Before you point fingers and say “this isn’t about the pulp and paper industry” I’m going to say it first. It’s not about the pulp and paper industry;[i] but if you are from Central Newfoundland, you might know something about the Miracle Temple, and the equally famous “Why Burn” sign. I pass the sign a handful of times every year, watching to see if it has changed, usually getting my wife to read out what’s on it. I’ve passed it a lot in the past twenty years, coming and going between home and the Avalon Peninsula. Once I see the “Why Burn” sign, I know I’m on the home stretch.
I might have been five or six when this happened.
Pop Baker showed up at the house. In my memory he has on a blue Irving Oil baseball cap, he usually did. Irving supplied his headwear and his drinking glasses. The odd thing was, it was just Pop, no Nan. No, nothing was wrong. I think my mom might have been a bit confused when she asked what he was doing.
“Well I was down to see brother Gagnon” Answered Pop in his Hillview accent.
I think Mom is still confused. Pop was Anglican, and if I recall he didn’t go to church much either. Brother Gagnon was way too evangelical for Gower Baker, but I think the spectacle entertained him, it was something similar to his favorite sport, which was professional wrestling.
“Well, I wanted to see if there was going to be a racket!”
“But Dad! What if something happened, you could have been hurt, or your car could have been beat up.”
The comment about the car brought Pop to his taps. It was the late 1980s and “Brother” Gagnon was set up down in the parking lot of Centennial Field, only down the road from our house. Normally an open air Church service wasn’t something unusual anywhere in Central Newfoundland; usually the Pentecostals or the Salvation Army set up in the Riff’s parking lot. But Brother Gagnon was a whole other quintal of fish; and there had also just been another exposé about him on some news show. This was the era of the crooked televangelist, it after building a lot of momentum, there were rumblings that Brother Gagnon’s flock might be turning on him. Pop wanted to be there to witness the racket, but never thought that the stampeding flock might damage his 1985 Pontiac. Though I think Pop was expecting something like the ending of Elmer Gantry, but I don’t think there was a racket that evening.
Brother Claude Gagnon came from Quebec, Chicoutimi to be more specific.[ii] Since Quebec is predominantly Roman Catholic, it seems odd that brother Gagnon started his religious career as a Pentecostal pastor. It isn’t clear how he ended up on that route, but it probably happened in Western Canada, because it was in Vancouver where he met the night manager of a cafeteria, Lydia Mueller, who would become “Sister” Gagnon. On their marriage it was “Sister” Gagnon that gave Claude his first copy of the King James Bible; so this was very likely the spark that set him on the route to evangelism. That was around 1960.[iii] It seems after two years he wasn’t satisfied with Pentecostal interpretation of the Bible. Brother Gagnon branched out on his own and founded the Holy Ghost Miracle Temple. According to a 1979 interview, he received his religious Charter from the Quebec Government in 1972. For a number of years the Miracle Temple was confined to Quebec, then in the mid-1970s Brother Gagnon branched out and took his show on the road to Ontario and Western Canada. Around 1980 he began broadcasting on Q Radio in Central Newfoundland, right in the Bible belt.
Quickly Gagnon’s evangelistic fervor gained fans and followers. In 1981 he set up his tent crusade in the parking lot of the Traveler’s Comfort Motel at Notre Dame Junction. Soon after, Brother Gagnon decided to buy the motel, restaurant and lounge building and convert it into his new “Book of Acts Bible Revival Center” (Halleluiah!).[iv] Since the Traveler’s Comfort had contained a bar, which had been a swinging spot back in the day, apparently brother Gagnon had to stage a ceremony to cleanse the building of all of its sin. According to one poster on the forum site Reddit, it was a “ceremony to drive Satan out of the building.”[v] He must have been successful, since even a few years before, Gagnon claimed that “one thing I can claim is power over the Devil.”[vi]
A year later, when an article was compiled for the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland, it was speculated that Gagnon had about 250 followers in the area.[vii] At some point the building was renamed the Holy Ghost Miracle Temple. Fittingly, since allegedly Brother Gagnon would sometimes perform miracles at his open air services, you know easy stuff like bringing people back from the dead! Of course people partaking in these services would be asked for a donation.
A 1979 article in a Sudbury newspaper summed up Brother Gagnon’s visit as this:
“Rev. Claude A. Gagnon drove into Sudbury in a Cadillac, held three “healing and miracle services at a local hotel, and asked Sudburians to give him most of their money.”[viii] The writer of that same article noted that he was approached by two ladies who in hushed tones expressed their disgust, noting that “All he wants is money” and “He’s using brainwashing.” If other observations of this same service are accurate, Brother Gagnon’s appeal for cash was unabashed. Of course his methods invited controversy. Around the same time that the Miracle Temple was being set up at Notre Dame Junction, CBC’s On Camera raised some concerns regarding “Gagnon’s preaching techniques and alleged practice of collecting large sums of money from his followers.[ix]
It appears these concerns were not taken too seriously in the Bible Belt of Notre Dame Bay, because the congregation of the Miracle Temple grew. That is, until later in the decade, when I believe many felt that they had been duped.
On January 4th, 1988 a 36 year old Roman Catholic priest stopped at the Miracle Temple, pulled a .22 rifle out of the back of his truck and fired a couple of shots at through the window at the neon “Why go to Hell?” sign located within the tabernacle. He missed the sign, but was soon apprehended by the RCMP.[x] [xi] He claimed he had been suffering from insomnia, and had just snapped. Little mention is given to how Brother Gagnon would preach against the Roman Catholic Church (and other established Churches for that matter). It was probably later that year that the revival was set up on the parking lot of Centennial Field, the lustre was dulling on Brother Gagnon’s crusade, and almost scratched the paint on my Grandfather’s Parisienne.
For a little kid, Brother Gagnon was one of those household legends in Central Newfoundland, associated with the revival tent with hellfire and damnation being broadcast over a PA system. He was central Newfoundland’s local answer to Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Brother Love. As I got older, I guess the revival was less and less in the open air, and more and more within the confines of the Miracle Temple. I don’t remember the revival tent down at Centennial Field after Pop went down there.
For a while back when I was in university I went out with a girl from Lewisporte. One time we got talking about the Miracle Temple, and I was curious if anybody actually still attended it. She told me that like “four old ladies” still went to it. That was in 2003, since then there have been a handful of obituaries that noted that the funerals were at the Miracle Temple, so I’d imagine the congregation is probably pretty small.
As far as I know Brother Gagnon is still alive, though it appears his son Lincoln has taken over many of his duties (and I thought he drove a Cadillac?). Interestingly enough there is still a branch of the Miracle Temple in Montreal. It is in an old stone Church, presumably built for one of the traditional Christian denominations, many years ago. Called the “Le Chemin Du Paradis” or in English-Way to Paradise. Through it is in an old stone church, the tabernacle hosts a clear indicator of its association with Brother Gagnon, that’s right-a neon sign that mentions sin and hell! It reads: “The wages of your sin is Hell” in French, though I assume there must be another neon sign inside that says “Pourquoi brûler.”
The Miracle Temple is still there, and according to the internet, it’s open 24 hours every day, just in case you were curious, and feel like having too much money in your bank account might make you burn in the fiery pits of damnation. Why burn? Right?
Notre Dame Junction https://collections.mun.ca/digital/collection/cns_enl/id/4235
[i] Although the AND Company did have pulpwood operations at Notre Dame Junction from about 1948-61. Ironically operations ended because the area burned during a forest fire, and all the camps and dams were destroyed.
[ii] Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador Holy Ghost Miracle Temple.
[iii] Obituary for Lydia Helen Mueller Gagnon https://www.urgelbourgie.com/en/necrology-obituaries/48010-lydia-helen-mueller-gagnon
[vi] Northern Life, Sudbury February 7, 1979. https://cdm22003.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p22003coll2/id/60262
[vii] Holy Ghost Miracle Temple ENL
[viii] Northern Life Feb 7, 1979
[x] R. v. Locke Lewis, Day Law Firm http://www.lewisday.ca/ldlf_files/cases/R%20v%20Locke.doc
[xi] At that point .22s were illegal for hunting in the province, and I guess illegal for shooting holes in the Miracle Temple as well.