Last month I had occasion to write about the New Pathways to Gold Society, and funding they had received to help communities along the historic Cariboo Wagon Road. I knew I was placing the story on a colour page, so went hunting for pictures to go with the piece, and was particularly taken with one that showed a tiny church. It was identified as Our Lady of Perpetual Help, between McLeese Lake and Quesnel near Alexandria, and showed a tidy white building with a bright red roof, nestled among deep green pine trees. A dirt road that was the site of the Cariboo Wagon Road ran within a few feet of the front door.
I used the picture, then thought no more about the church. Two weeks ago, while on holiday, my husband Christopher and I were travelling north on Highway 97, heading to Prince George to visit our son. It was a glorious Cariboo day: the sun was shining, the highway was almost empty, and I had plugged my iPod Classic into the car’s sound system and had John Williams’ glorious score for Raiders of the Lost Ark blasting through the speakers.
(As an aside, I am not much of a person for tech gadgets, but you will only pry my 160GB iPod Classic out of my cold, dead hands. It was designed to do just one thing — store vast amounts of music and video —and it did that to perfection, so of course Apple discontinued making it in 2014.)
Anyway, there I was, zooming along the highway (while observing all posted speed limits) near Alexandria, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a flash of red to my left. I turned my head, and there was Our Lady of Perpetual Help, about 100 metres distant from the highway.
I immediately began slowing down, looking for a place to turn around; somewhat to the consternation of my husband, who had no idea what was happening. I explained things to him as I pulled off onto a side road, turned around, and headed back down the highway to the aptly-named “Church Road”. We bumped our way along it for a short distance to the church, where I got out of the car but left the engine on, so that as I made my way up some overgrown steps and along a short weed-covered path to the door, “The Raiders March’ played in the background.
I didn’t really think the door would be unlocked, but tried it anyway. To my surprise it swung open, revealing a dimly-lit vestibule. I crossed the few feet to the inner door, which was also unlocked, and rather gingerly pulled it open.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the clean and tidy interior, filled with sunlight from generous windows on both sides, that greeted me; someone clearly maintained the tiny church (the Grade 6/7 class from St. Ann’s Catholic School in Quesnel, in partnership with the Knights of Columbus, as it turns out). Windows at one side overlooked a tiny cemetery, and a visitor’s book on a table indicated that we were not the first people to stop there recently, although on that day we had the place to ourselves.
A sign indicated that the church had been built in 1940 and fallen into disuse in the 1960s, when the highway — which used to pass right beside it — was rerouted to its current location. The sound of passing vehicles was faint and intermittent; for the most part there was only the soughing of the wind through the pines, with John Williams providing the soundtrack.
The stop only added a few minutes to the journey, but was well worth the slight delay. It’s a reminder that history of the most unexpected sort is never far away; you just have to keep your eyes open and be prepared to stop and smell the pine trees. Next time you’re journeying from Point A to Point B, make time to do just that; I’ll leave the choice of background music up to you.