Westminster Abbey

MISSION, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading.

~The Rules of St. Benedict

Having travelled through many countries in Europe, you get used to a certain style of church, cathedral and abbey.  I never thought that this area of Canada was even old enough to have such things besides the standard churches that are around.  I should have known the city named Mission might be a good place to look.  What a gem.  It has all the markings of an abbey and a cathedral but with a more modern, west coast twist.  I usually prefer the medieval look but Westminster Abbey was really beautiful.

My day originally started out as a hike which was more like a walk.  It felt like a small pilgrimage.  We started at the Fraser Valley Heritage Park.  This is a great family spot if you want to simply do a picnic or outing.  The area was originally a residential school.  Like many schools from the time, the area was designed to be mostly self-sufficient.  There are still ruins from the old buildings and parts of the orchard.

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When you arrive at the park and soon realize you are standing on an important piece of history.  Part of the original area, a chapel, referred to as “The Grotto“,  which has since been renovated, still stands on top of the hill with services offered each week.  The original bell is also still displayed in the park.

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From the park, you begin to make your way through forested areas.  Be sure to map your route ahead of times as the trails get a bit tricky if you are trying to find your way to the abbey.  It is well worth the walk.  If you are concerned about getting lost, there is the option to walk along the main roads but there is a lot of traffic and areas without sidewalks.  It is not nearly as pleasant.

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From the road, the abbey is clearly marked.

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It was started in 1954 and built on what is called St.Mary’s hill.  There is St. Mary’s Mission School nearby as well which closed in 1961.  A few years later, all the buildings were demolished due to their poor condition.  Today, the only thing left are parts of the cemetary.  Westminster Abbey is also thriving of course.

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The abbey is of the Benedictine order.  It is virtually self-sufficient in keeping with the history of the Benedictine monks which explains a lot about how the area was set up historically.  There are always people on the property working and/or praying.  It is a very serene place with its own farm, housing, infirmary and more.

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Upon entering the grounds, you need to make your way up St. Mary’s Hill as most of the buildings are at the top.  The giant bell tower is the first thing you will see.  Once you are there, you really get the feel of the small community of men and women who live there and run it.

The most impressive is the inside of the church which looks more like a small cathedral.  It contains many elements of a cathedral as well:  vaulted and decorative ceilings, separate prayers rooms, stone figures, a decorative cross, stained glass, a baptismal basin and even an eagle lecturn.  However, like I mentioned, these elements are quite different and have a modern twist.

The decorative ceilings are vaulted.  Unlike the stone ceilings of Europe, these have incorperated wood and glass.  It brings in more light and the addition of wood adds to the west coast feel.

While European churches tend to have several statues, this church is limited.  The figures appear as stone relief from the walls.  They are artistically and modernly designed.  Because they are higher up and flatter, the space below feels more open and airy.

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The  cross looks like it is made of silver rather than traditional wood carvings.  It hangs from the ceiling rather than sitting on the altar.  When the sun hits it, it looks like it is glowing.  At each point of the cross are some semi precious stones.  Far more ornate than other crosses I have seen.

The stone baptismal basin is fairly standard.  However, the decoration surrounding it (the rock, plants, sign) are not so typical.  There is even a lovely fountain quality to it which adds to the serene feel of the place.  Even the tile below is modern and contrasts the dull color of the stone while complimenting the greenery around it.

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The eagle lecturn is where the Bible sits and is virtually in every major church or cathedral in Europe.  This is the first time I have seen something like this here, however.  Again, the wood carving is not unique but it complements the stone and wooden elements throughout the rest of the church.  Why an eagle?  There are a few theories.  One is because of how high an eagle can sore.  The higher, the closer to God.  This makes sense since God’s word rests on the eagle in the form of the Bible.

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The  most stunning part of the church would have to be the stained glass.  It is not so detailed, nor is it filled with images of stories and people.  It’s beauty lies in its symmetry and simplicity.  The panels are designed with geometrical and simple shapes which compliment the open feel of the space below.  Nothing is cluttered or busy.  Each wall focusses on colour so no matter which direction you look, you are surrounded by it.  My personal favourites are the windows with red, orange, and yellow because it looks like a sunset when the light shines through.  The colour change is gradual and ombré so it doesn’t shock the vision.

As you leave the building, you will see one final statue that differs from the rest.  It is a wooden carving by Kent Nerburn, an artist from Minnesota.  The statue is of St. Joseph the carpenter.  This is the patron saint of the abbey and a perfect symbol for all the hard work that went into building and maintaining this site from its beginning to the present.

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