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Banff and the Construction of a Christian Wilderness

Dasha Guliak | University of Saskatchewan

Founded in 1885, Banff National Park, in Alberta, Canada, quickly attained worldwide acclaim as a top tourist spot for its idealistic snow-topped mountains, lodge-styled storefronts, and so-close-you-can-almost-touch-them wildlife such as bears, elk, coyotes, and wolves to name a few.  The hub of the national park, administered and funded by the Federal Government of Canada to preserve and protect wilderness, is Banff. For Canadians, both in the past and today, the town of Banff, at the heart of the park, represents the best of the West.


In the summer, people from all over the world fill Banff Avenue to soak in the views and enjoy the shopping and food industry, where even the names of stores, like The Bison and The Grizzly House, reflect Banff’s identity as an escape to the wilderness. Similarly, the winter season brings in avid skiers and snowboarders who can choose from several world-famous mountains such as the Rundle, Tunnel, and Norquay mountains. The idyllic town, nestled in the Canadian Rockies, has built its identity and tourism industry around its connection to the land. This perception, however, leaves out how people and institutions shaped the supposedly natural mountain landscape to reflect particular ideals and shape both a ‘normal’ population and a ‘natural’ terrain. Despite the seemingly naturalistic landscape that was curated at Banff in the twentieth century, the presence of religious institutions, specifically the Christian churches that dot the streets of Banff, give insight into how the landscape of Banff reflected Christian ideals. In turn, these churches shaped perceptions of nature and played a role in shaping the local population, as exemplified through performances of gender normativity in marriages. While this article does not consider the particular nuances of all the Christian denominations, it is the overall effect of these churches that demonstrates how religious architecture conveyed ideological changes in the town.

  Settler’s ‘discovery’ of the town led policymakers to shape Banff’s identity as a pristine environment for the typical white, middle, and upper-class Canadians who could visit thanks to the Canadian Pacific Railway. An important aspect of Banff’s appeal was the town’s proximity to the wilderness. This attracted urbanites who wanted a reprieve from cramped urban conditions and enticed those who wished to display their masculinity through hunting and outdoor sportsmanship. Over the next few decades, policymakers shifted towards ideas of environmental conservationism and constructing a town that allowed people to experience the wild without deviating from norms of Western civility. This rhetoric followed closely with Christian thought. Christian conceptions of the wild emphasised harnessing the unruly forest and turning it into a tame garden. This process reflected biblical narratives of industrious work and dominion over land. Banff represented, then, a type of Eden in the middle of the western prairies, which quickly attracted pioneers and visitors alike.

An image showing a church with trees around it and snow
St. George’s in the Pine Anglican Church and Eyarhey Tatanga Woweyahgey Wakân (Tunnel Mountain) in the background, 2024. Courtesy Shauna Maclean [Public Domain]

As Banff drew in visitors and residents, religious life changed. The church services held in log cabins and local homes no longer sufficed. With more people, the need for organised religious services grew, especially as missionaries began to venture into the territory to spread the gospel and ensure their denomination won souls. First to be built was an Anglican Church, St. George’s-in-the-Pines, in 1889, although it was not completed until 1926. By the time construction finished on St. George’s, several other churches had popped up including Rundle Memorial United Church in 1926 and St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in 1930. Deviating from the very British-inspired gothic-revivalism style came St. Mary’s Catholic Church on the other side of town in 1951. During and after the 1960s, a variety of evangelical churches, including the Banff Park Church, the Banff Full Gospel Church, and The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, all erupted along the mountain skyline.

The design and construction of specific architecture play a critical role in shaping a landscape as well as conveying meaning in a culture. This meaning is fashioned by those viewing the architecture while also informing viewers of the meaning through the architecture itself. This dynamic relationship allows insight into why church building was important for establishing Banff’s townsite. Firstly, the fact that missionaries and residents only built Christian churches meant that the population was largely Christian, a fact that reflected Canada’s broader population at the time. Secondly, the proliferation of Protestant churches reflects the success of specifically Protestantism in the expansion westwards, further isolating Catholic hegemony in Quebec alone. Finally, Christian churches espoused particular Christian beliefs that shaped the society that attended these institutions. As such, reminders of the importance of heterosexual, life-long marriages and other Christian morals were intimately tied up in the visuality of the churches. Such symbols purported that the town was not a wild west of adventure but a bastion of Christian civilisation.

The specific aspects of the architectural style employed by builders yield insight into the beliefs and ideologies that churches hoped to convey. Most of Banff’s churches, specifically the United, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches, were built in the style of Gothic Revivalism. The style came to Canada through imported pattern books from Europe, primarily Britain, due to Canada’s relationship with the metropole. Pattern books contained architectural advice for church builders. These books were sources that Canadian architects readily used in constructing churches. However, the particulars of Banff’s environment helped to make new meanings of this classic style. As the steeples of the churches sat against the mountainous backgrounds of Banff, these churches reflected the transformation of Banff’s wild landscape into a controlled Christian townsite.


The particulars of gothic churches built in Banff, against the mountain skyline and surrounding forests, took on new meaning in comparison to churches built on the relatively flat Canadian prairie landscape. Sketches from pattern books did not include designs with such terrain. The dynamic relationship between Banff’s landscape and the churches demonstrates how the environment at the local level transformed designs from the metropole while still maintaining many of the ideals that Gothic Revivalism churches epitomised including the Christian re-awakening and links to medieval traditionalism. For example, some suggested that the style harkened back to a purer society, uncorrupted by excesses of modernism and moral pollutions of industrialism. Banff’s growing identity as a get-away from cramped urban centres fit well within this moral conceptualisation of Gothic Revivalism.

So, churches both shaped and were shaped by Banff’s local environment. In building formal churches worshippers now possessed an ordained space to pray in. This was a change from early Banff worship that occurred in local’s log cabins and tents. Certainly, churches offered a safe and controlled space to pray in the otherwise harsh conditions of the developing townsite. For centuries, churches offered haven to those who found themselves in need or those traversing large swaths of land, as in the case of pilgrimages. In Banff, the churches offered shelter, literally and metaphorically, from the harsh winters, dangerous wildlife, and rough terrain, which made them the epicentre of those making their ‘pilgrimage’ westwards into Banff. In this controlled manner, churches represented the grounding of civility through Christian narratives of protection and charity. The churches focused on serving white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the early decades of the twentieth century and slowly expanded to eventually include other immigrant populations who came to Banff. This included Ukrainians and Germans, who were increasingly accepted into white hegemony in the mid-twentieth century, in part thanks to their adoption of Protestant Christian values.

A detailed sketch of the church

These striking churches along the mountain backdrop allowed parishioners who did fit the ideal of the growing nation to see others and be seen themselves. Churches offered a place for social citizenship and community engagement. With the construction of church steeples along the mountain landscape, Banffites now found visible spaces of worship. Mirroring the mountains that surrounded the town, the church steeples reflected shapes of the natural landscape while clearly establishing that this was a Christian society, wrested from the uncivilised wilderness. Citizens now had a place to gather, socialise, and craft a sense of community through common beliefs. Moreover, the churches, in reflecting the shape of the local landscape, also became part of the natural landscape. The moulds, complex designs, and various textures visible in Banff’s gothic churches mirrored the patterns and designs visible in Banff’s landscape, including the rocky terrain and the birch patterns of nearby pine trees. Such similarities, though, did not negate the fact that both Banff’s environment and the churches themselves were carefully curated by architects, policymakers, and citizens in order to represent specific ideas of Christian morality and liberalism.

However, Banff’s churches were built on exclusionary principles. The spread of Western liberal principles westwards, marked by church building, came with specific ideals of who should be a part of society and thus represent the emerging nation. The focus on white monogamous couples obfuscated the lives of people who did not fit this narrow definition of Christian civility. It marginalised the existence of Indigenous peoples, people of colour, and any gender non-conforming or queer individuals that may have found their home in the townsite. Banff, originally the territory of several Indigenous groups, became obstinately the ideal white settler-colonial town due to the displacement of Indigenous peoples and the attempted elimination of Indigenous marital practices through the establishment of a Christian hegemony. The numerous churches and their physical presence represented constant pressure to fit in and perform. Certainly, the emergence of these churches not only represented a place of worship and place of protection against the elements, as well as a symbol mirroring the mountainous landscape but also an institution that cast a shadow over many of Banff’s residents who did not fit with Canada’s idea of citizenry.

The spread of the Canadian nation-state westwards required the removal of Indigenous peoples and the migration of European immigrants into the area. Churches helped to ensure that these new migrants conformed to acceptable marital practices and drew lines between those who received social citizenship and those who did not. Churches thus represented not only the coming of ‘civilisation’ to the unruly forests and mountains of Banff but also the enforcement and reproduction of heteronormativity.


Importantly, the establishment of these churches meant that worshipping could occur not only in a designated location but also in marriages. Churches frequently hosted weddings, and with hundreds of wedding photos appeared in Banff’s newspaper, the Crag and Canyon, over the years. Prior to the 2000s, these weddings were exclusively heteronormative and overwhelming white. In the early decades of the twentieth century, these marriages represented an important reminder of the importance of Christian, monogamous, and white marriages on the prairies. These church-ordained weddings represented the extension of Canadian statehood and civilisation into western Canada and the prairies. Into the mid and late twentieth century, these wedding photos that populated the newspaper reinforced to readers the Canadian ideal of Christian faith, marriage, and heteronormativity. The arrival of formal Christian churches in the Banff landscape meant the rejection and exclusion of homosexuality. The churches were natural and fit into the increasingly well-controlled landscape, but homosexuality was not natural and thus formally rejected by the church and town. This is not to say that queer people did not exist in Banff, but it is to say that the churches’ position in the town as ‘natural’ and ‘civilised’ was juxtaposed with the ‘unnatural’ and ‘uncivilised’ narratives given to homosexuality.


Such narrowly defined ideas of both nature and marriage represented broader narratives within the Canadian nation that aimed to construct a feeling of power and control over the large yet underpopulated nation. Even a small town in the Canadian Rockies was far from immune from this process of nation-building. Indeed, as an increasingly central tourist location, these ideas of marriage and nature informed by Christian morality and top-down control were critical to reinforcing the nation’s identity. Adherence to Christianity was a critical aspect of Canadian nationhood.


            While brief, this article highlights how a close analysis of a small yet prominent, Canadian town reveals the way local churches shaped ideas of gender and nature to fit with ideals and broader narratives of Canadian statehood. The physical nature of the churches blended into the natural environment. They stood out as symbols of Christian civilisation as they transformed European conceptions of Gothic Revivalism to fit the particulars of Banff’s landscape. As Banff continued to develop as an international tourist destination, many churches, especially those that line the main strip, gained heritage status which solidified the church’s position as part of Banff’s natural landscape. For visiting tourists, then and now, the inescapable visuals of Christian churches communicated that the sanctity of Christian civilisation and gender performance had arrived in the forest-filled townsite. Churches, as important cultural and social hotspots, were critical to reinforcing gendered norms through the visible marriages of heteronormative couples within the townsite.


Further Readings:


  • Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton, A.B.: University of Alberta Press, 2008).

  • Pamela Dickey Young, Religion, Sex, and Politics: Christian Churches and Same-Sex Marriage in Canada (Black Point, N.S.: Fernwood Publishing, 2012).

  • Paul Kopas, Taking the Air: Ideas and Change in Canada’s National Parks (Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press, 2007).

  • Barry Magrill, The Commerce of Taste: Church Architecture in Canada, 1867-1914 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).

  • Denis McKim, Boundless Dominion: Providence, Politics, and the Early Canadian Presbyterian Worldview (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

Dasha Guliak is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. She focuses on the history of Christianity in Canada with an emphasis on gender, sex, and identity. Her doctoral dissertation considers the complexities, contradictions, and performances of missionary women, couples, and families through a queer and feminist lens in early twentieth-century Canada. Her other projects include Saskatoon’s Christian churches and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and Calgary’s Protestant churches’ experiences during the Second World War.


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