The Bishop's Sister Lays the Corner Stone

by Lillian Gibbons

Manitoba Pageant, January 1964, Volume 9, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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A hundred years ago when St. John's Cathedral corner stone was laid a woman "deposited the bottle in the resting place provided for it."

The bottle contained no liquid but hermetically dry documents: The Nor'Wester for May 28, 1862, the program of the day's proceedings, the stone plate, memorials and coins of the old church, laid away in 1833.

Margaret Anderson, the Bishop's sister, was honoured with this role June 4. It was a great occasion because the new governor, Alexander Grant Dallas, was being seen at his first official act, laying the stone. The colony had been two years without a governor, since Sir George Simpson's death. "The long-expected Governor arrived. The flag flew briskly over Fort Garry and our usually dull routine of commonplace occurrences seemed for a time disturbed by a pleasant episode", reported the doleful Nor'Wester. "The public pulse was quickened and all classes seemed to be more hopeful."

Wednesday, June 4, it quickened a little more, there in the sunny cemetery. All the clergy were present except G. O. Corbett - he was under a cloud. Five chairs were ranged on the platform. Two John Blacks were present, the Recorder or judge and the Presbyterian minister. In the centre sat Governor Dallas, Miss Anderson and the Bishop on one side, the local governor William Mactavish and Mrs. Robert Logan on the other. David Anderson asked Dallas to "lay the foundation for us"; his predecessor, Governor A. H. Berens, had performed the same office twenty-nine years before. "The plate and memorials of that occasion are being deposited again." Dallas referred to the "benighted races occupying the vast territory to the north and west". Miss Anderson put the bottle into its hole, Dallas took a hammer and "gently tapped the corner stone into place, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost". There it remained until 1926 when the present Cathedral was erected. The 'plate' and corner stone were then built into the bell tower for all to see.

In her long full skirts and crinolines Margaret Anderson was a Woman of Red River' from 1849 to 1864. She came with her brother David, the first Church of England bishop in the West, because he was a widower with three little boys, David, Herbert and Archie. They left the peace and serenity of the old English college town of Rugby for the hardships of the Red River Settlement. She returned with him fifteen years later. The rest of her story is unknown.

My good sister accompanied me so far on my way. I left her with more pain than usual, knowing all the anxiety that would devolve on her," wrote the Bishop, June 18, 1852. He was off on a 2600 mile canoe trip to Moose Factory on James Bay. Red River farmlands were ruined by flood. He knew "the delapidated state of my own buildings", since he had left by the upper storey windows, but was anxious to be off on his episcopal visit in the thirty foot canot du nord.

After joining in prayer with Archdeacon Cochrane and his wife, we parted ... my own pupils are under their care." At St. Andrew's handkerchiefs waved good-bye. The Bishop turned his face north. His painted canoe was in contrast to the devastation ashore; only within the week had families ventured back to their "desolate homes to commence the work of rebuilding or repairing", says Tuttle.

"My pupils", records the Bishop, "painted the canoe with a mitre, a Union Jack, a duck and a rose." The duck, he felt, was intended for a dove of peace, looking again for a spring of green after the waste of waters. The canoe road "very deep in the water", loaded with bags of flour and pemmican.

The Bishop makes no mention of his own outfit. Did those curly side-burns protrude from beneath a wide-brimmed, black hat, a shelter from the sun? Meanwhile, sister Margaret had her capable hands full: she was housekeeper for the girls' school taught by Mrs. Mills. St. Cross House was headquarters, built in 1848 by Archdeacon Cochrane. When the scholar-Bishop revived the Red River Academy for boys he did not forget girls too needed educating. One school boy writing to another just before Christmas, 1853, reported: "St. Cross is swarming with angelic beings." (Peter Jacobs to James Ross in Toronto).

With "my own pupils", the boys of the R.R. Academy, left on higher ground at St. Andrew's, what happened to Margaret's girls? There is no word. But St. Cross House in 1865 became St. John's College, so it survived. Safely the Bishop reached the Bay, even enjoyed a swim while he admired the sunset. The hard paddling he had relieved by song. He loved part-singing and taught his canoe men hymns. Eagerly he returned to St. John's:

I saw the lights of my own dwelling about 8 o'clock. I alighted at the gate and stole softly in, not wishing the tread of the horses to discover me. I entered the hall unheard and was in the sitting room some seconds before my good sister who was busily writing, was conscious of my presence. When I spoke she looked up, and my little boys, who had just gone up for the night, caught the sound of my voice - except the youngest already fast asleep, and who would scarcely believe the tidings when told them in the morning.

Quite unexpected is a harsher glimpse of the Bishop in the Ross Papers: "My efforts must be in conformity with the order and usage of the church of England ... I tried to remain patient ... I shall not ad-minister the Sacrament till alterations are made ... I must be left unfettered and independent in such points ... my church wardens must be members of our Communions; I am filling the vacancies caused by your retirement and McBeath's." This was to Alexander Ross, sheriff of Red River, leader in the movement to bring a Presbyterian minister to the Settlement after forty years of Anglican services. "I imagined Presbyterian services were to take place at Frog Plain." Why then did these Scots want the Upper and Middle Churches also for their services? Because they'd paid pew rent. They wanted to continue to bury their dead in 'the churchyard', St. John's, but the Bishop said only the Anglican service could be used. Finally, Kildonan Church was ready, 1854, and a new cemetery laid out.

Sister Margaret healed the breach: she and her brother started a reading club in the Settlement "for mutual improvement". A new member joined - Rev. John Black, the young Presbyterian 'meenister.'

In 1856, the Andersons laid aside their books and went home to England. They collected £5000 for the new cathedral. They came back to see the corner stone laid, the stone walls mount amid the fir trees and tomb stones. Two books came out of his residence: Notes on the Flood of 1852, and The Net in the Bay. Sister Margaret edited them both.

Page revised: 1 July 2009