Chapter 5 -- "The English people at prayer" 1932-1952


Towards the end of Dean Renison's incumbency, Vancouver had begun to suffer severely from economic downturn that was leading into the Great Depression. To deal with the times, Renison had nominated as his successor a man he considered "one of the rising stars of the Canadian Church." The Rev. Frederick Hugh Wilkinson had served under him as curate at the Church of the Ascension in Hamilton in 1924, and had been at St. Stephen's, Calgary, since 1928. Born in Dartmouth, N.S., he was wounded and decorated twice in the First World War before completing his studies at Wycliffe College in 1924. Despite his high recommendation from Renison, Wilkinson was never made dean of the Cathedral by Bishop De Pencier. The bishop kept that title himself and Wilkinson was officially Christ Church Cathedral's rector and "sub-dean."

Across from the Cathedral on Georgia Street, the half-finished framework of the Hotel Vancouver was a depressing reminder of the collapse of the economy. The hotel would not be finished until the end of the decade. In March, 1932, less than two months after Wilkinson arrived, thousands of the unemployed marched through the city's streets. Some 34,000 were on relief. Wilkinson later recalled sometimes seeing the same people begging for handouts in Vancouver that he had seen in Calgary. Cathedral receipts declined, and the treasurer, W.H.S. Dixon, often had to borrow from the bank to meet expenses. His letter to the verger in the summer of 1935 enclosed a cheque for back pay with the caution: "Please note cheque is dated next Monday, 22nd inst., and I will be obliged if you will not cash it until the afternoon of that date, as there is no money in the bank at present to meet it." Still, as the parish with perhaps the most affluent congregation in the diocese, Christ Church Cathedral suffered less than other churches in the city.

Despite the economic problems, the new rector wanted to improve the Cathedral building. Very few other congregations at this time would have been able to raise $20,000 to renovate a crypt, but the Cathedral congregation found the money. Work began in August, 1933. The Women's Parochial group undertook the renovation of the cathedral upstairs. New carpets were installed. Plans were made to improve lighting in the Cathedral. A steam pipe was connected to the Medical Dental building next door, eliminating the need for a furnace in the church. Each week, Wilkinson continued the radio broadcasts. The power of radio became evident on Sunday evening when he announced the title of his sermon, "The Necessity of Disciplined Life." In a slip of the tongue he substituted "wife" for "life," reports his biographer, and although he corrected himself immediately, there were several letters of protest.

As 1936 began, Wilkinson decided to return to Montreal to become rector of St. James the Apostle. He later served as rector of St. Paul's, Toronto. In 1952 he was elected coadjutor bishop of Toronto, and three years later became the seventh bishop of Toronto.

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The Very Rev. Ramsay Armitage, seventh rector and second dean

Wilkinson's successor came from Toronto, where he had been serving twelve years at the Church of the Messiah. Scholarly and tall, very dignified with a soft voice and infectious smile, the Rev. Dr. Ramsay Armitage had served in the war and won the Military Cross. Now he was coming to Christ Church in a city that was struggling painfully from the Depression.

Christ Church ministered to those suffering economically. Several hundred dollars were spent each year by the social welfare committee -- Christmas hampers were a big expense. The Social Welfare Committee placed a standing notice in the Church bulletin appealing for the "constant support of everybody throughout the year. We can use all the warm clothing, particularly footwear, which you can give us." In 1936 the committee was able to out 2,486 pieces of clothing, 356 pairs of socks, and 268 pairs of shoes.

The church however appeared more comfortable minstering to civic leaders, as in a New Year's service in January of 1937. Dean Armitage (Bishop De Pencier had granted him that title) met Vancouver's new Mayor George Miller at the door of the church and escorted him inside, preceded by the city mace. The prayer was "to thank Almighty God for His mercies to our City in the past and for the lives and labours of those representatives and lawgivers who spent themselves in disinterested service and thereby ennobled our corporate life..." Later that year another service was held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the coming of the Canadian Pacific's first transcontinental train.

The Boy Scout movement began to train youngsters in much the same way as the old Boy's Brigade. By 1939 the Cathedral was sponsoring a rover crew, scout troop, wolf cub pack, all for boys; a ranger company, two guide companies, and two brownie groups for girls. For Christ Church's fiftieth anniversary, Miss Marjorie Allan, daughter of Vancouver jeweler and former people's warden O.B. Allan, wrote the church's first comprehensive history. It was distributed to all parishioners with a request for contributions to the Golden Jubilee fund.

In 1937 the Debt Redemption Fund Committee had raised $7,000 for new electric lanterns inside the nave, a pulpit sounding board, and other improvements. But Wilkinson wanted more renovation -- expansion of the chancel on the lots that had been purchased in 1930. The Farmer Estate was approached and promised $25,000; The architects Twizell and Twizell were instructed to draw up plans. A very cautious church committee however refused to commit the church until they had "cash in hand." They would deliberate for nearly three years. Only when the architects warned that the cost of construction was rising so quickly that "it was advisable not to lose a day's time," did the church committee agree to begin work.

Christ Church Interior, 1936 (Photo from 
City of Vancouver Archives).

All this activity impressed a young student at Anglican Theological College, Mr. Edward Scott, who served as Armitage's unordained assistant at this time. The impression, however, was not always favorable. He had grown up on the east side where his father, the Rev. Tom Scott, was rector of the working class parish of St. Nicholas, Burnaby. There, the Depression had hit hard. The more affluent parishioners of Christ Church "were prepared to supply money for hampers," Scott recalled. "But there was no attempt to really try to analyze why people should be unemployed." Clashing with this inability to understand the roots of poverty, Christ Church was a place where form was overly-stressed, in young Scott's mind. He later remembered a reprimand from Armitage for wearing a blue shirt under his cassock instead of a white one. "I couldn't make sense of it... why was it such an important issue?" During this period Christ Church Cathedral was a place where one dressed properly. Women were expected to wear hats, and the sidesmen were always men who wore dress coats and striped pants and stood at attention, arms and hands at the sides, after presenting the offering. Many years later Ted Scott would be come the Bishop of Kootenay and then win election as Primate of the Anglican Church in Canada. In that office, and later within the leadership of the World Council of Churches, he would still try to make Christians more aware of their corporate social responsibliities.

In 1940 Armitage left to become Principal of Wycliffe. The same year Bishop De Pencier announced his retirement, after an episcopate of thirty years. Armitage was nominated to succeed him and finished second to Archdeacon Sir Francis Heathcote, after six ballots. During the past thirteen years the parish had seen three rectors come and go. The next man would remain at Christ Church Cathedral much longer.

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Nineteenth Century immigration to Vancouver, as to Canada as a whole, was predominately of British stock, either by way of eastern Canada or directly from the Old Country itself. Central Europeans settled the prairie provinces during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century, but, in the main, Vancouver did not receive large numbers until the second generation started heading west to the coast. The Great Depression of the 1930s virtually stopped immigration, so that, by 1940, Vancouver was still very British. Christ Church's neighbourhood was even more so -- over 80 per cent of the population in the area from Stanley Park to Burrard, were of British origin, and just under half of those had been born in the British Isles. The denomination was commonly referred to as the "English Church". As the city's ethnic mix grew more varied, and a war in Europe placed Britain in peril, the emotional attachment of many Vancouver residents of British stock to things English became more conscious. One centre of that feeling was the "Church of England in Canada." That remained the official name of the denomination until 1955 when it became the Anglican Church of Canada.

The Very Rev.Cecil Swanson, eighth rector and third dean, 1940-1953

A man who epitomized "Englishness" in Vancouver was the Rev. Cecil Swanson, born in London, reared in Clapham, who kept as a vivid childhood memory the picture of the grand procession winding its way through Whitehall for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 when he was eight years old. After failing to gain entrance to Cambridge, he came to Wycliffe College, Toronto, and after graduation headed west, spending time in the Yukon and then in that most British of outposts, Victoria. Among his duties as a young vicar at University School in 1918 was that of sports coach: "One thing I shall never forget was attempting to teach Canadian boys brought up on baseball that cricket is even a game," he later recalled in his autobiography. Rugby was different, he recalled;even the few American boys at the school took to that.

Swanson had served under Craig in 1920 and 1921 at Christ Church. He had then gone to Lethbridge and Calgary, and was headed for Winnipeg when war broke out in 1939. He volunteered for the chaplain's corps, but he was too old. It was in Calgary that a call came from Christ Church Cathedral. The congregation knew him as a guest preacher at Lenten noontime services. He was installed as Dean and Rector in a grand service on September, 29, 1940, that was the last official act of Bishop De Pencier. At the same service the bishop dedicated the newly enlarged chancel.

It was simply taken for granted that each Sunday the new dean would lead the congregation, usually just after the offering, in "God Save the King." The congregation still helped sponsor the local Chinese Japanese missions, but one would seldom see Oriental faces in church on Sunday. Outsiders, like theological student Ted Scott, saw Christ Church Cathedral as "the English people at prayer"; but to the dean and his people it was the way things were, and the way they should be. There was "very much the sense of the church being very closely related to the state," remembers Scott, "Much more of a church in the sense of almost being the established church in Canada, the way it was in England."

In 1940, Canada was at war. When Britain declared war on Germany on the previous September 3, following the invasion of Poland, the Dominion had taken a whole week to declare war on its own. However in Vancouver there was no question at Christ Church Cathedral that the empire once again must come immediately to the aid of the Mother Country. Quickly, the war economy took shape and Vancouver became a major supplier. Three shipyards in the Vancouver area started building frigates, corvettes, and destroyers. Burrard Dry Dock alone saw an increase in its workforce from 500 to 10,000. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor brought an immediacy to the effort. The city was blacked out. "It was grim and a bit frightening," Swanson recalled in his memoirs. "Do you wonder that an anti-Japanese feeling developed?" Early in 1942 nine thousand members of the Vancouver Japanese community, many of them Anglican, were interned and moved from the Pacific Coast.

One consequence of the war atmosphere was packed churches. "People felt the need of prayer, not only for the men in the Forces, but for our country, its policies, and its leadership," wrote the dean later. There were usually between 900 and a 1,000 worshippers at the 11 a.m. service, and from four to five hundred on Sunday afternoons -- the service was moved from 7:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. because of blackout regulations. It became impractical to keep special pews for individuals and families, and names were removed from pews, although not without objections. Wartime weddings were numerous. On each of three Saturdays in 1943 Swanson conducted ten weddings. Recalled Swanson: "I wrote to all the brides saying, `Don't be late; one of you late will gum up the works for everybody,'" To the dean's relief, all arrived on time. Wartime building was considered, and donations even solicited for a bell tower and a peal of bells, but the project was abandoned in 1943 -- major improvements would have to wait until after the war. Victory in Europe was celebrated with four hour-long services, one after the other, each with a full church. When the end came in the Pacific theatre, an even grander service was quickly organized to give thanksgiving for victory after years of struggle "against tyrannous and treacherous foes." Organist Chubb played the national anthems of the Soviet Union, the United States, "O Canada," and closed with a magnificant "God Save the King."

During the entire period Swanson continued the Sunday evening broadcasts, now over station CJOR. People along the lower coast and into the Fraser Valley as far as Yale tuned in. It was estimated that eight thousand families were regular listeners. Swanson recalled that a Haney farmer turned on the radio as he milked his cows, and quoted his comment: "With that wonderful choir and organ and your dulcet voice, the milk flowed better on Sunday night than any other time of the week!" The dean was becoming "Chaplain to the City," in the words of another Vancouver clergyman of the time, the Rev. David Somerville. He delivered invocations at civic functions, said grace at civic dinners, spoke to service clubs, and conducted civic funerals. The largest was for Mayor Gerry McGeer in August of 1947. Not only was the Cathedral packed, another two thousand stood on Georgia and Burrard listening to the service over loud speakers set up outside.

This public role that the dean played occasionally brought public controversy. He was quoted in the newspapers criticizing the Roman Catholic Church for "Mary worship." He denounced "godlessness" in the school system, and chafed under the B.C law that banned clerics from sitting the school boards. He had served as a school trustee in Lethbridge. "Trusteeship here is not open to criminals, lunatics, or the clergy," he complained. He endorsed a mayoral candidate, and appeared in a newspaper advertisement sponsored by the Standard Oil Company of British Columbia, which praised "our democratic free opportunity system." In it the Dean was pictured at a desk, stating that "progress will come about through free acceptance of the principles of Christianity and the Golden Rules..." This was a time when in provincial politics the socialist C.C.F. was strongly challenging a Liberal-Conservative coalition. Questioned the Rev. W.A. Greer in a letter to the editor of the Vancouver _Sun_: "Is the inference to be drawn that the Standard Oil Co. has practiced brotherly love?... What freedom have the hundreds of men in Vancouver who are out of jobs at the present time...?"

Such criticism was rejected out of hand. "We have a sense of 'family'," Swanson wrote in his 1945 annual report. "[W]e are not a 'one-class' congregation; with very few exceptions we are not 'petty' in our viewpoint; we can stand the unconventional as well as the conventional; we are not particularly 'churchy' although we use the Prayer Book Services in their fullness; and we have a good sense of humour. Added to all this is the fact of the sterling Christianity of all who share in our work and an abundant loyalty to our Bishop, the Diocese and the Church in Canada. I am tremendously proud of you all, and it makes me happy to know that so many visitors come from other parts of the Dominion, from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States and find here the service of our beloved Church at its best."

After the war ended, returning soldiers and their growing families continued to fill Christ Church. In 1946, Christ Church's $30,000 donation to the Anglican Advance Appeal was a quarter of all funds raised in the Diocese of New Westminster. That year Miss Dorothy Miller joined the church office, bringing to it 15 years of secretarial experience. She was described by the dean as "simply wonderful" and nicknamed "the brains." The Social Service Committee supplied families with coal and Christmas hampers, and furnished prayer books for women prisoners at Oakhalla. The Red Cross Society kept busy making garments and bandages for the veterans' hospitals. The Anglican Young People's Association grew slowly: "All through the war they necessarily became almost entirely feminine, and the way back to a `mixed' society is not altogether easy, but under Miss Powers they are making strenuous efforts," Swanson reported to a Vestry meeting.

Early in 1946 Frederick Chubb resigned after 33 years at Christ Church. A special committee could not persuade him to stay, and he finished his career at St. John's Church in Victoria. The church's Hope-Jones organ had predated Chubb by two years and it now needed constant repair. ("Hopeless Jones," Swanson called it.) Since the Hope-Jones company was no longer in business, the church committee asked the Casavant Company of Quebec to do repair work. Casavant would not touch the organ; but they offered to replace it. A new organ was ordered. Made in Quebec, of British Columbia wood, the instrument arrived in early 1949 in two railcars. It contained 2750 pipes ranging from 16 feet to half an inch, and cost $30,000. At the dedication by Bishop Sir Francis Heathcote the choir entered the chancel in silence, and all waited for organist Thomas Jenkins to begin "To the Master of Music and Loveliness."

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip led from the Cathedral by Dean Swanson and the wardens, October 14, 1951

The crowning achievement of Swanson's tenure came in 1951. Early in September Swanson told the church committee that Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were coming to Vancouver, the first royal visit to Canada in a dozen years. The couple would worship on Sunday, October 14, at Christ Church Cathedral. Envelope subscribers would receive tickets allowing them to enter the church through the Crypt to be seated by 10:15. The royal couple would arrive half an hour later. The entire service would be broadcast. All of the dean's energies went into the sermon a national audience would hear, as well as the 25-year-old heir to the throne. He mounted a pulpit draped with the jack of H.M.S. "Warspite." Years of experience writing for a radio audience were evident: "The Church is packed to the doors," he began, "Outside in the streets are hundreds of people, patiently or impatiently standing, joining in the service through the speaker system installed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation..." The sermon was tailored for Trafalgar Day, the date Nelson sent the signal: "England expects every man will do his duty."

"Duty. It is a great word. It can mean a captain standing on his bridge as his ship goes down; it can mean a boy Cornwall, standing at his gun amid the dead and dying of the gun crew, carrying on until he himself dies; it can mean a young pilot giving his all in the Battle of Britain; it can mean a Cecil Merritt or a Smoky Smith earning a V.C. by not counting the cost and offering their lives if need be. It can mean all those things from a service point of view and much more. It can mean, too, a young mother devoting every moment of life to her young family; a father doing his daily work to provide home and comfort for his wife and family. Above all it can mean, and must mean a constant faithfulness to one's Lord and Saviour, a life of Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love, lived to the glory of God and the total good of mankind."

The service suitably impressed the couple, even if the princess gathered from the flags that it was the church's harvest festival. Swanson was too deferential to correct royalty. The 25-year-old Elizabeth accepted a prayer book she had been presented, but whispered to the dean as he escorted the couple out: "It looks as if I am pinching a book from the church."

Late in 1952 Swanson accepted the rectorship of St. Paul's, Toronto, following there in the footsteps of his predecessors Renison and Wilkinson. A hundred fellow Rotarians were present when he delivered his farewell sermon on February 23, 1953. "We need dynamite in this Christian faith of ours, power that will explode," he told them. As a farewell gift the congregation presented him with a trip to London to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Before leaving, Swanson totalled up what had taken place in thirteen years at the Cathedral, in addition to Sunday and special services: 1,877 baptisms; 506 confirmations; 1,411 burials; and 3,371 marriages. He had given, he estimated in the annual report, 1,000 talks and 1,500 sermons. "We have worked hard in this Church, [and] have filled a real place in the religious life of the Church and city." 

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