The Edges of Time: Cornerstones and Time Capsules of Early Victoria

The Synagogue of Congregation Emanu-El

“As this stone which we are about to lay will be the foundation upon which this structure will rest, so let peace and harmony be the foundation stone of your hearts...” -Mr. S. Hoffman, Vice President of Congregation Emanu-El,at the laying of the Synagogue cornerstone, June 2, 1863

With initial costs in excess of $9000 in 1863 dollars, the temple was a tremendous undertaking for a small Jewish congregation composed of fewer than fifty members. A building committee was established to canvass the community for donations, which were successfully received by a diversity of local Victorians.

The laying of the cornerstone of the Synagogue made favourable news headlines in 1863.1 The ceremony was claimed as the first public activity to attract official attendance of Victoria’s Masonic fraternity.2 In addition, the cornerstone that was laid is recognized as signifying the first foundation of a place of Jewish worship in Queen Victoria's West Pacific dominions.3 Invitations to participate in the parade and ceremony of June 2, 1863 were accepted by the French Benevolent Society, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, Germania Sing Verein (German Singing Club), St. Andrew's Society, and the Fraternity of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons. The large group made for a decorative and diverse procession, and the noise en route to the Synagogue site was magnified by the music of a Royal Navy band from the H.M.S. Topaze.

The Daily Colonist was the perfect resource for keeping the residents of Victoria in touch with the daily events of the city. Ads were frequently published as a means of invitation to cornerstone laying ceremonies – these two notices alerted the residents of an unfortunate postponement of the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the Hebrew Synagogue. The ceremony was successfully carried out the next day (June 2, 1863) with the Daily Colonist reporting that “…the sun shone bright, and the previous showers had conferred some benefit by cooling the atmosphere and laying the dust, which would otherwise have proved disagreeable.”

In contrast to the other ceremonies featured on this website, two cornerstones were laid at the Synagogue site. The first was set in place by Mr. Malowanski, a member of the Synagogue Building Committee, and the second laid by the Worshipful Master of a local Masonic Order. Responding to the Masonic Officers and participants present at the afternoon ceremony, the Right Worshipful Master of Masons stated “I beg to express the honor we feel in being invited to take part in any ceremony having a holy useful, or benevolent design and more particularly in aiding in the erection of a Temple to be dedicated to the glory of God and his Holy name.”4 The jointly coordinated activities of the Synagogue ceremony reflect the historic relationship between the Jewish community and members of the Masonic Craft, dating back to the construction of Solomon's Temple.5

The laying of the Synagogue cornerstone on Cormorant street was extolled (and continues to be extolled) as an important community gathering for the people of Victoria. While it is true that colonial citizens in the Victorian period did much to enforce an attitude of arrogance and social stratification, an investigation of cornerstone history enables us to remember moments that softened the edges of early racial politics in British Columbia. The newspaper notes that English, Hebrew, and German languages were all spoken aloud as the Synagogue ceremonies progressed through the afternoon, and Mr. S. Hoffman was quoted as stating “For, as I look around me, I behold adherents to every creed…”6 The pride articulated in this statement suggests that the participatory nature of the ceremonies was deliberate and well-intentioned. Alongside the important Jewish documents that were deposited below the cornerstone, the French Benevolent Society and Germania Sing Verein were given an opportunity to deposit their membership lists as well.

History has shown that dichotomous expressions of social inclusion played out across the Canadian landscape during Victorian times. It is fact that a diversity of citizens participated in the Synagogue festivities on June 2, 1863, as discussed above. It cannot be overlooked, however, that members of local indigenous nations were completely ignored in the official ceremony. It is, therefore, important to remind ourselves of the contradictions that exist in prominent civic ceremonies of the past and present. The laying of the cornerstones for the Synagogue of Congregation Emanu-El should be understood as an important event in the history of Victoria, highlighting the complex intersection of race, culture, business, and community.

The time capsule beneath the stone laid by Mr. Malowanski for the Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue contained:

The time capsule beneath the stone laid by the Masonic Fraternity contained: