Willowdale church restoration underway at Red Deer’s Sunnybrook Museum

Church expected to be open to the public in July

Willowdale Zion Presbyterian Church was moved onto its new foundation at Sunnybrook Farm Museum in November. (File photo by Advocate staff)

Willowdale Zion Presbyterian Church was moved onto its new foundation at Sunnybrook Farm Museum in November. (File photo by Advocate staff)

Willowdale Zion Presbyterian Church appears to be a perfect fit for Sunnybrook Farm Museum.

Executive director Ian Warwick said people who stop by to see how work is progressing on the museum’s newest addition say the location is ideal.

“When they come around the corner on Botterill Crescent, it looks like the church has always been there. It looks like it found a nice home. We’re really happy with that,” Warwick said.

The museum’s first church sits next to the historic Calder School that was moved to the south end of the museum’s 10-acre property in 2017.

The church, that was set to be demolished before the museum acquired it, arrived at Sunnybrook Farm Museum in mid-November after an overnight 10-km road trip on a flatbed truck.

The original Willowdale church was constructed in the early 1900s and was rebuilt in 1950, which is the structure that was moved to Sunnybrook Farm.

Recently the museum put out the call for interior photos of the church as a template for restoration.

Warwick said photos of grandparents or parents who got married in the church, or photos from other church events, would help while trying to recreate the interior and find furniture. Prints of the photos could also be made to hang inside the church.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe said photos can provide the details people may have forgotten.

“When you are doing the kinds of projects like the Willowdale Zion Presbyterian Church you want to make sure things are historically accurate,” said Dawe whose grandfather grew up in the Willowdale area.

“There are just so many details you can make out (in photos). Maybe there was a renovation at some time and you kind of forget it didn’t used to be that way.”

He said photos that will be in the church may also bring back memories for visitors.

“Particularly people as they get older like me, the memories that come back when you look at old photographs are quite strong,” Dawe said.

Warwick said unfortunately the church’s time capsule could not be found.

“We dug around and broke the concrete, looked everywhere for it, but we couldn’t find it, so that’s too bad. Nobody remembers where it was buried. That’s the challenge with time capsules after 50 years.”

But the altar, baptismal font, stained-glass windows and cross are in storage at another church and will be re-installed.

After it arrived, the church was quickly hoisted onto its new foundation.

The main floor will be the church exhibition, and the new basement will be used to store more delicate artifacts that aren’t on permanent display. Those items have been stored in the steel barn which is not heated.

Warwick said the furnace is installed and interior work in the basement and main floor is mostly complete. Painting will begin soon.

“It’s coming along really well. Basically we’re almost finished. We’re just waiting for spring for the landscaping, the front step, the sidewalk.”

All the funds are in place for the $410,000 project, which included a $50,000 Community Facility Enhancement Program grant from the province, and a donation of $98,000 from the Willowdale community.

Donations are still being accepted for an endowment fund for the long-term maintenance of the church.

He said Sunnybrook plans to rent out the church for small events, like weddings. The community hall and kitchen at Calder School can be used for receptions, and there are 10 beautiful acres for taking photos.

“The hope is it will become a functional, usable space for small gatherings. We’ve got a capacity to put a projector in there so if they wanted to do a small lecture for 50 or 60 people we could do it inside.”

The museum expects to open Willowdale Zion Presbyterian Church to the public in July.

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