Description of Historic Place
St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church was built in 1841 at River Denys Mountain, a few kilometres east of the community of Judique, Inverness County, Nova Scotia. Situated half way between Judique and Glendale, it sits atop the ridge known as River Denys Mountain on what is now primarily a logging road. It is the last remaining building from what was once a small rural community of Highland Scots pioneers who settled this area in the 1830’s. It is also the oldest wooden frame church and the earliest public building still in existence in Inverness County. The nearby cemetery dates to the early years of this church. Municipal designation includes the building and cemetery.
St. Margaret of Scotland Church is valued not only because it is the oldest surviving church building in the county, but because it is an excellent example of early nineteenth century vernacular church architecture in Cape Breton. Retaining most of its original features, it was built entirely by the pioneer Scottish settlers and is a tangible testament of their strong religious tradition, their culture and their desire to create a community in the wilderness with this church as its focal point. While it is a very simplified Gothic design, it is the only Catholic church from the first decades of Scottish settlement in Inverness County that has survived.
St. Margaret of Scotland Church is a wood framed example of Carpenter Gothic with three Romanesque-style windows on either side of the nave, a large west facing square tower with an octagonal cupola and cross. A small addition on the east side of the church serves as a vestry. Decorative trim is minimal and the overall shingled exterior is painted white. In spite of its spare simplicity, it was and still is an important focal point for Scottish Catholic heritage in the county.
In 1833, a group of Scots from the Western Highlands and Islands arrived in this part of Cape Breton, joining their compatriots who had settled earlier along the west coast of Inverness County. Most of the prefered land had been claimed by the first settlers, this group was forced to move up the mountain to create their settlement. With the encouragement of Fr. Alexander MacDonnell, the first resident Catholic priest in the district, they built a small church up on the mountain to serve their small community in 1841. The men cut the lumber from the nearby woods and contributed their labour. This Gaelic-speaking settlement of about thirty families was proud of its accomplishments and within a generation, even though St. Margaret of Scotland always remained a small mission church, it was sending one of its sons—Duncan Paul MacDonald (born on the mountain in 1848)— to be trained as a priest.
In 1899, the small church was enlarged by cutting the nave in half and adding a middle section. The earlier altar was replaced in 1919 by an altar taken from St. Mary’s Church at nearby Glendale. By 1900, the harsh winters and difficult farming conditions caused a decline in the population and in the early 1950’s, the last of the families moved down off the mountain. The houses, farms and even the little school house have since disappeared.
Today, St. Margaret of Scotland Church, surrounded by forest and standing guard over its pioneer cemetary, is the only remaining building left of this community. Despite its isolation, it continues to be used on occasion for special Masses (including an annual Mass for winter snowmobilers) and weddings. In 1967, a unique event occurred here for the first time. After the changes of Vatican II in the Catholic Church, Mass was allowed to be celebrated in the language of the people, so with the permission of the local Bishop of Antigonish, two Gaelic-speaking priests said the first Gaelic language Mass in North America at this small church. Local residents filled the church to overflowing to hear Mass in their ancestral language, a tradition that the descendants of St. Margaret’s at River Denys Mountain support to this day.
Source: Municipality of the County of Inverness, Municipal Heritage Files, Saint Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church
Exterior character-defining elements of St. Margaret of Scotland Church relate to its simple Gothic and vernacular style and include:
- wood shingled exterior walls with three round arched windows on either side;
- west facing tower projecting from façade with octagonal cupola and cross on top;
- small rectangular window in upper portion of tower;
- single entrance door and a single clerestory double-sashed window on either side of the tower;
- small addition at east end of nave with one entrance door and two windows which serves as a vestry;
- double shashed Romanesque-style windows, 12-over-12 panes with simple trim and flat gabled pediments;
- cemetery with historic markers.
Interior character-defining elements of St. Margaret of Scotland Church:
- small vestibule at entrance of nave;
- all remaining original planked walls;
- three-sided box gallery accessed by a single stairway to the left of the entrance and supported by plain wooden pillars;
- modified barrel-vaulted planked ceiling;
- small altar with Gothic detailing at eastern end of nave (installed in 1919);
- access to vestry room through door to left of altar;
- free of interior decoration with exception of framed religious images.