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Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada
Chapter X. Building the First Church


WE now resume the narrative of other events in our history. Our friend, the Chief Factor, was retiring from the Hudson Bay service, after many years of exile in these solitudes. He was not, as he told me, in sympathy with the prominent rulers of the company who were just then in power at Fort Garry, and he therefore sought retirement. Knowing the utter lawlessness of the country, and the general condition of affairs, he urged me to return with him, at least as far as Manitoba, until more settled times came and more favourable circumstances arose. This, however, could not be, and, bidding me farewell, he said with tears in his eyes:

'I do not like the idea of leaving you alone up here; it is not safe as things are.'

From the banks of the river I saw the boats which conveyed him and his luggage float down the stream with much regret, and I realized how lonely and utterly unprotected I was among strangers who were not in much sympathy with my work, or with the Church which I served. On arriving at Fort Garry, my friend found his wife in distress from the roughness of the persons who were then in power, and who had refused house accommodation to the Chief Factor's family until his arrival there. A beloved child had died, as he conceived, through causes connected with this harsh treatment. Surely this was not an ideal retirement after thirty-five years of solitary life, and often of separation from his family, to whom he was greatly attached. The Chief Factor was a man of noble presence, who wore the title 'Honourable,' as a gentleman should. His life was clouded by the dishonesty of a Canadian lawyer and M.P. This relative, and supposed friend, dissipated the earnings of his many solitary years.

During the years 1876 and 1877 a small church became absolutely necessary near the fort at Edmonton. We had held services in whatever houses could be obtained; but sometimes the people were away on the plains freighting, or there would be sickness in the family, and the rooms could not be used for Sunday gatherings. But how were we to build, and where was the money to come from for building? Ours was not an Indian mission, but a mission to settlers, and our people were very poor, and there was absolutely no money current in the country; everything was done by barter, or in trade, as it was called. The only standard of value was skins--mostly beaver-skins--and it became a problem how to manage the finances of church-building when there were no finances, and no skins to barter for labour, or the means of labour. And where were the materials for buildings to be obtained? or how was even the ground to be secured on which a building could be safely erected? The question as to who owned any land was a difficult one in those days. The Hudson Bay Company were relinquishing their rights--real and supposed--to the General Government of Canada. That Government was far off, and did not seem to know that it had any responsibilities, or that people situated as we were could possibly suffer any inconveniences. Surveys were not made for several years, and no one knew where his homestead was, or what land would be allowed him when the surveys were made.

First we applied to a Hudson Bay officer, who claimed lots, to give or to sell us a site for a church and burial-ground, but we were refused; then we sent our request to the gentleman who is now Sir Donald Smith, who replied most courteously that the company were then in treaty with the Government of Canada for the transfer of all their lands in the North-West, and that it was not in his power to grant any land for public purposes. However, a settler, a mile from Fort Edmonton, very kindly allowed us from his claim five acres, for which I gave him five dollars, as the only way of defining the bargain, and securing the rights of both parties (these five acres afterwards became nine, when the surveys took place). I made an endeavour also to secure a lot of a hundred and sixty acres for Church property, but there were none at the time available for our purpose. The ground being secured, the next thing was to obtain building materials.

In the winter of 1876 the Bishop of the diocese for the first time visited the Edmonton district, and encouraged the idea of church - building. A committee of local men was consequently formed. The Bishop went away, but before he was out of sight, and even while the jingling of the dog-bells could be heard, the supposed chairman turned to me and exclaimed:

'Don't you suppose that I am going to act as chairman to a committee to build a church in such a country as this, and without means that can be depended upon. Who is to pay for it?'

I pleaded with him that he ought to have told the Bishop that, and that his refusal to act now was not fair either to the Bishop or to me. However, the committee met once, and decided on the size of the building, and that it was to be of lumber. Months passed, and nothing more was done. Every now and then I saw reports in the newspapers of the influential committee which had been organized for church - building purposes at Fort Edmonton, and the reports sounded very grandly, so that I had to shield my eyes that I might not be mentally blinded by the glitter. As a matter of fact, the whole committee subscribed about thirty dollars towards the two thousand dollars which the little church cost. The business was abandoned as, under the circumstances, impracticable; and there being no regular postal communications with my Bishop, I gave orders to have the frame erected for the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars; the man allowed ten dollars discount, and I myself paid two hundred and forty dollars, as a first personal subscription, hoping thereby to stir up the public generosity. Again the building was at a standstill, until the Church authorities sent the sum of five hundred dollars. Then, under the direction of the chief trader, men were provisioned and sent into the woods to cut lumber; and as flour was twenty-five dollars, or five pounds sterling, per hundredweight; sugar fifty cents, or two shillings, a pound; and nails fifty cents per pound, the five hundred dollars were soon spent. The shell of the church was nearly completed, the inner roof was bare, and there was no chancel end. The wages of the only man who would undertake the work ran up frightfully. Just then a Government saw-mill was being closed sixty miles above the fort. I bought a part of their lumber, enough to complete the building, and again this was my own personal subscription. By the earnest appeals of the Bishop of Saskatchewan, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge sent another sum of five hundred dollars, which the Bishop paid directly to the chief trader, and without any handling of mine. At the Bishop's request I afterwards handed to him, as the trustee of the diocese, the whole business. I was glad enough to be rid of the worry of debt, and of the hindrance which it had become to me in my work.

These matters require to be stated if the circumstances of a pioneer colonial missionary are to be correctly narrated, or his work is to be understood by persons at a distance. I have not pictured the weary nights I spent in writing letters of appeal for subscriptions to the leading people of the North-West, with very little result; nor can I describe the sacrifice of common comforts, and even of the necessaries of life, which had to be made while these burdens lasted. I had faith and hope enough to bear them once; if I were called upon to pass through the discipline a second time, I am afraid I should lack the courage to make the attempt in similar circumstances.

When any human work has to be done, in the Church or out of it, the first thing necessary is to comprehend the circumstances, and then to adapt the means that are suitable in order to secure the end that is in view. In most parts of the world, that are in similar circumstances to Edmonton, a mission would be first directed to the needs of the natives, and then it would be purely a benevolent enterprise. Such a mission is usually well supported; a house is erected for the missionary and his assistants, and funds are sent for church-building; goods are supplied to him at the current rates, and his way is cleared from embarrassments. Afterwards settlements grow up around the mission, and after a varying number of years it will develop into a self-sustaining mission. But if the Church authorities begin missions to settlers before the time for so doing is fairly ripe, and then try to throw upon them the difficulties of self-support, the attempt is sure to fail, and clergyman after clergyman will have to retire discouraged, perhaps with damaged reputations for zeal and energy, because they cannot do what is impossible under the circumstances, and what wisdom and good statesmanship would not have asked them to attempt.

At Edmonton, in 1875, the sparse population consisted of a few Hudson Bay employes, changing mounted police, roaming miners, and people who spoke the Cree language, and were half their time freighting on the plains. Real settlers only arrived years afterwards. Changes came, and then these matters fell into other hands. This church was subsequently sold by auction for fifty dollars, and used for a stable. It ought to have remained where it was built, and the ground around the church would have made an excellent Church of England cemetery.


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