Throughout the late
19th century and early 20th century, Christian
churches were established in Western Canada. In most cases, this early work
resulted in the building and operating of schools and hospitals. From the
earliest presence of religious organizations, the Christian message and the
concern for education and health were closely linked.
Anglican and Presbyterian missionaries arrived and established church
communities after the earliest presence of the Methodist and Roman Catholic
missionaries. The first schooling in central Alberta was probably at the Pigeon
Lake Mission in the early 1860s, the work of John McDougall. By 1887, a school
existed at the Red Deer Crossing settlement on the Red Deer River, opened by a
Presbyterian student missionary named William Neilly. By 1893, the Methodist
Missionary Society had constructed an industrial school for Aboriginal children
that operated until 1919. By 1911 the presence of Roman Catholic orders such as
Les Filles de la Sagesse at Red Deer (a school) and Les Soeurs de Charité de
Notre Dame d’Evron at Trochu (a hospital) was established.
Seventh-day Adventists re-established a school started in 1907 near Leduc by
moving near Lacombe in 1909. In 1913, the Presbyterian Church established the
Alberta Ladies College at
Red Deer. In 1922, Leslie E. Maxwell arrived at Three
Hills to teach bible classes to the children of a local family, through his work
with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Eventually, this work would
establish the Prairie Bible Institute (PBI), an important school for missionary
training. In 1927 the Church of the Nazarene established the Alberta School of
Evangelism in Red Deer. These are but a few of the early developments.
Some churches combined with others to form united churches. The premier
example of this was the union in 1925 of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist
churches into the United Church of Canada. Larger church buildings were
built to accommodated more members and employed more ministers.
Although Aboriginal peoples remained very important in the focus of mission
work, this concern expanded to include newly arrived homesteaders, particularly
those of non-Anglo origins, such as the Ukrainians who established large block
settlements in northeast central Alberta.
As home missions continued, local churches contributed to missions in more
remote areas and overseas. Women such as
Margaret Nissen (Danish Lutheran
missionary to Nigeria from Dickson), Helen Huston (United Church of Canada,
medical missionary in Nepal, born at Rimbey), Ruth Marsh (United Church of
Canada, missionary to China) and
Beryl Finch (PBI missionary to India from
Mirror) took up their vocation in other countries, serving as educators and in
health fields. These women were important bridges in helping local churches
understand and appreciate other cultures and how the Christian message was being
received and adapted to the particular field.
What was women's role in these changing churches and how did it differ from
the first missionary women's role? On one hand, women's role may be seen as
diminishing. As churches grew and became more established, so too did the
largely male pastors and church leaders. The days when wives worked alongside
their missionary husbands and nuns alongside the priests were in one sense over.
Nuns and missionary wives still ran religious based schools and hospitals;
however, the female pioneering force behind these institutions largely
disappeared, as men filled the positions of physicians and principals. On the
other hand, women's role may be seen as strengthening as they began forming
their own missionary societies and organizations within the church.