“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” George Bernard Shaw
I drew this church years ago, sitting on the edge of the North Saskatchewan River overlooking the water and the valley. It’s dwarfed now by the city that has grown up around it. Many of the buildings tower over the small structure. But I imagine when people first saw it, they looked to it as one of the largest buildings in the area. I’m sure they were as enchanted as I was the first time I saw it. It’s a marvel really. Every line and angle perfect. Eight sided domes. How does a person even make eight sided domes?
I imagine what it was like when it was built alone on the grass a hundred years ago. I imagine the pride they had fitting the fragments together, each like a puzzle piece nestled next to the other perfectly, colored windows arriving from the east by train. Shy women gathering, bellies big with children, small hands clutching their skirts, colored cotton washed and ironed for the day. They gathered together to be with other women like them and feel less alone.
The prairie was a lovely place. And it still is. But it was dreary in the early days of our country, especially for the women who stayed at home with no distraction. Imagine the darkness of the dugout home made with patches of prairie sod, no windows, staying inside for months at a time under two feet of snow with only the wind to whisper its insanity to your ears.
Then the church was built and brought with it a weekly reprieve. They woke up early on Sunday, pulling on their clothes and running a brush through their hair. They climbed out of the small hollow of their home and set out on the cold, bright prairie towards the congregation. Hearing the church bells must have been like hearing the voices of angels.
Every building whispers the hints of its past, people who have touched its walls, men and women who have felt both pain and pleasure, their short lives peppered with dead babies, hunger, diphtheria, measles, cooking for 20, pregnancies after 40. All of these women came together to be with others, looking for the strength to work hard for something better.
A hundred years before that, women might have met on the same land. Brown women wearing leather, cooking deer meat, tanning hides. They stood on the same spot breathing the fresh air, listening to the rustling leaves and singing birds and moving water. People who never recovered from their swift and brutal disenfranchisement.
I like to think that the people who built this church could hear the whispers of others who are long gone, their voices saying “this is a good place,” “this is where people belong.” And they breathed the air warm from the ground smelling of leaves and mud and sage and love and bitterness all mixed up into the fragrance that fills our lungs. They gathered every Sunday at this church to feel a part of something larger than themselves. All the people, in all times past, most recently, brightly colored immigrants with broken English, and earlier, darker women, quiet as whispers, standing still as death. Each of them held their children as women have done from every time until now. They found strength in one another, sustenance in community. This church is on the bluff above the water calling people to it, sitting on earth as stable as any stone.
This is a time lapse video of the drawing
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