Church bells in the wilderness

Transporting church bells to Red River (modern day Winnipeg) was one of the most difficult tasks of the York boat brigades that made the arduous seven-week voyage from Hudson Bay. When the cathedral of St. Boniface burnt down in 1860, not only did residents lose the familiar sight of their beloved church, but they lost one of the community’s central auditory features – the sound of its bells. No longer could the chimes bring people together on Sundays or for important events. With enormous effort, the metal from the melted bells was sent aboard York boats and shipped to Europe for re-casting. While no stories (to my knowledge) survive from this long and difficult journey, the new bells eventually returned and were hung in the second cathedral, to the great relief of Bishop Taché and those living in St. Boniface.  


We have a curious oral history about when the bells of St. Andrew’s church made this same voyage from York Factory to Red River. On the first portage, the boatmen hung the bells in trees and rung them in honour of the occasion. One of the boatmen climbed the highest tree and trimmed it into a lob-stick, cutting its lower branches and leaving a tuft on top as a visual marker to commemorate this passage and place where the bells were rung. What was the symbolism and meaning for the men who controlled the bells, or for those who heard the sound-symbols of city and church in the forest? The “regale” of rum that concluded the ceremony may not have been approved by ecclesiastical authorities, yet the customs of the fur trade were largely outside of their purview as the boatmen of the Hudson’s Bay Company carried the church bells through the wilderness.




Source: Healy, W.J., ed. Women of Red River: Being a Book Written from the Recollections of Women Surviving from the Red River Era (Reprinted, 1923) Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1967.



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