The St. Boniface Cathedral on Taché
The St. Boniface Cathedral on Taché

Rising up from the concrete deck, a series of alabaster spires puncture the heavens. Below, the murky blue-brown river flows swiftly north. This is the view from the new Esplanade Riel, the pedestrian walkway that parallels the Provencher Bridge and connects downtown Winnipeg to St. Boniface. Drink in the views of both before heading east into the city's French Quarter for a day of cultural exploration.

Home to the largest francophone community in Western Canada, St. Boniface joined the city of Winnipeg just 30 years ago. Established by the Roman Catholic Church in 1818, the area is home to many people who are themselves the descendants of the earliest French settlers. They have worked hard to protect and maintain their culture and their language, which is still strong here, visible on street signs and audible in local shops and banks.

The old St. Boniface city hall on Provencher
The old St. Boniface city hall on Provencher

As you stroll along St. Boniface's heavily treed streets you'll spot the names of many historical figures, such as religious leaders Jean Norbert Provencher and Alexandre-Antonin Taché, and fur trader Pierre Gaulthier de La Vérendrye. And while St. Boniface is rooted in history, it continues to grow. The new Esplanade Riel has encouraged greater discovery of the area, and several new businesses have already opened near the bridge, including a romantic restaurant and a gelateria.

Head south off the bridge to ave de la Cathédrale where you'll happen upon the St. Boniface Cathedral. Built in 1972, the cathedral is built into the ruins of the old cathedral (circa 1908), which was destroyed by fire in 1968. The remaining stone façade is the most recognizable landmark in St. Boniface and the chimes of its three bells can be heard throughout the neighbourhood. While the ruins and surrounding cemetery are usually quite serene, crowds spill out from the cathedral's doors each day after French services.

As you leave the cathedral from the south side, notice the small headstones which line the parking lot. These mark the graves of the The Sisters of Charity of Montreal, more commonly called the Grey Nuns (for the colour of their habits). Learn more about these women at the next door St. Boniface Museum or along the Grey Nuns Walkway, which documents their arduous 1844 canoe voyage from Montreal to St. Boniface. Now follow this paved walkway, which runs parallel to the Red River along rue Taché, to the St. Boniface Hospital. The first hospital in Western Canada, the "St. B", as it is casually called, is now a teaching hospital and major research centre.

From the hospital head south, past an eclectic mix of shops and a classic French bakery, to Enfield Cres. Here you will turn east, passing sloping lawns on your way to the Precious Blood Church, located a few paces to your left on Kenny St. Built in 1967 this spiral-roofed church is the best-known building by Franco-Manitoban architect Etienne Gaboury. Gaboury's work is ubiquitous in the French Quarter, and includes the St. Boniface Police Station, the student centre at the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface, the new Provencher Bridge and Esplanade Riel.

The Esplanade Riel
The Esplanade Riel

Standing next to the church is Ecole Précieux-Sang, one of St. Boniface's three francophone schools. From here you can decide to take a 20 minute walk east along Enfield and Dubuc to rue Des Meurons, where you'll find several French restaurants, the historic Gabrielle Roy House, and the Centre-culturel franco-manitobain, the hub of the French arts and culture scene. Otherwise stroll through the sleepy neighbourhood going east down Kenny, north on boul Dollard and then east on rue Aulneau to boul Provencher, the French Quarter's main thoroughfare. Besides chocolatiers and cozy bistros, Provencher is also home to many historic buildings, reminders of one of the area's most prosperous times at the turn of the last century. Built of red brick, the former St. Boniface City Hall holds the Riel Tourism Bureau and an art gallery called Maison des artistes francophones. The nearby St. Boniface Fire Hall, built in 1908, features three vintage fire trucks, while the St. Boniface Post Office, built in 1909, is still a working, bilingual, postal outlet.

To glimpse how St. Boniface looked before settlement, follow rue St. Joseph north to Fort Gibraltar. This replica of the North West Company fur trading post stands on the banks of the Red River at Whittier Park. After a brief tour you can follow the groomed pathway along the Red River south to complete your tour at the foot of the Provencher Bridge. Written July 2004