Lily MacKenzie's "Soul of the City"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Central United Church on 7 Avenue & 1st Street West. Future prime minister, R. B. Bennett helped choose the site for this then-Methodist church. When the building was completed in 1905, it was the largest in the city, seating 1,975 people. (Photo: Calgary Public Library, Postcards from the Past)

Central United Church on 7 Avenue & 1st Street West. Future prime minister, R. B. Bennett helped choose the site for this then-Methodist church. When the building was completed in 1905, it was the largest in the city, seating 1,975 people. (Photo: Calgary Public Library, Postcards from the Past)

Lily MacKenzie left Calgary in 1963 as a young woman. Then, fewer than 250,000 people called the city home, twenty-story Elveden House was the only skyscraper, and Prince’s Island was overgrown and neglected, “a wild place in the heart of the city.” Decades later, when MacKenzie returns to visit, many of the landmarks of her childhood are gone. In their stead, she finds a city transformed, a place that “slips away, constantly revising itself.” But what of the city’s soul, she wonders, the “places that touch us at the deepest core of our being”? At Central United Church, the caretaker lets her into the place where she learned to play piano as a girl and attended holiday services with her family. Her visit points to something that has resisted the city’s incessant change, the intangible essence MacKenzie is looking for. 

 

Central United, a stable downtown fixture like The Bay, smells old, unlike the glitz that surrounds it. The same dark wood pews that I sat on as a girl face the altar and the stained glass windows… The church has seen better days, paint peeling off the walls in places, red carpet fraying.

Still, it’s like visiting an elderly uncle or aunt, the interior shabby and somehow more authentic, things basically unchanged.

 

Lily MacKenzie, “Soul of the City,” Alberta Views (July/August 2004)