The little church beneath the slope
There is no shortage of arresting and dramatic vistas along the Thompson River canyon between Lytton and Ashcroft; but one of the most dramatic is the enormous talus slope on the east side of the river, halfway between Spences Bridge and the turn-off to Ashcroft.
It’s located at a place variously spelled Pokeist, Pokhaist, or Pukaist, which translates to “white stone”. The name derives from a sacred place which was used by native healers and by young men coming of age, who would visit (and sometimes scale) the large white pinnacle to pray or to seek a vision.
The talus slope is so large that it was displayed as a feature on early maps of the area. Composed mostly of granite, the angle (or slope) of the slide is called the “angle of repose”. The delicate material making up the talus slope is so finely balanced that if any disturbance is made to the lower portion of the slide, such as a footfall or someone digging, the pressure causes movement in the upper part of the slope to correct the balance.
At one time Pokeist village, a First Nations community, numbered some 800 people, which included a small settlement on the west bank of the river. However, European settlers brought smallpox – to which the First Nations had no immunity – to the area, and in 1852 the disease almost wiped out both communities.
The small church nestled beneath the talus slope is called St. Aidan’s of Pokeist, and was built as an Anglican church, although no exact date of construction can be traced. It is similar in design to St. John Before the Gate – the church on the Bonaparte Reserve in Ashcroft – and St. Michael and All Angels in Spences Bridge, and the probable date of construction is around 1880–81, shortly after Anglican Bishop Acton Windeyer Sillitoe arrived in western Canada to assume charge of the Diocese of New Westminster in 1880.
Sillitoe was born in New South Wales, Australia in 1840, but moved to England when he was 14 years old. In 1880, after an already distinguished career, he was asked to move to Canada and take over the Bishopric of New Westminster, which at the time was acting as the capital of the new colony of British Columbia; the Bishopric included the southern half of the province.
Sillitoe visited the area around Pokeist shortly after his arrival, and made an agreement with Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) Chief Teetleneetsah (or Tetlenitsa) to construct a church at Pokeist. The Bishop donated a bell for the new building, which has since been removed for safekeeping.
The transition from the Old Country to the new must have been something of a shock for the Bishop and his wife, particularly when they found themselves in the Interior, so foreign to anything they had known.
Mrs. Sillitoe wrote a very vivid account of an 1891 visit to Pokeist: “I am writing under difficulties, with a tiny gold pencil and my paper on my knee, under the shadow of the church. We are camped out near an Indian village on a dry, dusty, and exceedingly barren flat, under a burning sun, with not a tree nearer than on the steep mountain sides which surround us. I am hardly correct in calling this a barren flat, for on it thrives a vigorous growth of cactus, and with the utmost care one cannot go many yards without getting one’s shoes full of the sharp prickles. One night in rolling over in bed I got my side full of them.”
Anyone who has ever done much hiking in the area will at once sympathize with the Bishop’s wife, and feel her pain.
In December 1899 a tragedy occurred near the church, when seven First Nations people died as they tried to cross the river in a canoe to attend the midnight Christmas Eve service at the church. An account in the B.C. Mining Journal (January 1900) records the tragedy: “While attempting to cross the Thompson River at the 89 Mile Post, east of Spences Bridge last Sunday night between the hours of nine and ten o’clock, Indians Billy Pascoe, Long George and his wife, Jimmie George and his wife, and two boys 12 and 15 years of age, sons of Peter Audap, were drowned, from the upsetting of a canoe. . . . Up to Thursday night the body of Jimmie George’s wife only had been found, although a number of Indians with grappling irons were dragging the river. Indians Long George and Jimmie are brothers of Mrs. Audap, thus with this sad accident Mrs. Audap loses two brothers and two sons.”
It is not known if any of the deceased were buried in the traditional burial ground of the Pokeist Band, which lies near the church, and is apparently still used, although rarely. The church is no longer in use, and has not been since the 1990s.
In the 1950s a group of 20 people gathered to paint the exterior of the building. The story goes that one of the participants, Clifford Yamelst of Spences Bridge, arrived late and on horseback, only to find that there were no paintbrushes left. Keen to help with the painting, Yamelst is said to have cut a handful of hair from his horse’s tail and used that as a makeshift paintbrush, as some of the brushstrokes apparently still show.
The exterior of the church – untouched for a half-century – now shows extensive signs of disrepair, although the interior, with its furnishings, remains amazingly intact. St. Aidan’s is accessible by back road from both Ashcroft and Spences Bridge, although as it is on private land belonging to the Pokeist Band permission must be obtained to access it. Views of the church and slope can be obtained from the side of Hwy 1 south of the Last Spike “Stop of Interest” plaque.