As we reflect back to the early days of Central Alberta’s recorded history, it is interesting to reflect on some of the hardy people who first came to this region before settlement, or just as settlement was beginning. Some of those early people were the missionaries.
It was 140 years ago, in June 1883 that Rev. Andrew Browning Baird, the pioneer Presbyterian missionary at Edmonton, decided to accompany M. MacLeod on a trip down to the new Red Deer Crossing settlement. The men departed on June 19 and were able to make good time in covering the 160 km. (100 mile) distance in just under three days.
The Red Deer settlement was less than a year old. There were thirty-three claims along the Red Deer River, most of which were laid out in the river lot fashion similar to the farms of Quebec and the Red River Valley of Manitoba. Seventeen of the claims actually had settlers on them, although the arrival of several more was soon expected. The community stretched for 9 1/2 km (6 miles) upstream and 12 km (8 miles) downstream from the nucleus at the all weather ford across the Red Deer River.
Rev. Baird and his companion found the settlers in good spirits and making good progress, although a sharp frost on June 17 had killed some of the potatoes and damaged much of the grain. A new log store and post office were being constructed at the Crossing by Robert McLellan for George C. King, a merchant and entrepreneur from Calgary.
While there had been some missionary activity in the area since the first visit by Rev. Robert T. Rundle in 1841 and, while the Roman Catholic Church had built a small log mission on the top of Mission or Monk’s Hill 9 km. (6 miles) south of the Crossing, there had not yet been a religious service for the new settlers.
Consequently, on Sunday, June 24, 1883, Rev. Baird held the first church service in the community at the home of Roderick MacKenzie, a recent arrival from Headingly, Manitoba. Interestingly, while the service was Presbyterian, the host was a staunch Anglican. As well, those who attended were from a wide variety of religious denominations.
Rev. Baird later wrote of his experiences that “it was work of the most inspiring character. There was certainly no overlapping in those days. The minister received the heartiest kind of welcome even from men who paid but little attention to church matters. He had at his back, especially in Edmonton and the nearby places, a loyal band of workers who were always ready to deny themselves in the way of Christian service.”
Thus, a seed was planted. Five years later, the Presbyterian Missionary Society assigned a student minister, William Neilly, to the Red Deer Crossing settlement “to found a mission school for the settlers’ children and expound the gospel to the public in general on Sabbath days”. His inspector was Rev. Baird of Edmonton.
Rev. Baird later became a professor of church history and the librarian at Manitoba College in Winnipeg. He was moderator of the Presbyterian Church in 1916. He became the first moderator of the Manitoba Conference of the United Church in 1925.
He passed away in 1940 at the age of 68. Baird Street in the Bower Place subdivision is named after this pioneer missionary and founder of the Presbyterian Church in Central Alberta.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer Historian. His column appears on Wednesdays.