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Going to church in Little Hell

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Fire and brimstone there wasn’t. Still, attending church on so-called "Little Hell" held a certain burning irony, especially as Mayne Island’s Anglican community had named their house of worship after Christendom’s penitent prostitute, Saint Mary Magdalene.

On this summer day, a warm red glow infused the church interior as sunshine poured through a large, circular rose window.

I had come here more out of curiosity than devotion. A century ago in 1901, explorer and author Warburton Pike gave a 180-kilogram boulder that he found on nearby Saturna Island to St. Mary Magdalene Church for use as a baptismal font.

It wasn’t his first such ecclesiastical gesture. Five years earlier, Pike had donated land on Mayne Island for the church. The sandstone marvel, consecrated on Easter Sunday, 1901, stands mounted on a cruciform pedestal inside the entrance to the church. Although sandstone formations characterize shorelines throughout the southern Gulf Islands, this boulder was unlike any I’d ever seen. Imbedded pebbles necklaced its base while its top was neatly defined by four wave-sculpted indentations, each as big as my cupped hands.

St. Mary Magdalene Church sits on a hillside in Miners Bay, Mayne Island’s modest commercial hub, a 15-minute bike ride from the ferry slip at nearby Village Bay. You don’t need to attend a service in order to view the font, though you’ll certainly find yourself made welcome if you do. Perhaps you’d prefer to simply sit outdoors under a spreading arbutus tree and watch the parade of boats through Active Pass.

The cliffs of Galiano Island’s Bluff Park rise up on the north side of Active Pass, best viewed from the federal dock on Miners Bay beside the Springwater Lodge, the province’s oldest operating hotel. During the prohibition era, Mayne acquired a reputation as "Little Hell" because of the tolerance accorded public consumption of alcohol by its citizenry – the other islands in the gulf chain were "dry." Despite dire railings that rained from the pulpit over at St. Mary Magdalene Church, nothing dampened this spirit of tolerance.

These days the scent of cannabis is frequently carried on island breezes, a signal that prohibition is as futile now as ever. I caught a few such gusts during a recent cycle tour of Mayne Island. Fortunately, most were at my back. Of all the southern Gulf Islands, Mayne is best suited for exploration by bike. Its hills are much less daunting than on Galiano and its roads far less trafficked than on busy Saltspring. You could circle Mayne in the course of a day trip, although I recommend that you extend your visit over at least one night in order to fully savour the experience. That way you can let elements of chance discovery influence the pace of your journey, such as a impromptu visit to the Mayne Island Glass Foundry, one of three art galleries near the new Georgina Point Heritage Park on the northeastern tip of the island. Whimsical moulded starfish and slugs line the pathway to Mark Lauckner’s glass studio.

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