Building Fragments on the Bluffs
Built in an astonishing nine months between 1846 and 1847 in the historic town plat of Fredericton, St. Anne’s Parish Church was planned by Fredericton’s first Anglican Bishop, John Medley (1804-1892), to fulfill the need of a proper place of worship while the monumental Christ Church Cathedral was being built nearby. Consisting of a single aisled nave measuring 54 feet long by 21 feet wide, with a narrower altar chancel 20 feet deep, St. Anne’s survives virtually unchanged over the last 170 years. It is universally regarded as “the finest small North American parish church of its date in the English Gothic revival style.” Now known as St. Anne’s Chapel of Ease since a modern adjoining church was built in the 1960s, it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1992.
Commissioned shortly after construction had begun on Christ Church Cathedral, St. Anne’s is the earliest North American structure completed by Frank Wills (1822-1857), a young British architect who immigrated to Fredericton to assist Bishop Medley. The building is a clear synthesis of Medley’s architectural ideals, and he is credited with having an enormous effect on the built landscape throughout the province. Medley helped establish the influence of the Gothic revival in Canada, and the huge number of Gothic-inspired churches that dot every corner of New Brunswick would be inconceivable without him. He was a member of a British group called the Ecclesiological Society, who wished to restore the spiritual authority of the church through a return to medieval forms of worship and setting, primary of which was their desire to replicate historical models of Gothic architecture. Frank Wills felt that St. Anne’s was “the first ecclesiastical building erected in the British provinces in which Ancient Architecture has been attempted to be honestly carried out.” Based on such precedents as the thirteenthcentury parish church in Cambridgeshire, England, Fredericton’s St. Anne’s is unmistakably a product of their medieval vision. In this task it succeeded outstandingly, as the province is teeming with mid- to late nineteenth-century near copies of St. Anne’s, albeit in wood.
With its ornate ironwork hinges on the side entrance, carved wood details throughout the interior, and the multicoloured Minton encaustic tiles decorating the floor and chancel walls, the sum result is a most graceful structure. It acknowledges both its English medieval antecedents and its more contemporary nineteenth-century function as a medium for expounding Medley’s architectural principles in North America.
The chapel’s stone exterior is rough-cut sandstone with some finely detailed stone ornament throughout. Yet Wills had written of the apparent “impossibility of procuring proper masons to execute stone tracery,” which forced him to design St. Anne’s in the simpler “First Pointed” (Early English) style, rather than the later and more ornate “Decorated” style of Christ Church Cathedral. St. Anne’s east entrance porch possesses most of the exterior carving of the building, and is almost Norman in its form with a dogtooth X-pattern throughout the arch.
The interior is stunning and more elaborate with the roof, chancel screen, pulpit, altar, and pews crafted of local butternut—testament to the abundance of skilled wood carvers in New Brunswick during the nineteenth century, where scores of Great Britain’s finest and fastest wooden ships were built.
While St. Anne’s plaster nave walls are simple light beige, a deep sense of colour is felt throughout. Richly tinted zinc plates, continuous painted bands with biblical excerpts, decoratively painted chancel wall surfaces, and stained glass windows imported from England produce colour wherever the eye travels. Although every interior element conveys splendour to the viewer, there is no denying that the most striking aspects of the chapel’s interior are the Minton encaustic tiles that adorn the floor and walls in a marvellous display of colour and texture.
As the worshippers arrive at the east porch entrance, they immediately encounter a finely executed royal coat of arms inlaid in floor tile, showing the royal emblems of different parts of the United Kingdom: the three lions of England in the first and fourth quarters, the lion of Scotland in the second, and the harp of Ireland in the third. It is surrounded by a blue border strip bearing the motto of the Sovereign, Dieu et mon droit (God and my right). The four corners display Queen Victoria’s personal royal cypher, consisting of the royal initials V.R. (Victoria Regina) surmounted by a crown.
As you proceed through the nave, where the floor consists of solid tiles in red and black flanked by a diamond border pattern along the aisle, you arrive at the chancel steps. It is here that the substantial decorative effect of the Minton gift begins to take effect. Risers sporting a continuous band of stylized vine leaf tiles flank a tread of alternating solid black and ornate red- and buff-coloured tiles. The chancel floor broadens the red/buff theme, with groupings of these in a fanciful host of motifs ranging from single tiles to four-tile Gothic rose window patterns to nine-tile leaf and border patterns, all within a regular latticework of black tiles. At the foot of the altar, three multicoloured groupings with fleur-de-lys and geometric borders depict symbols of St. Matthew, St. Luke, and “the Pelican in its Piety,” the latter being an ancient symbol of self-sacrifice.
While the east and west chancel walls are simply and colourfully painted, the north wall is clad in a beautiful array of blue, red, and buff round tiles of the Evangelists. These are set within red pattern squares surrounded by crosses of blue/buff tiles with an Agnus Dei lamb at their intersection. The entire surface is bounded by an ornate grapevine tile border, which was surely the inspiration for much of the painted wall ornament throughout the building.
The archival Minton donation list in England shows that tiles were given to “Fredericton Cathedral, British America” in October 1847 and November 1852. Curiously, there are no Minton encaustic tiles in Christ Church Cathedral. As the donation list date of October 1847 corresponds perfectly with the final building schedule of St. Anne’s rather than the cathedral, it is likely that the first (and possibly second) donation was destined for the chapel. Whether any of the tiles ultimately sent to Fredericton were intended for actual cathedral use is unknown.
A recognized authority on ecclesiastical art and also informally trained in architecture, Medley’s mission was a full-blown reassessment of the church in his new Fredericton diocese. His intense advocacy for a return to a Medieval aesthetic was, however, hotly debated, as related by Medley scholar Barry Craig:
When [Medley] arrived in New Brunswick in 1845 the opinion that external forms could be vehicles for divine grace was very much in question. Even stained glass windows were distrusted and the mere questioning of liturgical practices was subject to suspicion. By the end of his long episcopate Gothic churches dominated the diocese… and while a diversity of churchmanship continued in the diocese, the High Church orientation was predominant.
In pursuit of this aesthetic goal, Medley felt that decorated elements such as encaustic tiles and stained glass were critical and neglected elements to be morally reclaimed from what he scornfully called “the influence of Puritan leaven.” In his 1841 essay “Elementary Remarks on Church Architecture,” Medley delivered a thorough discourse on the history of the subject. He felt that:
there is a higher ground on which we may rest the argument for the necessity of some knowledge of Church Architecture, and it is this: – A deficiency in taste where the object is to pay religious reverence to the Almighty, implies a deficiency in moral perception, and [this] cannot exist without injury to the moral and religious character.
Overall, St. Anne’s Minton tiles have withstood the test of time, and are in good to excellent shape. As nearly identical tile decoration arrangements exist throughout the many Victorian “Minton” churches in England, these tiles are of great significance to the heritage of St. Anne’s and to Canadian architectural history. It is hoped that they will not only reawaken awareness of our ties to British craft and design, but will continue to endure in their wonderful state for centuries to come.
John Leroux is an architect, art historian, and design instructor at the University of New Brunswick, where he is also currently pursuing doctoral studies in cultural history.
A deep sense of colour is felt throughout the building, seen here at the chancel with its decoratively painted wall surfaces, stained glass windows, and Minton wall tiles.
Photograph: John Leroux