What’s become of St. Mary’s?

From what I remember of Douglas Cardinal, I’m positive he would be positively livid. I’ll bet he wouldn’t come out of his sweat lodge for a week.

St. Mary’s is a landmark building known around the world. Preserving the integrity of its appearance should be important.

St. Mary’s is a landmark building known around the world. Preserving the integrity of its appearance should be important.

From what I remember of Douglas Cardinal, I’m positive he would be positively livid. I’ll bet he wouldn’t come out of his sweat lodge for a week.

With all that junk on the roof of the famous architect’s first and most famous building, he’d have every right to be peeved. And famous architect Douglas Cardinal has demonstrated very clearly more than once that he can get seriously and famously peeved, all right. Especially when it comes to messing with one of his creations.

Maybe some back story is in order. Douglas Cardinal is a former Red Deerian. He’s also an internationally acclaimed Order of Canada architect, responsible for designing such unusual and memorable buildings as The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.

His projects are known for their curved walls, unusual brick design with an organic nature that captures the surrounding environment and emanates an inspired spiritual aura, which he attributes to his Métis and Blackfoot heritage. Plus I think he spends a lot of time in sweat lodges.

Many of the most famous and iconic representations of his work are in Alberta — the college in Grand Prairie, the ‘space ship’ Science Centre in Edmonton and St. Mary’s Church on 39th Street in Red Deer, to name a few. Anyone who’s been in Red Deer for more than a few hours will know the big circular brick building of curving walls and high swooping rooflines. That award-winning building is featured on post cards, books and magazines, and is recognized all over the world.

Some love it, others, not so much.

Whether you love it or loathe it, or just don’t care, our famous landmark, St. Mary’s Church, isn’t the building it used to be and, more importantly, it’s not the building it was supposed to be. It’s not the building Cardinal created — thanks to a recent pile of tin in plain view on the lowest roof. Sitting there like somebody decided to put an ugly hat on the Statue of David.

What I’m referring to is immediately and painfully obvious to anyone driving by the landmark. There on the flat roof right at the front entrance, pulling focus from the majestic circular lines of meticulously designed brick edifice, sits about a hectare of some sort of bright silver mass (no pun intended) of vents and pipes and panels shining so blindly that you barely notice the amazing building itself.

The shiny rows of metal are presumably a prime example of modern air conditioning, and maybe heating ducts or possibly a launch pad for Canada’s new space program.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the completely out-of-place metallic duct work on the roof has been built to a top-notch standard by experts. It’s not the workmanship that is at issue here, so don’t sue me.

What I’m saying is, Cardinal was completely against the expansion that was made to the church a few years back and, in that case, architects at least attempted to make it blend in with the rest of the building.

Not so with the new eyesore on the roof.

Some back story to the back story. Round about Grade 7 or so, one my best friends was Douglas Cardinal’s little brother David, who lived in a duplex with his mom and dad and half dozen other brothers and sisters just two streets over from our place in Parkvale.

David was one of those exceptional kids who completely excelled at everything he did. Apart from being an honour student, he a champion speedskater, the best hockey player in the league, and an all-star baseball pitcher. He was about six-feet-tall even in junior high, with black horn rimmed glasses (before they were trendy) and was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.

I can remember vividly the day we were playing catch on his front yard when the coolest sports car I’ve ever seen roared up to the house.

It was the first time I had met Doug, who was at least 15 years older than David, and like most typical kids I didn’t realize that this older guy was already quite famous — even though the sports car and the extremely beautiful wife in the passenger seat should have given it away.

Heck, I didn’t even realize until well after the Cardinal family had moved away that they were of native heritage. David was always just David, albeit a young local sports legend who beat me and everybody else at everything.

“You want to go for a ride in the Tiger?” Douglas shouted to David and me. Apparently the bright gold sports car was a new purchase and, as David told me, a rare Sunbeam Tiger — a very small British car with a very big V8 engine.

Before you could say “Are you kidding me?” we dropped our baseball gloves and piled in the back of the little convertible and hung on for dear life.

We roared around Red Deer at about 300 km/h, Dave and I waiving at everybody from the hurricane wind tunnel in the back seat, grinning and hoping we’d see somebody we knew.

It was my first ride in a topless car and it was one for life’s highlight reel, that’s for sure.

Eventually Doug pulled into the Willows Apartments, the venerable old building on 55th street and we took the elevator to the penthouse where Doug and his wife lived.

(Another famous Red Deerian, Michael Dawe, who knows all things Central Alberta and much more, told me that Cardinal actually worked on the design of The Willows and was given the penthouse to live in as part of his payment.)

It was another first for me, the first time I’d been in a luxury apartment that was as big as a house, with two floors and an actual spiral staircase. I remember the car and the apartment and Doug himself being meticulous and magical — clearly something special.

After the Cardinals moved, I lost track of my buddy David and of course Douglas went on to fame and fortune, and no small measure of controversy over being “difficult” when it comes to some of his projects.

In the case of St. Mary’s, however, I wouldn’t blame him a bit for being difficult, and then some.

I really hope someone is planning to put some trademark Cardinal curvilinear walls around the metal ductwork, or at very least paint it so it isn’t so glaringly and inappropriately noticeable.

Somebody should design a way to integrate the metal mess into the spirit that the building once so dramatically emanated. And I think there’s probably only one person who could do that, and I’ll bet he wouldn’t want to go near the place.

He’d probably rather be in a sweat lodge than face what St. Mary’s has become and I, for one, don’t blame him.

Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.

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