Looking Back: Life and works of Father Dunstan

Artist has devoted his talents to decorating the interior of the Abbey and rectory that sits on Mission hill top

The book launch for Daphne Sleigh’s biography of Father Dunstan Massey was a resounding success.

The event was April 27th in Mission, where crowds of art and history fans bought out the supply of the beautifully illustrated book, The Artist in the Cloister: The Life and Works of Father Dunstan Massey.

The line up of people waiting to have their book signed by author Daphne Sleigh and artist Father Dunstan delayed the formal opening.  Some people dashed off to Black Bond Books to buy copies when the supply ran out.

Westminster Abbey, with its iconic bell tower on top of Mount Mary Ann, seems like a Mission landmark that has always been there.  In fact, the Benedictine abbey was first located in Ceperley House in Deer Park, Burnaby, now the home of the Burnaby Art Gallery.

The Benedictines purchased their hilltop location in 1945. Here they began preparing to build their seminary and church. The church was not completed until 1955.

Architect Asbjorn Gathe brought his Norwegian sensibility to the design of the Westminster Abbey church. The soaring arched ceiling and grey cement walls suited the simplicity of the Benedictine order.

Gathe rejected the idea of traditional stained glass windows picturing saints, preferring the abstract kaleidoscope of colour that illuminates the interior.

Artist Father Dunstan Massey devoted his talents to decorating the interior of the Abbey and rectory.

William Harold Massey was born in 1924 in Vancouver, the only child of William and Mary Massey.  His exceptional talents in both art and music emerged early in his life, encouraged by the teachers at his Catholic school. He excelled at his piano lessons, progressing so quickly that his teachers expected him to have a career as a concert pianist.

Even more striking was the maturity of his drawing and painting. With the help of a generous patron, Bill Massey was enrolled in the Vancouver School of Art in 1939, with teacher Jack Shadbolt. Bill was not attracted by Shadbolt’s modern abstract style, but stayed with his unique ideas, often drawing figures from mythology. He had enough work to have a well received exhibition in the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1940.  More studies followed at the Academy of Applied and Fine Art.

Father Dunstan Massey’s work in Westminster Abbey that is visible to the public is his impressive series of relief sculptures around the walls of the church.  These major pieces took years of physical work, as well as their artistic designs. The sculptures feature saints and religious figures, including Abraham, John the Baptist, and St. Michael. The church is open to visitors in the afternoon.

A long delayed project was the huge fresco on one wall of the refectory, The Celestial Banquet.  Unlike Leonard da Vinci’s Last Supper”, Father Dunstan’s image is the heavenly banquet of Jesus with his disciples.  A Knowledge Network video about the creation of this fresco and Father Dunstan’s other art work was shown for the first time in 2006.

Historian Daphne Sleigh had just finished her biography of Major Matthews, The Man Who Saved Vancouver, when she saw the television show about Father Dunstan. With the permission of Abbott John Braganza and the full co-operation of Father Dunstan, her research went ahead.

Daphne became interested in researching local history when she wrote several chapters of Maple Ridge: A History of Settlement in 1972.  She served as the first curator of the Maple Ridge Museum in 1974.  Her book Discovering Deroche won the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal in 1984.  Her splendid work on the life and art of Father Dunstan was published by Heritage House.

Sheila Nickols is past president of the Maple Ridge Historical Society.