Vancouver Walking Tour of Downtown Churches

by - May 22, 2021

To make our evenings more pleasant and our walks more interesting, our family and I decided to start doing self-guided walking tours, with a focus on exploring the heritage of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Our first self-guided tour was a 2 kilometer walk that took us through West End, down Burrard and finally downtown. It was around 1 hour long because we stopped at each place for a few minutes, though it can be accomplished in 30 minutes or even 2 hours if you are with a big group. It's a perfect walk for moms and dads with strollers as well (our toddler joined us on this tour.)  

Here's the lowdown. So we began our walk up Davie and arrived at our first destination, which was the St. Paul's Anglican Church. We accidentally thought the Guardian Angels church, on Broughton and Pendrell Street was the one, but that's not it! Keep going up Pendrell and finally you will see the St Paul's Anglican Church on the intersection of Pendrell and Jervis, to your right (if you are going up).

The St. Paul's Anglican Church was established in 1891 at a time when the population of Vancouver was rapidly expanding. In 1905, it was replaced by a larger church, with the original building of the church next to it becoming the parish hall. The style is Gothic revival, and follows the tradition of English parish churches of the time.

After the 1980's, the Church started to focus on being more relevant for the diverse community of Vancouver, and in particular, catering to the growing LGBTQ community in Vancouver.

Next on the stop was St. Andrew's Wesley United Church, which most people can see on Burrard Street. To get there, you can continue up Pendrell, walking past the Mole Hill Community which in itself is a historic site. The Mole Hill is the last surviving block of pre-First World War housing and the most significant example of Vancouver’s Victorian and Edwardian era domestic architecture. The block has thirty heritage-listed properties built between 1888 and 1908.

Today, Mole Hill is governed by the Mole Hill Community Housing Society, and contains 170 social housing suites, three daycares, a group home and a host of community assets, set in a park-like environment. 

Once you've seen the Mole Hill community center, you can continue up Pendrell, take a right turn on Thurlow, then another right on Comox until you hit Burrard Street. From Burrard, just continue down in the direction of downtown, and you won't miss the St. Andrew's Wesley United Church, which is just across Sheraton, and next to Century Plaza. It has a tall Gothic tower, with stained glass windows, a vaulted nave, a cross-like shape, and plenty of natural light, giving it a cathedral appearance. The church is product of two separate congregations, that of St. Andrews, and that of Wesley, and these  congregations are part of the United Church of Canada, a union formed from Canada's Methodist, Presbyterian, Local Union, and Congregational churches.  It has been designated as one of Canada's heritage sites. Every Sunday from 4 to 5 PM, the Church has "Jazz Vespers" which allows people to listen to some of Vancouver's finest jazz musicians in its stunning, Gothic atmosphere.

The next church on the walk is along Burrard just across Nelson street. This is the First Baptist Church. The church almost looks like a continuation of St Andrew Wesley United, but is indeed a different one. Though it is not as impressive as the others on the walking tour, it has the most interesting history. In 1886, when Vancouver has just been incorporated, a small group of Baptists saw the increasing need to establish a place of worship for the booming city. The group launched an inaugural Sunday School program on June 5th, at a Vancouver pub called Blair’s Saloon on Abbott Street – welcoming 30 children into the Blair’s Saloon Hall. The following Sunday, June 13, 1886, Blair’s Saloon along with most of the city were destroyed by fire.

Following the fire, two building lots were obtained from the Canadian Pacific Railway on Main Street to construct a dedicated space for worship. Within months, the congregation outgrew the little building on Main Street. Then, a new church with seating for about 800 was built at Hamilton and Dunsmuir Streets by 1887. By the turn of the 20th century, the church's founders decided to set down some roots, and bought the current lot on Burrard and Nelson Streets for $4,000. Before construction started, however, the church faced another setback: a fire in the Sunday School rooms, damaging the roof and foundation. Finally, in 1910, the cornerstone for the new church was laid, and in 1911, the new building was dedicated. However, in 1931 the sanctuary was destroyed by fire again and for the third time, the congregation had to rebuild after a fire!!! Fortunately, that was the end of fires! Since then, the building has grown and changed along with its worshipers. It now continues to serve Vancouver from its key location on the westside and welcomes guests who genuinely want to join its holy fellowship.

The fourth church on the walking tour is the Christ Church Cathedral, which has a special place in Vancouver's history because it is the city's very first church. To get to it, continue down Burrard Street, passing by Robson until you reach West Georgia. The church is once again built in Gothic style with stained glass. Its interior and exterior feature a Celtic cross design while the church's heraldry also features a whorl and three salmon in the artistic style employed by the native Salish people, one of the original inhabitants of Canada's west coast.

In 1976, the lot that the church was located on was designated to be bulldozed so as to make way for a new skyscraper complex. Fortunately, lobbying by Vancouver's people saved the historic edifice, and gave it a place on Vancouver's list of heritage sites. The church is also notable for being one of the churches in Canada to sanctify same sex unions. As of 2003, it officially blesses same sex marriages.

By this time, we were indeed exhausted because we had to entertain a toddler as well. But we prevailed as we had only one more church to go and this was the Holy Rosary Cathedral. From Burrard, we walked one block and took a right on Dunsmuir. Just six streets down was the the Holy Rosary Cathedral, a French Gothic style cathedral resembling the medieval Chartres Cathedral in France. The construction of the cathedral began in 1899 on the site of an earlier church by the same name. It opened December 8, 1900, was blessed the day after, and was consecrated in 1953. The style has been described as  church was elevated to the status of cathedral in 1916. Designed by T.E. Julien, it is considered one of Vancouver's Heritage Sites. 

The exterior walls are made of sandstone that came from Gabriola (one of the islands in BC) and foundations are granite. The bells of Holy Rosary Cathedral are all rung live by bell ringers, and not played from a recording. The original bells were cast in France and shipped to Vancouver, but they weren't in tune. So, it was decided to ship the seven bells, named for the Seven Sacraments, to England to be recast and properly tuned. The result was a ring of eight bells, representing a full musical octave. The bells were finally hung for change ringing in 1906, and have remained so ever since.

Thus ended our walking tour that taught us a great deal about the historic churches of this wonderful city.

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