Sacred Modern: Places of Worship on the Niagara Peninsula, 1950–70
This illustrated article profiles a series of places of worship on the Niagara Peninsula, in Southern Ontario, built between 1950-1970. They are just a few examples in a generation of sacred places which are today coming of age, and of the intersections they embody between the past and the future. The article draws from my study on this topic as a student in the region in 2014–2015.
Photographs by Jonathan Castellino, Graphics by Brendan Rahman
1: Trinity United Church
Trinity United Church, Grimsby
Bruce Brown & Brisley, 1958
This 1950s sanctuary is one of several layers on a site where Trinity traces its roots nearly two centuries. Toronto architects Bruce Brown & Brisley (known for Divinity College and Chapel, Hamilton) designed the new sanctuary to accommodate a growing congregation, with room for 566 in the pews. The length of the nave features translucent windows in a geometric design, while soaring brick walls above are pierced by more than 100 square windows like stars in the sky. Geometric motifs are found throughout the building — in the reredos, the doors, and the 67-foot, free-standing bell tower which rises above the tree canopy.
2: St. Denis Roman Catholic Church
St. Denis Roman Catholic Church, St. Catharines
Arthur B. Scott, 1961
With a 140-foot tower said to have been the tallest point in St. Catharines when it was erected, St. Denis assumes a commanding position by its scale and siting. The first mass was held on Christmas Eve, 1961, nearly a decade after the initial phase of construction. The interior emphasized verticality, too, with a high ceiling, tall narrow windows, elongated pendant lighting, and a soaring reredos. Electronic chimes sounded three times daily from the tower, calling parishioners to mass and to prayer. The sanctuary’s character has since changed through apparent structural bracing across the nave, and the loss of the reredos and pendant lighting. St. Denis was designed by Arthur Scott of Welland.
3: St. Alfred Roman Catholic Church
St. Alfred Roman Catholic Church, St. Catharines
Frank H. Burcher, 1967
St. Alfred’s scale and circular forms give the impression of something extra-terrestrial, while also of its time. Built for a young suburban parish which was bursting at the seams, it was designed to seat over 1,000 people. Purple hues abound across the windows, walls and floors of the nave. When the lights are turned off, a dramatic lantern reveals itself above the altar where the radial ceiling meets. In the more intimate scale of the adjoining chapel, the focal point is a curved window which is likely the work of noted Canadian modern stained glass artist Gerald Tooke. St. Alfred’s was designed by Hamilton-based Frank Burcher, who was Ontario’s longest-practising architect when he died in 2010.
4: First Grantham United Church
First Grantham United Church, St. Catharines
Macbeth & Williams, 1960
This sanctuary traces its origins to the joining of two earlier congregations, opening in 1960 as Grantham United Church to serve some 742 members. The undulating pattern of its zigzag entrance canopy repeats across the design, notably on both the inside and outside of the chancel walls. The copper steeple is decorated in a diamond pattern, and geometric motifs can be seen in the multi-coloured polygons of the sanctuary windows and in the finishes of the chancel walls. The chancel, like in many churches, has evolved over time, displacing some original furnishings including eye-catching armchairs for the clergy and elders. First Grantham was designed by architects Macbeth & Williams of St. Catharines.
5: St. Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church
St. Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church, Thorold
Lonhin Pencak, 1967
St. Mary’s is one of Niagara’s lost treasures. It was constructed after the parish of 75 families was uprooted to make room for the nearby Thorold Tunnel under the Welland Canal. Set into a triangular intersection, its Byzantine-influenced design featured a large dome, curved walls, and little adornment in its high-vaulted interior. It was the only entire church designed by its Toronto-based, Ukrainian-born architect, Lon Pencak (pictured below), whose work can also be seen in the 1960s renovations to St. Josephat’s Cathedral in Toronto. Over time, the parish of St. Mary’s declined in size to the point that it could no longer maintain the building. The last mass was held on May 9, 2008.
6: St. Andrew’s United Church
St. Andrew’s United Church, Niagara Falls
Bruce Brown & Brisley, 1961
St. Andrew’s traces its roots to a landmark 1850s building in present-day downtown Niagara Falls. Making way for a post office expansion in the 1950s, the congregation chose a new suburban site to serve its 1,500 members. There is a monastic character to the church’s parkland setting, stone walls, cloister, open bell chamber, and many round arches. The arch motif likely derives from the large memorial windows which were taken from the first church and incorporated into the new one. The character of the sanctuary, once adorned with works by noted Canadian sculptor William McElcheran, has given way to new styles of worship over time. St. Andrew’s was designed by Bruce Brown & Brisley of Toronto.
7: Lundy’s Lane United Church
Lundy’s Lane United Church, Niagara Falls
Donald N. Chapman, 1962
Lundy’s Lane follows a series of structures on this site since the congregation’s founding in the 1790s. Its slender, free-standing bell tower ascends 65 feet near the main entrance, where hand-wrought copper doors lead into the narthex, and a painting depicting the congregation’s history by noted abstract artist Tony Urquhart. In the sanctuary, a dramatic, translucent screen brings in light from one side of the nave, and on the other side, the memory of the previous church lives on in the historic baptistry windows. Lundy’s Lane was designed by Donald Chapman of Niagara Falls (pictured below) in collaboration with the Reverend Victor Fiddes. Faced with declining numbers, the congregation held its final worship service here in 2015.
8: St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church
St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, Niagara Falls
Arthur B. Scott, 1958
The new parish of St. Thomas More opened its church on Christmas Eve, 1958. But just a few years afterwards, in 1963, the building was devastated by fire. With its massive interior arches left charred, it seemed a complete loss, but ultimately the building was salvaged and re-built. On the interior, dramatic wooden arches and planking reach in all directions across a cruciform plan, framing the altar in the centre. Black pendant lamps shine on terrazzo aisles between the pews. On the exterior, additions today obscure the original character of the main façade. St. Thomas More was designed by Arthur Scott of Welland.
9: St. George Roman Catholic Church
St. George Roman Catholic Church, Crystal Beach
Kearns & Gerencser, 1964
St. George’s, with room for some 900 people, was built for the influx of summer residents to its lakeside town of Crystal Beach, especially those from across the lake in Buffalo. Set against an extensive wooded area, two great crosses reach into the skyline, one anchoring a canopy near the main entrance, and the other rising from an orb sculpture on the rooftop. The church’s circular form was intended to bring parishioners closer to the altar, which sits beneath a lantern in the meeting point of the radial ceiling. The red St. George’s cross is set in mosaic tile at the church’s entrances. St. George’s was designed by Kearns & Gerencser of Welland.
10: St. John Bosco Roman Catholic Church
St. John Bosco Roman Catholic Church, Port Colborne
Robert W. Stickle & Associates, 1958
Built to serve a young parish of 420 families in this lakeside town, St. John Bosco’s modern character is of a more subtle nature. The main façade has a streamlined silhouette and features a modern sculpture of Christ above the entrance. The church is clad in narrow, horizontal courses of local limestone, previously discarded by the quarry, pierced by vivid stained glass windows—including characteristic modernist dalle de verre. Alterations have since changed the character of its interior, notably by closing in the chancel walls and windows, and covering the terrazzo floors. St. John Bosco was designed by Robert Stickle & Associates of Cleveland, Ohio.
11: St-Jean-de-Brébeuf Roman Catholic Church
St-Jean-de-Brébeuf Roman Catholic Church, Port Colborne
Gerencser & Russell Architects, 1968
St-Jean-de-Brébeuf was founded in the 1950s to serve French-speaking families in surrounding communities. Nestled in a residential streetscape, its brick walls wrap in a spiral around a large roof structure. This form reveals itself in dramatic fashion on the interior, where a vast wooden ceiling rises to a lantern which provides the main source of daylight. The sense of scale on the interior is assisted by a gradual slope downwards from the entrance to the altar, where a radial plaster sculpture adorns the curved reredos. St-Jean-de-Brébeuf was designed by Gerencser and Russell of Welland. Faced with a declining congregation today, its bells can no longer afford to ring.
12: First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church, Welland
Philip Carter Johnson, 1958
Founded in 1901, First Baptist was anticipating the growth of its 365-strong membership in building their new church in the 1950s. They looked to noted architect Philip Carter Johnson of London, Ontario (known for Knox Church in Goderich, Ontario). From the street, a stone façade veils curtain glass walls to either side of the narthex, in a subtle angular form which repeats through the building. In the sanctuary, there is a simplicity in the flat ceiling, round metal posts along cantilevered ambulatories, and clear glass windows along the nave. The chancel is lined with wood panelling and the pulpit is lit from a lantern above. In 1967, the design for First Baptist was fully realized with the completion of its bell tower.
13: Anshe Yosher Synagogue
Anshe Yosher Synagogue, Welland
Norman Kearns, 1955
While the design for Anshe Yosher was of a more modest nature, the building was a symbol of the optimism of the era. After World War II, the congregation needed a new synagogue to accommodate an influx of families. The brick structure, with simple finishes, afforded spaces for worship, a basement hall, and a Hebrew school with 30 children. In the sanctuary, the Torah ark was set against a subtle projecting curve legible on the exterior. Numbers declined by the 1970s, and when the synagogue was sold to a different faith, the proceeds and ritual objects went to Israel to help another congregation build their synagogue. Anshe Yosher was designed by Norman Kearns of Welland.
14: Resurrection Lutheran Church
Resurrection Lutheran Church, St. Catharines
Wallace V. Moll, 1970
Resurrection is set against a dramatic forested backdrop from its siting at the base of the Niagara Escarpment. When it was built, the new congregation made plans for a town-gown relationship with newly established Brock University, which sits at the top of the escarpment. Its sloping façades covered in multi-coloured tiles, and its descending entrance canopies, echo the escarpment above. Inside, the sanctuary is oriented at a 45-degree angle to the building’s square plan, and its intimate size, sloping form and wood finishes create a sense of shelter within nature. Resurrection was designed by Wallace Moll of Lewiston, New York, whose obituary notes that he found his joy in designing Christian churches.
Thanks to the congregations who opened their doors, the archives who shared their collections, and the individuals who recounted their stories.
Fig. 2–3: St. Catharines Standard, Sept. 7, 1962 (Courtesy Dennis Gannon)
Figs. 5–1, 5–2, 5–4, 5–5: Personal Collection of Lon Pencak
Fig. 7–2: Personal Collection of Don Chapman
Fig. 8–2: Stamford-Kiwanis Historical Photo Collection
Fig. 9–3: www.playle.com, Item# SCVIEW214370
Fig. 9–4: Collection of the Diocese of St. Catharines
Fig. 10–3: Collection of St. John Bosco Parish
Fig. 10–4: Nigel Molaro, 2014
Figs. 13 (all): Congregation Anshe Yosher, dedication book, June 1955