The Tower of History in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., sits beside Holy Name of Mary Pro Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Sault Historic Sites

Soo tower an ode to missionary past

  • June 20, 2014

SAULT STE. MARIE, MICH. It stands there, all 60 metres of it, a giant concrete structure, looking like it’s the control tower for the world famous Soo Locks, two blocks away, that connect Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes.

But it is anything but that.

A closer inspection reveals a sign, “The Tower of History.” And a walk down the stairs finds a large painting of the Sault region’s most famous religious figure, Bishop Frederic Baraga, aka “the snowshoe priest,” who came here from Slovenia in 1853.

Inside there is a 900-squaremetre museum containing a variety of aboriginal and missionary artifacts, such as birch bark quilt boxes, a birch bark canoe, quilted ornaments, wampum belts, moccasins and beaded works. There are prayer books, letters from missionaries and other specimens which illustrate the ties between the early Quebec Jesuit priests, who first celebrated the Eucharist in the mid-17th century in what is now the northern United States.

“One of the exhibits that I like to show would be a rattle (made from a turtle shell) for a medicine man,” said Paul Savourin, the official curator. A native French Canadian, Savourin married a Michigander and lives in the American twin city to Canada’s own Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., located across the St. Mary’s River.

The tower is unique for several reasons.

While it might look like a government or institutional building it was constructed by the local Roman Catholic Church.

In the mid-1960s Holy Name of Mary Pro Cathedral, the Diocese of Marquette’s original Catholic Church and one of the oldest in the United States, needed renovation and considered building a brand new church next door on the first missionary settlement. Savourin, curator with the nonprofit Sault Historic Sites — whose properties include the nearby maritime history museum ship, the Valley Camp — said a three-prong carillon tower was planned.

But the parish ran out of money. So it decided to create a striking museum and observation deck instead — symbolic of the early missionaries’ courage. Parishioners thought this would be an appropriate symbol of the early mission, a gift to the community and a boon to area tourism.

“Basically the mandate or the objective or mission would be to recognize and dedicate the whole tower in memory of the missionaries — those Jesuits who were here,” said Savourin.

Construction took place over 1967 and 1968. About 125 H-beams had to be driven 20 metres into bedrock. In 1992 the Historic Sites group purchased the tower.

Locals and tourists have flocked there. For $7 (kids are half price), an elevator whisks people to one of four observation decks, providing 360-degree and 3,100-square-km panoramic views including north “to the Canadian wilderness,” as the tower’s web site says.

The tower is often a focal point for small meetings and banquets and the indoor deck can hold as many as 30 people for professional gatherings, grad parties and weddings. Savourin himself often dresses as a French Voyageur, greeting groups, and talks about the area’s rich history.

The tower has drawn widespread attention. Recently two television crews from NBC and A & E were there. And it is soon to be visited by a Columbia University student who is doing her architectural thesis on it.

“So we’re bringing in people from pretty much all over the world,” Savourin said. “Anybody who comes in they say ‘wow’ this is the place to be.”

(Stang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

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