This is a story that began with a picture – the only 19th century photograph that survives of the Anglican Church that Colonel Mahlon Burwell built in the lakeside village that he named for himself.
In 2011, Trinity Church, Port Burwell celebrated the 175th anniversary of the first service held in its then-unfinished sanctuary – when the Reverend John Strachan, soon to be Archbishop, came from York (Toronto) to preach on May 22nd, 1836. Trinity’s 21st-century congregation marked that anniversary with special services, a new history of the church, the planting of a community vegetable garden and the dedication of a grandfather clock, a quatrefoil quilt banner and a memorial stone to the unmarked graves of early pioneers and settlers.
To honour their historic church building, the congregation set itself the goal of restoring the quatrefoil steeple window whose only record is that single, magnificent 1889 photograph of the church. Support poured in from the congregation, former parishioners and the community. Roy Foster, a gifted craftsman from Woodstock, Ontario, recreated the window in exacting detail. Painstakingly constructed with six precise layers of small overlapping octagons of wood, then cut into shape, there could not be even a slight variation in any measurement if the four teardrop quarters were to fit together into a perfect quatrefoil. On Thursday, May 24th, 2012, the window slipped flawlessly into place, restoring the original proportions of the steeple, just in time for Trinity’s 176th anniversary on Sunday, May 27th. During that service, the skies miraculously opened to end a three-week drought, so a new congregational photo to match that of 1889 is still to come. Wouldn’t the Colonel be pleased?
The Symbol of the Quatrefoil
The term ‘quatrefoil’ is an Anglicization of the French phrase ‘ quatre feuille’, which means ‘four leaves’. Common in nature, it is a recurring, identifying feature of Gothic architecture.
A symbol of good luck in the Celtic world, where it represented ‘the wheel of being’, the quatrefoil’s ancient tie between the natural and spiritual worlds is still recognized today in our enduring affinity for the four-leaf clover.
The Christian church adopted the quatrefoil in its earliest days in Celtic Britain. Over many centuries, it has come to represent the four evangelists, the four beasts of Ezekiel, the four horsemen of the Apocolypse and the four ends of the earth.
Most importantly for Christians, though, it represents the Cross – the central symbol of our faith. But it is a different sort of Cross, one that has no sharp external edges, no corners, no partitions or divisions. It has been described as an ‘evocative’ or ‘suggestive’ Cross, rather than an ‘obvious’ Cross. Because it features four conjoined circles instead of two crossed sticks, it is a model of proportion and balance. It has been called an ‘elegant’ cross. As such, it is is symbolic of symmetry, harmony and wholeness, all beautiful fruits of the Christian life.
The four circles of this Cross represent God at the top, Christ and the Holy Spirit as its arms, and the Church at its foot. We are at its foot; yet we are an integral part of its design: God’s perfect plan.
In recent years, the quatrefoil has been described as a ‘green’ Cross because of its abundance in the botanical world. In that sense, it reminds us, gently and with reassurance, that God is never separate from His created world.