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Original title:  Bishop George Holmes and Mrs. Holmes. Date: [ca. 1890]. Photographer/Illustrator: McDermid Studio, Edmonton, Alberta. Image courtesy of Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta.

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HOLMES, GEORGE, Church of England clergyman and bishop; b. 23 Nov. 1858 in the parish of Burton in Kendal (Burton), Westmorland, England, eldest son of Robert Holmes and Margaret Atkinson, farmers; m. 19 May 1892 Eliza Perkes in Gleichen (Alta), and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 3 Feb. 1912 in Holloway (London), England.

As a young man, George Holmes came in contact with the Reverend William Chastel de Boinville, who was part of the evangelically oriented Parochial Mission movement. Referred to the Church Missionary Society by de Boinville, he offered his services in December 1881. He was then educated at Reading Preparatory Institution and the CMS training college at Islington (London) before taking a year of further training with the Reverend Hanmer William Webb-Peploe, a founder of the Keswick Convention.

In November 1884 the society sent Holmes to the North-West Canada mission as a Christian farming instructor and catechist. He arrived in Canada in 1885 and was to have spent a training year at Fort Chipewyan (Alta). Delayed by the North-West rebellion [see Louis Riel*], he served for a year as a lay reader among the Saulteaux Indians on the Rainy River (Ont./Minn.) instead. Holmes reached the Athabasca diocese in July 1886. Following several months at Shaftesbury mission (Shaftesbury Settlement, Alta) he was sent by Bishop Richard Young* to Lesser Slave Lake. There he opened a day-school using facilities offered by a local Hudson’s Bay Company factor. By mid 1887 a site for a mission was chosen at Kapowan, on Buffalo Bay at the extreme west end of the lake, and Holmes was formally inducted as priest in charge of the new establishment, St Peter’s, in July 1888 at the first synod of Athabasca.

Within five years of its founding St Peter’s had become a prominent centre in Athabasca. Its church was opened in December 1890, the first Protestant church at Lesser Slave Lake, and diocesan synods were held there from 1891. By 1894 an Indian residential school had been completed, in accordance with a synodical commitment to acculturate Indian children through such institutions. In time a boys’ home, sawmill, and stables were built and additions were made to the house and school. The mission would stand for about half a century before succumbing to a decline in population and a government decision to close the school.

Holmes met his wife on the North-West Canada mission field. She was in charge of the Anglican girls’ home in Gleichen, on the Blackfoot Indian Reserve. After their marriage in 1892, she took an active role in missionary work in Athabasca. Notably she supervised the girls who attended the residential school at St Peter’s, at least until a full-time matron was found; she accompanied her husband on some of his trips; and she was devoted to the women’s auxiliary. Edith, one of their five surviving children, recalled that all the young Holmeses spoke Cree fluently, having learned that language even before English since they played so much with Cree children. They spent only their earliest years at home, however. As soon as they were old enough they were sent to boarding-schools in England and in Toronto. Letters to them from their father reveal a warm and caring side to a man whose entire life was otherwise devoted to his mission.

Holmes’s talent and hard work were held in high esteem by church officials. In 1900 the bishop of Mackenzie River recommended him for the post of archdeacon of the diocese of Athabasca, an appointment he assumed on 9 July 1901 and held until his election as bishop of Moosonee in November 1904. An unsuccessful candidacy for the archbishopric of Rupert’s Land did not preclude Holmes’s return to Athabasca as acting bishop in early 1908, while he was still serving as bishop of Moosonee. He was officially translated to the see of Athabasca on 15 April 1909, at which time he also assumed supervision of the vacant diocese of Mackenzie River.

In recognition of his many contributions to mission work a dd had been conferred on Holmes, in 1905 by St John’s College, Winnipeg. A gifted linguist, he had mastered the Cree language and his remarkable rapport with the Indians made him indispensable to diocesan officials and treaty commissioners. In 1891 Bishop Young had entrusted him with translating Christian materials into Cree syllabics. In 1899–1900 Holmes aided treaty commissioners in Athabasca who were then working on Treaty No.8 [see Mostos]. He was also a witness to Treaty No.9, made in 1905–6. At that time, as bishop of Moosonee, he accompanied the commissioners to Moose Factory (Ont.) and New Brunswick House (on Brunswick Lake). Notable among Holmes’s other achievements was his role on a multi-denominational committee, headed by Samuel Hume Blake, which was attempting to deal with the severe financial problems faced by church-run schools for native children as traditional funding agencies withdrew their support. Blake considered Holmes his most knowledgeable source of information on the schools. Holmes also participated in the Pan-Anglican Congress in London in 1908.

Holmes’s devotion and strength of character were attested to by the many who knew him. He was an excellent farmer and outdoorsman and had all the qualities necessary for difficult life and demanding travel on the frontier. But he was foremost a gifted administrator and builder. Herein lay his signal contribution to the development of the Anglican church in northern Canada. He built St Peter’s mission into the predominant one in Athabasca and forged the way for the development of numerous other stations in the diocese. As bishop of Moosonee, he moved the episcopal residence from Moose Factory to Chapleau. In 1907 he raised support to set up an Indian residential school in Chapleau. A church, St John’s, was built there in 1908. As bishop of Athabasca, Holmes set himself the task of restoring and strengthening the ailing diocese whose see had been vacant since 1903. In 1909 he moved the episcopal residence from Athabasca Landing (Athabasca) to St Peter’s. There he put up a new mission house and church. Mission work was expanded and more buildings were erected throughout the diocese, notably a church at Peace River Crossing (Peace River) which was in an area experiencing a large influx of settlers. To accomplish his many goals Holmes had to be a tireless fund-raiser and his efforts increased as support from traditional sources such as the CMS and women’s auxiliaries slackened. When he went back to Athabasca as bishop in 1909 he had numerous mission stations to administer. He turned to the HBC and local entrepreneurs, as well as to church organizations, for support.

Holmes’s relations with the native people and with other Christian denominations were indicative of the colonial and competitive attitudes of the time. He spoke of “enlightening” the Indians and “raising them to our level,” largely through the use of residential schools. Contests with other denominations to establish new missions and the polarization of theological views led to deep hostilities. Roman Catholic missionaries such as Dominique Collignon and Émile-Jean-Baptiste-Marie Grouard were active in the region, and the day-school Holmes opened in 1886 was an immediate source of conflict with them. The unwillingness of Roman Catholics to participate in Blake’s multi-denominational committee kept feelings sour. Competition for converts among the white population was also stiff, especially in Athabasca which attracted many newcomers in the early 1900s because of its rich oil deposits and prairie farm-land. An era of rapid settlement had begun, and in a message of January 1912 to the Colonial and Continental Church Society in London during one of his trips to raise support, Holmes made an urgent appeal for missionaries to “ensure our holding a first place instead of a third.” But his concerns extended well beyond the race for souls. He decried the effects of the Klondike gold-rush on Athabasca (which was on a major route to the Yukon), the “degradations” of the settlers, and the “practice of Englishmen marrying Indian girls.” He called for white women to move west and proposed a special effort to evangelize new residents in the Athabasca region. His goal, outlined in his last public address, was to turn Athabasca into the most Anglican diocese in the Canadian northwest. Shortly after delivering this address he fell seriously ill. The news was telegraphed to his wife in Canada, but he died before she could reach England.

Richard G. Bailey

Five religious publications in Cree syllabics prepared by George Holmes are listed in Biblio. of the prairie prov. (Peel); two of them are available in the “Peel bibliography on microfiche” (National Library of Canada microfiche, Ottawa, 1975–  ), nos.1433 and 1440. Holmes’s final address before the Colonial and Continental Church Soc. appears in A hero bishop: a brief account of the life and work of Bishop Holmes, d.d., of Athabasca, N.W Canada, and his last appeal (London, [1912?]); photocopies of this pamphlet are preserved in the Holmes collections at the ACC, General Synod Arch. (Toronto), detailed below.

The main archival sources for Holmes’s life and career are the ACC, Diocese of Athabasca records, held at the PAA, and the Church Missionary Soc. Arch. at the Univ. of Birmingham Library, Special Coll. (Birmingham, Eng.) and on microfilm at NA, MG 17, B2. Holmes material collected by the contributor has been deposited at the General Synod Arch. as M94-05; in addition to photocopied research materials, the collection includes original sermon notes, family correspondence and photographs, and the tape of the author’s 1976 interviews with Holmes’s last surviving daughter. Additional family correspondence donated by another descendant is available in the archives at M88/2.

ACC, Diocese of Moosonee Arch. (Schumacher, Ont.), Diocese of Moosonee papers, esp. ser.I-1 (Holmes corr.) (mfm. at General Synod Arch.); General Synod Arch., GS 75-103 (Missionary Soc. of the Church of England in Canada), ser.2-14 (Special Indian Committee, S. H. Blake corr.); M79/15 ([George Holmes], “The great lone land: an interview with the bishop of Moosonee,” unidentified journal article, July 1906). NA, MG 17, B2, G, C.1/I; C.1/L; C.1/O, esp. no.2692 (mfm.; copy at General Synod Arch.). PAA, ACC, Diocese of Athabasca records, A.210/2; A.220/ 6a–b; A.280/3; A.281/134–51; A.290/1–5; A.300/1: 235–472; 2a: 2–654; A.420/24. Univ. of Birmingham Library, Special Coll., Church Missionary Soc. Arch., C/ATm5/3 (reg. of candidates), no.572. Dominion Churchman (Toronto), 8 Jan. 1891: 25. T. C. B. Boon, The Anglican Church from the Bay to the Rockies: a history of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land and its dioceses from 1820 to 1950 (Toronto, 1962). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1906–7, no.27: 284–315. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). [Contains biog. errors.  r.g.b.] Janey Canuck [E. G. Ferguson (Murphy)], Seeds of pine (Toronto, 1922). Church Missionary Soc., Extracts from the annual letters of missionaries for the year 1900; part xix, North-West Canada (London, [1910]); Proc. (London), 1885–1905. Church of England, Diocese of Athabasca, Journal of proc. of the meeting of the synod (Middle Church, Man.), 2 (1891); Report of the synod (Winnipeg), 1888. Church of England in Canada, Board of Domestic and Foreign Missions, Woman’s Auxiliary, Letter leaflet (Toronto), 1887–1912; Diocese of Athabasca, Report of the triennial synod (Toronto), 3 (1894); 4 (1900); General Synod, Year book and clergy list (Toronto), 1892–1912. Norman Edwards, “The railways of Moosonee,” Northland ([Schumacher]), 29 (1972–73), no.2: 19–20. René Fumoleau, As long as this land shall last: a history of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11, 1870–1939 (Toronto, [1975?]). E. C. McCrum, A register of service: the centennial history of the Anglican diocese of Athabasca (Peace River, Alta, 1976). J. G. MacGregor, The land of Twelve Foot Davis (a history of the Peace River country) (Edmonton, 1952). R. J. Renison, One day at a time: the autobiography of Robert John Renison, ed. Margaret Blackstock (Toronto, 1957). O. R. Rowley et al., The Anglican episcopate of Canada and Newfoundland (2v., Milwaukee, Wis., and Toronto, 1928–61). [Contains biog. errors.  r.g.b.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Richard G. Bailey, “HOLMES, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/holmes_george_14E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/holmes_george_14E.html
Author of Article:   Richard G. Bailey
Title of Article:   HOLMES, GEORGE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   May 21, 2024