and Manitoba, who form an important part of our city's past, present, and future. 

Written by Natassja Brien for Heritage Winnipeg

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