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Haphazard History: The little white church at Alexandria

Our Lady of Perpetual Help was built in the early 1940s
The interior of the Alexandria Church in April 2021. (Barry Sale photo)

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune

On Highway 97, about seven kilometres north of the Fort Alexandria cairn site, you travel up a substantial grade called Chinn Hill, and out onto a long flat area. This is the location of the village of Alexandria, stretching for about two km along the highway. Today, little remains of this once thriving community — a few residences on small acreages, a Mennonite Christian School, and at the north end, an old beehive burner where the Alexandria sawmill once stood. Across the highway from this burner is a boarded up gas bar and restaurant which was later converted into a jade store. This was Diamond View Service, so named because it overlooks Diamond Island on the Fraser River below.

Alexandria had its beginnings as a way to stop on the Cariboo Wagon Road. Gradually, white settlers moved into the area, pre-empting the good growing land for farms and ranches. In the early 1920s as the P.G.E. Railway was being built, construction gangs were located there. Logging and sawmill operations followed, and by the early 1940s, it had become a prosperous little community of about 150 residents.

At the south end of town, perched on a flat overlooking the mouth of Cuisson Creek where it empties into the Fraser River is a very picturesque little white church with a red roof. I have driven by this area many times, and I have often wondered about the history of this beautiful small building, so recently, I took the time to stop and check it out.

Its official name is the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a Roman Catholic chapel. It can be accessed by making a left hand turn off Highway 97 at the top of the hill onto Church Road. This used to be the old Cariboo Highway, following the route of the original Cariboo Wagon Road. In the spring of 1960, about 200 metres north of the church, a landslide made this old road impassable and as a result, Highway 97 was relocated further to the east.

The church itself is not particularly old, the land being donated in 1940 and the construction of the building being completed the following year. The entire community pitched in with donation, fundraising events, and volunteer labour. All the lumber was provided at a considerably reduced cost by the local sawmills.

When the little church was completed, it served the spiritual and pastoral needs of about 25 families in the area. A priest would arrive on the P.G.E. train southbound from Quesnel each Thursday afternoon and stay with parishioners in the community until Tuesday morning when he would return on the northbound train.

In the mid 1950s, a small cemetery was consecrated on the north side of the church. There are eight identifiable burial plots in this graveyard, all with headstones. One of them belongs to Arthur Gagnon, the man who donated the land upon which the church stands. Two of the graves are the resting places for children, one of whom, Lloyd Lavally, was killed in an accident when a gun that he was playing with discharged.

In the late 1960s as the town went into decline, businesses closed down, and people moved away, attendance at the church dwindled. It was officially closed as a pastoral charge in 1968. After that time, it was largely neglected, gradually decaying from the effects of the weather and the elements. Then, in 2008, the Grade 7 and 8 classes at St. Anne’s Academy in Quesnel, along with the Knights of Columbus, took on the project of restoring the old building. It was refurbished and repainted inside and out.

In 2014, a new metal roof was added, and once again, the local community took on a role in the building’s maintenance. A number of Mennonite families had taken up residence in the area, and with the permission of the Catholic parish in Quesnel, they spearheaded the needed renovations.

Today, although it is no longer officially in use, the church can still be utilized for special events such as weddings and memorial services.

There is a guest book there for visitors to sign as well. Sadly, time and the elements continue to have their effects, and some more repairs are needed.

This tiny church, although only just over 80 years old, still carries within its walls a great number of memories about the bygone history of a wonderful little Cariboo community. I hope that this symbol of Alexandria’s pioneer spirit will continue to be maintained and available to the public.

Information from this article came from the internet and from historical footnotes written by the late Andy Motherwell.

READ MORE: HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The stories of Fort Alexandria and Fort Chilcotin

READ MORE: CASUAL COUNTRY: Eileen Dell: Bowling a strike

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The cemetery beside the Alexandria Church, April 2021. (Barry Sale photo)