Community Population: 1,400 (2011 Census) First Nation Population: 435 (2011 Census) - Mainly Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Catholic Population: Unknown Regular Church attendees: 15 Mailing Address: Box 277, Dawson City, YT Y0B 1G0 Rectory: 468 King Street, Dawson City Y0B 1G0
History of the Mission:
St. Mary's Church in 1897 was a small building built by the famous “Saint of Dawson”, Fr. William Judge, SJ. He was a Jesuit priest who came into Dawson City, from Forty Mile, Yukon, with the beginning of the gold rush. Fr. Judge himself made the altar and the ornamental work was done with a pen knife. This church was described as “the first Roman Catholic Church of Dawson City, a large structure of logs at the north extremity of the town.” The seats were rough boards placed on stumps. At first there was no glass for windows, and heavy white muslin was tacked to the frames. The first church burned down and was replaced by a larger more commodious one. The first Catholic churches were located along the river, just north of down town, more below the big scar on the north hillside, called Moosehide. When the first church burnt down Fr. Judge received a large sum of money from big Alex MacDonald for the rebuilding. Alex was a Nova Scotian, who was eventually called King of the Klondike.
Fr. Judge died in Dawson, January, 1899. It was a terribly cold day in which all of Dawson City stopped to bury him. A marker was place on his grave in the church. This marker is still on his grave by the river because the church has moved but his grave is still at the same spot. The Oblates took over from the Jesuits in 1898. The first Oblate superior in the area was Fr. Edmond Gendreau, OMI. It was his responsibility to build a house as an Oblate dwelling. This he did on King Street. In 1902, he built the church with a school building. The teachers of that first school were the missionary Sisters of St. Ann from Victoria, BC. These sisters had several missions in Alaska before coming across to Dawson to work. The school closed permanently in 1959.
Fr. Leo Boyd, OMI came after Fr. Marcel Bobillier, OMI who had died in Dawson. The church building was leaning and shifting because the permafrost under the building was melting. Fr. Boyd did some serious looking around to see what could be done to remedy this problem and undertook many renovations to recitfy the situation. Besides these projects, there were many others that helped to enhance the outside finish of both buildings. Fr. Boyd was good with people and created a very good rapport with the local people. On Discovery Day, August 16th, he would always be there in the local parade as chaplain to the local branch of the Yukon Order of Pioneers. He would be dressed up in his suit with his clerical collar and over his chest the sash of the honourable order. During Fr. Boyd’s time, the river site of the old church and hospital were cleaned up.
Eventually, with assistance from some forces within town, Heritage Canada created the present site of pleasant walks and cairn as a memorial to Fr. William Judge. It was in 1908, that the Yukon area was given its own ecclesiastical boundaries away from the Diocese of Mackenzie. Dawson’s pastor, Emile Bunoz, OMI was named the Prefect Apostolic. He was then made Bishop of Prince Rupert and the Yukon in 1917. It was said that the chain of his pectoral cross was from solid gold nuggets. Apparently, this chain was later sent to the Oblate General House in Rome.
Fr. Boyd was followed by Fr. Tim Coonen, OMI. He looked around and saw that the 93 year old church building needed a few other repairs. After raising some funds from different agencies, he was able with the assistance of parishioners and professionals to put on a new corrugated steel roof, replace rotten or damaged roof trusses, repair wall plates, insulate the upstairs church, vapour barrier the walls, gyproc the walls, rewire the church, replace the windows with new ones and repaint the interior of the church. The appearance of the building was left to the period setting.
Additional work was started in 1995. During the restoration, services were held in what had been two school rooms and was now a hall on the main floor. June 12, 1996 was set as the rededication. The celebration began with a banquet for the parish and Dawson people and many invited guests, Bishop Lobsinger and pastoral workers of the diocese, as well as Sisters of St. Anne who ran the hospital and the first school in Dawson. The visitors went upstairs to the Church passing a number of historic photographs of the various churches and school of the past 100 years. Many were awestruck on entering the building, going back in time to the early days of the church. The statues, the altar, the lights, paintings, and even the wall paper reproduced as much as possible to the original appearance of the sanctuary. The members of the crew that did the work, told Bishop Lobsinger, and the visitors of the work they did, to try to make it look as near as possible to the original décor. Bishop Lobsinger led everyone in a prayer of thanksgiving and rededication of the restored church for the Dawson parishioners.
Other priests that served here were Frs. C. Lefebvre, OMI, A. Desmarais, OMI, E. Gendreau, OMI, O.l Corbeil, Bro. A. Dumas, OMI, E. Bunoz, OMI, G. Eichelsbacher, OMI, El Leray, OMI, J. Allard, OMI, H. Rivet, OMI, B. Arsenault, OMI, E. Turenne, OMI, J. Plaine, OMI, P. Poullet, OMI, A. Renaud, OMI, P. Gagne, OMI, M. Bobillier, OMI, L. Boyd, OMI, T. Coonen, OMI.
St. Mary’s Hospital, 1898 until 1963 (?). This hospital was the product of Fr. Judge’s work. He raised money from the miners in order for it to be built. If they didn’t have any money, he would gladly take gold nuggets. He received $30,000, to pay the bills for the hospital from Alexander McDonald, who had earned the title of Klondike King. Night and day he served the patients, sleeping on a little cot in the corner so that he could help anyone at a moment’s notice… In the mid-winter of 1899, although stricken with incipient pneumonia himself, he answered a sick-call in town, then came home to the hospital and died. One of the men said of him ‘I always felt when I talked with Father Judge as if I were with one who was goodness itself. He left with me the feeling that I wanted to go off by myself and pray. He rarely smiled, but his face was radiant, with an indescribable light.’
On July 11, 1898, Sister Mary Zephrin Saunders, Mary Pauline Brault and Mary Pudentienne Granger arrived to take over the nursing duties of the hospital. The Sisters of St. Ann were the nurses and were assisted by lay people in other capacities. When Fr. Judge was the administrator and chaplain of the hospital but because of his goodness and love of people accumulated a considerable debt. This became a sticky problem when he died. Who was going to pay for it – the Jesuits, the Sisters of St. Ann or the Oblates? One of the things the sisters did was to go on collection tours of the mining camps for support of the hospital. Apparently, some great fund raisers were held in town to cover this debt and operational cost of the hospital. Because it was a Catholic hospital and the Sisters lived there, there must have been a chapel in the building. This chapel probably served as a place of prayer for the Sisters but was probably accessible to the patients. No doubt, at times there must have been baptisms, funerals, and other religious services held here. In 1958, there was another fire in this building. The hospital by now was more an old men’s extended care facility. Instead of rebuilding the hospital, as a temporary measure, the Governor’s house was used to house these aged men. For many years, Fr. Philias Gagne, OMI was chaplain to the hospital and to the Sisters. He was nicknamed the Recluse of Dawson because of his ability to pray.
St. Mary’s School: 1898 until 1959. During November 1898, Fr. E. Gendreau, OMI, arranged for a downtown school with fifty-three registered Catholic students for the first year. Sister Mary Joseph Calascantius De Ruyter, assisted by Miss Marie O’Connor was the first teacher. Sister Mary Sylvanna organized the first piano lessons. The Dawson school taught all classes up to grade eight. From 1914-1920, a commercial class functioned under the direction of Sister Mary Esther Bertrand. Catholic education was the first school system in the Yukon. That means that public education came later. The story goes that public schooling was delayed over Catholic schooling because the boat bringing up the supplies from Nome, Alaska, was unable to proceed all the way to Dawson because of freeze up.
The Catholic Cemetery: Fr. Leo Boyd, OMI, was asked by Heritage Canada if he had any knowledge of where the Catholics were buried during Fr. Judge’s time. He was unable to answer that inquiry. There was nothing available in the Diocesan Archives. Shortly after this, archives received a paper written by Fr. Marcel Murie, OMI in 1941 about the Yukon and Dawson. He made a specific reference that when Fr. Gendreau and the Oblates arrived in 1898 in Dawson City the question of a Catholic cemetery came to the fore. As a result of their concern and work, a Catholic cemetery was procured. Fr. Boyd and a group of people did yeoman duty to clean the grave yard during his time. When he left town the job was yet not fully completed.
The Churches on the creeks: History has told us that the miners were on a number of creeks where gold had been discovered. These creeks were considerable distances out of town. Sundays were not always observed as holy days because the diggings went on all day and every day. Because of this pastoral concern, the missionaries started travelling to the creeks that had churches. These creeks were Bonanza, Eldorado, Sulphur, Dominion, Granville, and Hunker. What these priests accomplished was formidable. They had to make the miners recall their responsibility to God. Over the years, as space was created for a chapel. This chapel started out being a tent and later on, a simple wooden structure was built. About 1906, the major boom in Dawson was over. The large mining companies with large equipment had bought most of the small operators. People were leaving the area and these chapels fell into disuse. It was one of these buildings that became the church for Mayo.
RESOURCE: Official websites of local First Nation and the Town; “As Time Goes On” by H. Spruyt, OMI; Questionnaire Survey; Interview with active church members.