Silton Chapel In Jeopardy?

A few years ago, the MacKenzie Art Gallery presented a retrospective exhibition showcasing the work of former Regina architect Clifford Wiens. A contemporary of the Regina Five group of abstract painters, Wiens was a strong proponent of modernist architecture in the city. Some of his award-winning designs include the University of Regina Heating and Cooling plant (built in 1968), a studio for Lumsden sculptor John Nugent (1960) and the CBC Broadcast Centre (1983).

Another acclaimed design by him is a summer chapel at Silton, SK. (pictured). Writing in Western Living in 2008, here’s how Vancouver-based architecture critic Trevor Boddy described the chapel:

A 20-minute drive up the [Qu’Appelle] valley is another Wiens stunner, the Silton Summer Chapel (1969), a seasonal Roman Catholic Church for cottagers on Long Lake. “Half the art of architecture is knowing the site,” says the now Vancouver-based Wiens, still actively designing at age 82. Part of Silton Chapel’s drama and authority is arriving through the glade to encounter architecture at its most primal: a pyramidal roof set on four massive glulam (glue-laminated timber) beams, which are held up on gruff concrete pillars, a raw boulder underneath serving as an altar but no walls at all. A small cast-concrete pillbox provides a vestiary, while the baptismal fount is filled with water running off the cedar-shaked roof down an iron chain serving as improvised drainpipe.

Wiens’s design appeals whether one is pagan (natural vistas provide the “stained glass” for worshippers on the bench-pews), Roman Catholic (this is a fully consecrated church), aesthete (the design is a chef d’oeuvre of minimalism) or engineer (with a steel vertical tie-rod at centre, the foursquare roof acts structurally as an innovative space frame). Seldom has Mies van der Rohe’s dictum of “less is more” resonated as forcefully as here–architecture reduced to its essence, and in so doing, amplified cosmically.

Unfortunately, it seems that the chapel has fallen on hard times and rumours are circulating that Church authorities are contemplating demolishing the chapel. That would be a huge hit to the inventory of heritage architecture in Saskatchewan. Again, unfortunately, from research and interviews I’ve conducted on the issue of heritage with municipal and provincial officials, designation of a property as a heritage site is largely at the discretion of the owner and little latitude exists to proactively preserve heritage properties otherwise.

Designating a property as a heritage site does place restrictions on the owner’s ability to alter it, in that they are expected to honour the commitment they’ve made to preserve the property. But public funds can be accessed to help the owner restore and maintain their heritage property. Wouldn’t it be great if the Church would opt for that over demolition?

Author: Gregory Beatty

Greg Beatty is a crime-fighting shapeshifter who hatched from a mutagenic egg many decades ago. He likes sunny days, puppies and antique shoes. His favourite colour is not visible to your puny human eyes. He refuses to write a bio for this website and if that means Whitworth writes one for him, so be it.

9 thoughts on “Silton Chapel In Jeopardy?”

  1. This story breaks my heart!!!

    Why oh why is there a NEED to tear this amazing structure down?? Will the land (a depression in the valley) be used for anything else?? It is an outdoor chapel, one would think it would need very little maintenance.

    The construction and engineering is sheer brilliance, its rugged simplicity and geometry suit its site so well.

    This sanctuary in the woods should be experienced. It should be preserved, the work of Clifford Wiens should be respected.

    (waaaaaa!!!!)
    sigh….

  2. Greg notes that his concern arises from rumours, so perhaps there is more substantial info yet to be had. Just speculating here, but if the chapel has too small or fluctuating a congregation to support it, and if local priests are spread too thin to serve this location more than intermittently, even in summer, then the diocese may very well need to reset its priorities and close the place. The diocese also has many other claims on its resources, and may not set architectural preservation on the same plane as, say, serving the homeless men who come to Marian House. That said, the chapel can easily be deconsecrated and offered for sale. If no one wants it, then demolition may be a very real possibility, because of liability and vandalism issues(even outside structures need maintenance). Former St. Angela’s Academy in Prelate was on its way to a date with the wrecking ball until it was bought by the owner of the Islamic College of BC…and I’m betting he got a bargain, because the Ursulines had to drop their price from $2.7 million to less than a million, but still had maintenance costs up the wazoo.
    If there’s anyone who’d like to buy and preserve the chapel, I’d bet they’d have the ear of the diocese.

  3. This was posted by someone on Facebook in response to this blog post:

    I live directly across from the Chapel and in fact my house was inspired architecturally by its form… It has been sad watching it deteriorate. It is in need of serious restoration but unfortunately most people, even here in the community, don’t even know it exists. I have raised issues here regarding its state and not much alliance is to be found as it sits on prime real estate and more than likely the sentiment is that it a waste of valuable land. The worst thing is that it simply needed roof repairs over the years and no one took that into account. It could be saved with about $20,000 worth of shingles and some minor structural attention. This is a Sask Heritage issue if you ask me and not up to church administrators or local tax payers. They’d all have it torn down tomorrow. Crazy!

  4. This is a brilliant work by Clifford Wiens that should be protected and restored. Its essence is inextricably tied to the site. Our family spent many summers in Kannata Valley and every summer, we visited this exquisite chapel with our boys marvelling at its simplicity and beauty. I agree that it should be preserved and that this work of Clifford Wiens should be respected.

  5. I visited the Silton chapel for the first time only a few years ago…
    Upon descending the stairs and entering the space I felt a quiet awe – such a beautiful and elegant design fitting perfectly into a niche of nature.
    With his brilliance, Clifford Wiens created a temple of both strength and simplicity, nestled into what feels like a quiet coulee.
    I wanted to stay and stay in this unadorned space, so clean and right that it is magical.
    May a way be found to keep this wonderful Chapel, honouring both the structure and its gifted architect.

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