Manitoba wood carver transforms dying tree into angel at St-Pierre-Jolys Museum

A dying tree in a small southern Manitoba francophone community has been given a second chance at life — but this time as an angel. 

For the last five years, staff at the St-Pierre-Jolys Museum watched as the more than 80-year-old tree on its lot decayed after it suffered wind damage.

Wanting to preserve the tree and its history, the museum decided on a wood carving as an alternative to cutting it down, and invited carver Lawrence Friesen to tour the grounds.

He knew instantly how he wanted to transform the tree.

“I just saw an angel in it right away,” Friesen told Radio-Canada in a recent interview

The angel is also fitting since the museum’s main building was once a teaching convent. The new carving sits in the museum yard in front of the former convent, which was built in 1900.

A closeup photo shows a rough wooden carving in the shape of a winged angel.
The roughly 3.5-metre-tall carving is a nod to the French Catholic history of St-Pierre-Jolys, says longtime museum volunteer Roland Gagné. (Submitted by Roland Gagné)

The angel is also a nod to the history of St-Pierre-Jolys, which is steeped in French Catholicism, said Roland Gagné, a longtime volunteer at the museum.

“Our community was built around that culture,” he told CBC. 

It was crucial that the roughly 3.5-metre-tall carving represented that history, he said, and the museum talked with Friesen about the community’s history before he began the design process. 

Man in orange construction jacket and brown cargo pants stands on aerial lift next to a tree.
Before he started the project, the museum staff invited carver Lawrence Friesen to tour the grounds and taught him a bit about the history of St-Pierre-Jolys. (Submitted by Katharine Friesen)

The village, about 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg, was established as a parish in 1887 and soon became home to immigrants from Europe, Quebec and the United States who had followed their priest, Jean-Marie Jolys — from whom the community gets part of its name — to the parish, said Gagné.

At the time, the area was already home to several Métis families who welcomed the newcomers, he said. 

While creating the sculpture, Friesen, who lives in the nearby community of Grunthal, found another way the tree represented the history of St-Pierre-Jolys.

Many of the trees around the museum had, in the past, been tapped for maple syrup, including the tree he carved. That history can still be seen in tap holes sprinkled throughout the wood of the tree, Friesen said. 

The carving project, which began last year, will be finished later this summer. There are other tree stumps on the property that Friesen said he hopes to transform from “eyesore to something pleasing to the eye.”

The museum also hopes to create more sculptures using different media, said Gagné, adding such works of art are a way to bring the town’s past into the present.

“It gives us another historical piece that we’re able to share with the newcomers and for our existing residents,” he said.

A photo shows the back of a rough wooden carving in the shape of a winged angel.
Friesen hopes to finish the carving, which he began last year, in the summer. (Submitted by Roland Gagné)

Although there isn’t yet any funding for more sculptures, the hope is future creations will represent the Indigenous communities in St-Pierre-Jolys, he said. 

For now, both Gagné and Friesen hope the angel carving will inspire the community. 

“Some people may just see it as a piece of wood … but some may see it as a symbol of faith and of hope,” said Friesen.

“In this day and age, in this world, there seems to be very little hope left…. I hope it is something that will bring people hope.”