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Church Life


Sisters walking the St. Mary's Convent grounds and garden.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.




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