The bird that nested in the nave of Christ Church Cathedral
by Danda Humphreys
The nave of Christ Church Cathedral
I’ve always liked robins, especially English robins with their little round bodies and bright red breasts. We expect to see robins on Christmas cards. But where on Earth would you expect to find a robin in a cathedral?
Only in Victoria, dear reader. Only in Victoria.
The story of the robin’s nest at Christ Church begins over 150 years ago, long before the present cathedral was built, in the days when European presence in these parts was limited to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s northern headquarters, a couple of dozen houses, and a few large farms.
Fort Victoria was on the east side of the Inner Harbour. If you stood on the south side, and looked northeast over the shallow waters of James Bay (now the site of the Empress Hotel), you would have seen Victoria’s first church. It stood lofty and alone, high on Church Hill, the first purpose-built place of worship for Anglicans among the settlement’s 200-plus population.
The Colonial Church, or District Church as it was called, took a long time to build because men and materials were hard to find. Eventually, in 1856, three years after it was started, the church was ready to greet its congregation. Never mind that its barrel-type organ had limited musical capability. Thanks to the generosity of Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy resident of faraway London, England, a keyboard instrument was installed in 1862.
The little church had a faithful following. But like every other building in the growing town, it was made of wood. And like many another wooden structure, it eventually burned down. The precious organ, damaged but still usable, was salvaged and installed in a second, larger wooden church built on the same site in 1872. This church survived, but Victoria’s Anglican population soon outgrew it. In any case, said the more influential parishioners, it wasn’t suitable. The episcopal seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of British Columbia shouldn’t be made of wood; it should be made of stone.
In the early 1890s, an international competition was held to find an architect, and in 1896 Scottish-born John Charles Malcolm Keith was declared the winner. His impressive design featured a 13th-century Gothic style structure dominated by a 62-metre central tower. It would be located, not on the site of the first two churches, but half a block away on the north-east corner of the former Church Hill (by now renamed Burdett Avenue) and Quadra Street. Fittingly, it would stand beside Victoria’s first official cemetery, the Old Burying Ground (today’s Pioneer Square). And it would be built using Newcastle Island stone.
A permanent stone structure… a more prominent location… Christ Church’s delighted congregation couldn’t wait! But they ended up having to, because there just weren’t sufficient funds to get the building off the ground. The Legislature was built (1898), Queen Victoria died (1901), the Empress Hotel was completed (1908), and the First World War (1914-18) was over before the Bishop of London finally laid the foundation stone in 1926.
Even then, the cathedral’s troubles weren’t over; further delays were caused by the Depression and the Second World War.
But the most intriguing delay of all happened at an earlier time when a robin, unnoticed by anyone and oblivious to all around her, flew in and built a nest on the top of a partially finished pillar. When they discovered it, the workers called the foreman, and the foreman stopped the work. We’ll leave that section, he said, until the eggs have hatched and the chicks are ready to fly.
Keeping a careful distance, the builders left the patient mother in peace, and eventually all the robins flew away. When they were finally able to finish that section of the nave, one of the stonemasons carved a likeness of the little bird and her nest, as a lasting reminder of her presence in that special place.
Eventually in the fall of 1929, the new cathedral was ready to receive its congregation. The cathedral was completed piecemeal. The 40-metre northwest tower, added in 1936, houses 10 bells, including replicas of those in Westminster Abbey in London. An identical southwest tower was completed in 1954. The 62-metre tower included in the architect’s original design was never built. Instead, a modified sanctuary was added in 1994, and the cathedral was officially considered complete—almost a century after construction was supposed to begin.
This month, a fine selection of seasonal music will fill the cathedral’s vaulted heights, and on Christmas Eve between 1200 and 1300 people will attend Midnight Mass. If you’re there, look around, and see how many Focus readers you can find. They should be easy to spot. Heads tilted back, they’ll be peeking at the pillars in the nave, hoping for a glimpse of that long-ago craftsman’s legacy—a robin’s nest carved in stone.
Danda Humphreys, a bird-watcher from way back, wishes you and yours all the best for this holiday season. P.S. It’s at the top of the second-to-last pillar on the right. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the December 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.