St. Peter Celestine Church
St. Peter Celestine Church stands on the edge of the bluff overlooking the village of Pakenham. The church and rectory occupy an entire large block of the village. The original rectory stood to the north of the church surrounded by maple trees. The old rectory was demolished in 1892, when the present church and rectory were built. Until the sixties, the drive shed stood to the south of the rectory. This was a long, low U-shaped open structure where parishioners stabled their horses during Mass. Another vanished structure is the rectory drive shed.
The old drive shed which stood in the field beyond the rectory was well-suited to the annual social. A hearty turkey supper started the evening, followed by games of chance and square dancing. One parishioner who was instrumental in building and installing the facilities for the social was Fred Murch who constructed the games tables by hand and renovated the drive shed. The delightful days of the outdoor socials ended with the archdiocesan ban on dances in the late fifties.
It is possible that Father Lavin intended at one time to establish the parish cemetery behind the church but the quiet charm of Indian Hill Cemetery won over and the move never took place. Similarly, various priests of the 20’s and 30’s hoped to set up a separate school behind the church but parish resources never justified the expense.
The site is now occupied by the rectory and church. The rectory is an imposing brick house with six bedrooms and public rooms to suit a thriving parish that could expect to receive numerous visiting clergy from time to time. Its decor echoes that of the church in a couple of features; first, the odd pointed bay window at the front of the house repeats the angular front of the church bell tower. This angle is repeated again in the pointed side windows of the third floor.
St. Peter Celestine is a church in the Classic style typical of southern Europe. The style was introduced to Canada by the French in the 17th century and is seen in churches throughout Quebec, however it is uncommon in Ontario.
Classic architecture grew out of the architecture of the later Roman Empire (classic basilican architecture) and remained the standard style of formal architecture in southern Europe until the middle of this century. It is characterized by round arches, pillars and relatively small windows when compared to Gothic architecture. In the case of St. Peter Celestine, the architects and decorators combined the elements of classic architecture to make an unusual and beautiful building.
The basic plan, as laid out by architects Roy & Gauthier over a century ago, is that of a cross, the normal Catholic plan. The base of the cross or “nave” is the body of the church where the congregation sits; the arms of the cross are called the transepts and the head of the cross is the sanctuary where the altar stands.
Seen from the front walk, St. Peter Celestine presents an unusual face to the world. The church tower is turned at 45 degrees to the church so that the base of the tower offers two main entrances to the faithful. Above the doors, the angle of the tower bears a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, like the prow of a ship surmounted by its figurehead. This statue of cast iron was imported from France in 1893. It weighs half a ton and was originally covered in genuine gold leaf. Above it rears the splendid bell tower with its 720 pound bell. The bell tower provides a panoramic view extending for miles around the village. From the time of its building, its dominant position and loud ringing bell played an important role in the community. Its daily ringing at noon served to keep the village clocks on time; rung fast at odd hours, it was the village fire alarm; its slow tolling accompanied the dead on their last journey to Indian Hill. From its lofty tower the youth of the parish could spy the approach of the visiting Bishop on the Almonte Road, and then they were given the privilege of ringing the bell in welcome. On the top of the tower stands the cross which is illuminated at night. Behind the tower stands the church building itself, remarkable chiefly for the unusual height of the structure as a whole. The exterior of the church is also notable for its fine cut limestone, brought from the Montreal Road quarries in east Ottawa, and for the splendid tin clad bell tower, visible far and wide over the valley.
The vestry is the adjacent room where the priests don their robes before entering the sanctuary to celebrate the Mass. In Pakenham, the vestry is a chapel with its own altars and pews. It was extensively modernized in the 60’s and is therefore of less interest to the visitor than the church itself.
The interior of the church, starting from the bell tower, includes the vestibule with the gallery and tower above, then the nave. Beyond are the transepts, side altars and last, the sanctuary with the main altar. The whole interior retains its decor of 1901, carefully restored in 1990-91. The round arches and windows are at once apparent; the latter still have their original coloured glass intact. Between the windows and on the ceiling, the walls are elaborately painted in the style called “trompe l’oeil”, literally “fool the eye”. In this style, the artist, Mr. Toussaint-Xenephone Renaud of Montreal, created the illusion of arches, moldings and medallions of solid plaster through his clever use of paint on flat walls. Another particular feature of the interior is the generous use of “faux-marbre” painting, literally, “false marble”. In this technique, wood is painted to look like marble, as seen in the pillars and altars of the church.
The interior of St. Peter Celestine is reached through the vestibule which has two exterior doors of equal size, although only the left-hand door has been used in decades. Inside, the vestibule is dominated by a huge ceiling painting of the Eye of God done in water colour on plaster. It depicts the ever-open eye symbolizing omniscience; the eye is in a triangle emblematic of the Holy Trinity, itself inside a circle, symbol of divine perfection and unity.
Across the rear of the vestibule open the traditional three doors into a Catholic church; the large door is for visits by a Bishop or other major personage; the two smaller ones are for daily use. On either side of these doors are two smaller doors that lead up to the gallery. All the wood in the vestibule is hardwood, mostly oak with maple trim.
Other noteworthy items in the vestibule are the picture showing native priests of the parish, the script displaying the names of the women of our parish who have entered the religious life and the bronze plaque with the names of all the parish priests since the founding of the parish.
St. Peter Celestine is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, the church was constructed by a pastor who could afford a really splendid building thanks to the generosity of his prosperous rural parish. This pastor, Father Lavin, worked with architects, Gauthier et Roy, who had erected scores of such churches over the previous generation. In each church, the architects were accustomed to try to design a building that would out-shine the neighbouring parishes. At Pakenham, the devotion and determination of the pastor, coupled with the open-handed character of the congregation, allowed the builders to erect a church of unusual richness and size.
The style that Father Lavin selected for the interior was quite novel at the turn of the century. After the Great War, it went out of fashion. As a result, St. Peter Celestine is one of a handful of churches that were decorated in Italianate trompe l’oeil style of the period and whose decor has survived to the present.
Finally, it must be admitted that there has been an element of divine providence in the preservation of St. Peter Celestine. At a period when Catholic churches all over Canada were being “renovated”, Pakenham suffered from such a reduced income that the purchase of enough paint to wipe out the interior decoration was almost beyond the means of its pastors. At the same time, Pakenham retained a core of traditional parishioners who grimly defended the church property against the impulses of each passing fad, so that when our parish arrived at the centennial of our church, the building was preserved in restorable condition. The present restoration is, in a very important way, a tribute to those parishioners who resisted the “modernization” of their church a generation ago.
Thanks to their determination and divine providence, St. Peter Celestine Church stands as a monument to the tastes and faith of our great grandparents. This church, the fruit of their devotion and determination, is most striking and worthy. They built something remarkably beautiful that, a century later, retains the message of their faith. Can anyone in our modern world hope to achieve so much?
The present congregation of St. Peter Celestine has been fortunate to receive the gift of this magnificent church from our forefathers. It is our privilege to preserve this monument to their faith and to Father Dominic Lavin. We are proud to hand on that gift. As our forefathers gave to us, we give in turn. We can only say that, thanks be to God, we were faithful to the gift. We pray that those who follow us will also be blessed with the opportunity to keep the faith.
Anyone wishing a guided tour of the Church
please make arrangements by contacting the office.
There is a fee (donation) for the tour to offset
the maintenance for the Church.
© 1992 (text) Terence Currie – Used with permission