Sacred landscapes in Ontario’s communities

Thoughtful details in the fence around St. George’s Anglican Cathedral (Kingston) make it an important part of the church’s landscape

Photo: Thoughtful details in the fence around St. George’s Anglican Cathedral (Kingston) make it an important part of the church’s landscape


Marcus R. Létourneau

Buildings and architecture, Cultural landscapes

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

While places of worship are a visible aspect of Ontario’s heritage, they are part of wider cultural landscapes that can include supporting structures, burial places, view planes, archaeological resources and landscape features. Sites of spiritual significance to First Nations are also cultural landscapes. All of these landscapes promote a broader understanding of not only particular faiths, but also community development and identity. They have multiple, overlapping meanings, and constitute an important part of Ontario’s history.

The term “cultural landscape” is complex and has been used in different ways. Geographer James Duncan wrote that a landscape can be understood as “the appearance of an area, the assemblage of objects used to produce that appearance, and the area itself.” Religious communities use landscapes to express their beliefs in physical form. As a result, understanding and protecting Ontario’s religious and spiritual heritage require a holistic approach.

Religious and spiritual landscapes serve as focal points for many Ontario communities. Churches and their supporting structures were among the earliest constructions in new settlements, and some churches were highly visible local landmarks. Belief systems were expressed through rectories and manses, meeting halls, drive sheds, religious statues and monuments, religious schools, chapels, landscaping and burial grounds.

Many of these landscapes survive in concentrated form. The grounds of St. George’s Cathedral in Kingston include the cathedral, the church hall, Lord Sydenham’s grave and careful landscaping, including green space. The fence posts are marked by miniature bishops’ caps. Nearby are the church office and lower burial ground. In other cases, the interrelated parts of the landscape are spread out. In Minden Hills, the clergy house for St. Paul’s Anglican Church sits across the Gull River from the church. Places of worship that are no longer used as such still remind us of the larger landscape they once represented – for example, a former Quaker meeting house in Kingston, now a private residence.

First Nations’ spiritual landscapes – such as Serpent Mounds Provincial Park, the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs and Petroglyphs Provincial Park – play an integral part in Ontario’s history. These sites, central to First Nations’ identities and beliefs, should be considered living landscapes.

Many tools exist to protect the province’s religious and spiritual cultural landscapes, including the Planning Act (with its associated Provincial Policy Statement) and the Ontario Heritage Act. To ensure that these landscapes are protected, they must first be identified and community leaders must understand their importance. Initiatives such as Save Our Sanctuaries in Lakeshore indicate how important these landscapes are to our citizens. Many of these sites are dynamic – still occupied and being modified – and appropriately managing change should be a priority. These are among the challenges and opportunities facing supporters of Ontario’s past and its future.