Zion Willowdale Presbyerian Church has found a new home at Sunnybrook Farm Museum. (Photo via Facebook)

Zion Willowdale Presbyerian Church has found a new home at Sunnybrook Farm Museum. (Photo via Facebook)

Michael Dawe: Zion Willowdale Presbyterian Church’s roots go back almost 140 years

There was extensive media coverage recently on the move of Zion Willowdale Presbyterian church from its original location, 10 km southeast of Red Deer, to a new spot at the Sunnybrook Farm Museum. It is an example of an historic building being saved instead of being demolished.

The origins of the Presbyterian Church in the region actually go back almost 140 years. On June 24, 1883, Rev. A.B. Baird held the first formal church service in Central Alberta at the home of Roderick MacKenzie, one of the earliest settlers in the Red Deer area. It is a reflection of the frequent ecumenicalism of the pioneer era, as Rev. A.B. Baird was Presbyterian, while Roderick MacKenzie was a devout Anglican.

Subsequent services were held at such places as the home of Sage Bannerman, the ferryman at the Red Deer Crossing, and at Fort Normandeau. Generally, the services were conducted by travelling missionaries and student ministers, often nicknamed “saddle bag preachers” or “sky pilots.”

By 1887, settlement at Red Deer had grown sufficiently that the Presbyterian’s Knox College Student Missionary Society assigned William Neilly to be the first resident student missionary at the Red Deer Crossing settlement.

In early 1890s, Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican ministers established residency in the hamlet of Red Deer, which had been created on the new Calgary-Edmonton Railway. Those ministers also ventured out into the countryside to conduct missionary work and to start new congregations.

In the summer of 1893, Rev. G.D. Ireland, a Presbyterian student minister stationed in Red Deer, began holding church services in settlers’ homes in the Willowdale, Valley Centre, Edwell and Hill End districts east of Red Deer.

In 1900, in another example of ecumenical cooperation, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches agreed to separate their mission fields to reduce overlap and competition. The Methodists withdrew from the Willowdale, Valley Centre and Hill End districts, while the Presbyterians withdrew from the Horn Hill, Springvale and Clearview areas.

By 1905, the Presbyterian Church had grown in east Central Alberta to the extent that a beautiful little church building was constructed in the Willowdale district. While an enormous amount of volunteer labour went into this project, the church still cost $761.25 to build, a fairly sizeable sum in those days when a dollar a day was considered a reasonable wage.

The first resident minister at Willowdale was Rev. D.D. MacLennan, formerly of Apply Hill, Ont. A number of other ministers and student ministers. Rev. James Wheeler came to the church in 1911 at an annual salary of $625. During his ministry, the first Kirk Session was elected.

A great deal of emphasis was placed on building up the Sunday School as it was felt that this was one of the most important aspects of local church work.

In 1925, the Willowdale congregation voted to remain part of the Presbyterian Church of Canada and not to join the new United Church. In 1950, a new church building was constructed, as the original 1905 structure was really starting to show its age. Again, a great deal of volunteer labour was used in the construction. Combined with donations from the community, the new church was able to open debt free.

Changing church attendance patterns and greatly improved roads that made travel to urban centres much easier, put pressure on many rural churches including Willowdale. In 2005, the congregations of Zion Willowdale and nearby St. Andrew’s Valley Centre were amalgamated. The congregation then became known as Willow Valley.

At first, the two church buildings were used alternately. However, in 2010, the Zion Willowdale Church was closed and the building sold. Services were subsequently conducted at St. Andrew’s.

A decade later, the former Willowdale church site was going to be redeveloped. However, fortunately, the Willowdale building was not demolished. Instead, it has been moved to the Sunnybrook Farm Museum where it will be used for exhibits on pioneer rural churches as well as artifact storage.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.