A hidden Christmas treasure in the heart of Ottawa
People & Places

A hidden Christmas treasure in the heart of Ottawa

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church features this gorgeous stained-glass window of the Nativity. Do you know another church in Ottawa that features a stained-glass scene of the Nativity? Tweet it to us @ottawamag and we’ll add it to the story. Photo above courtesy of Elizabeth Phillipson.

Quiet, dark stone churches illuminated by multi-coloured panes of glass can fill even the most secular with a sense of awe. Nothing evokes a traditional Christmas more than the timeless scene of the Nativity, and the home of Ottawa’s oldest Presbyterian congregation holds such a hidden stained-glass treasure.

St. Andrews sits on the corner of Kent and Wellington, its sweeping spire incongruous with the tall glass office towers that surround it. Tucked away in a corner on the west-facing wall of the church, the Nativity window is often not the first that visitors will see. Windows featuring St. Andrew and a large memorial to the fallen of the First World War are much more prominent.

Rev. Dr. Karen Dimock gives daily sermons in view of the delicate windows.

“They’re part of the beauty of the sanctuary,” she said. “They’re part of what make this place holy.”

Dimock said the intricate detail and richness of the Nativity scene, laden with symbolism, makes it unique among the church’s windows.

Traditionally in the Presbyterian faith, austerity was paramount and there were few adornments or representations of Christ or other important figures. Dimock said that this window was the first in the church to contain figures.

The window depicts the visit of the three wise men in jewel tones, bearing their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Mary and Jesus gleam on the right panel, lit by smiling cherubim and the Star of Bethlehem, while a shepherd bows at their side.

Dimock said the window is important to the congregation as a symbol of Christ’s arrival as a vulnerable child in need of care.

“The Nativity scene itself, from a Christian perspective, that is the good news of God coming to dwell among us,” she said.

The richly-coloured window was designed by Yvonne William, a Canadian artist who studied under Group of Seven artists such as Arthur Lismer. She became one of the first women to make a career working with stained glass in Canada.

The image was realized in 1934 by the Robert McCausland firm in Toronto, which is still operating today.

Maud Helen Fleck donated the funds for the window in memory of her husband, Alexander Fleck Jr., a prominent Ottawa citizen and the president of foundry and boiler-making firm Vulcan Ironworks. The church itself was established by Thomas MacKay, a Scottish stonemason who had won the contract to build the locks connecting the Rideau Canal to the Rideau River. He built the original church in 1828.

The congregation grew until it was too large for the building, and a new church was constructed on the same site between 1872 and 1874.

Now the congregation has 500 adults and more children. But Dimock said there are many people now who don’t know the story of the Nativity.

“Twenty years ago you could assume people knew the story of Christmas,” she said. “It’s a different world. It’s a much more multi-cultural, multi-faith world.”

However, whatever their belief, Dimock said Christmas often brings out the best in people.

She pointed to the worldwide response to welcome Syrian refugees as proof of this giving spirit.

“At Christmas we celebrate things like peace and love and hope and joy,” she said. “It’s a time we’re called to open our hearts to the world.”

Stained glass window, St. James the Apostle church in Carp.
Ottawa-area churches feature many stained glass windows that reference the Nativity, such as this beautiful example at St. James the Apostle church in Carp. Know another example? Tweet it to us @ottawamag and we’ll add it to our story.