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The History of St Edmunds Anglican Church

In the years before 1916, local church of England (Anglican) services were held in Backstrom's hardware store (on Main Street), and various private homes throughout this area.  Reverend George Child and Reverend W. H. Harrison were the priests during those early years, commuting from Stettler. 


.In 1914 Bishop Pinkham, of the Calgary Anglican Diocese, received a generous donation of $500.00 from a Mrs. Caroline Leffler in England. She had raised the funds by selling children's garments which she had knitted. It was her wish that the funds were to be used to establish a Church of England at any point in western Canada that the Diocese might find most worthy. At that time Big Valley was a real "Boom Town", having been established as a major divisional point on the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR) as well as an important coal mining centre and promising mixed farming area. The housing at that time was somewhere between 500 (1914) and 803 (1920). The decision of the Diocese must have been easy and plans were soon underway to construct St. Edmund's church on its present site to give it a commanding view over this exciting new town.


Construction got underway in 1916 under the direction of local carpenter/craftsman, Mr. Walter Dennis. According to documents, Mr. Dennis completed the foundation and submitted his bill for 66 hours of labour at 40 cents per hour (total of $26.40) on July 26, 1916.  A sub-contractor, Mr. David Stewart, completed the lathe and plaster work and the original chimney (visible in the entry room next to the present bell tower) on November 20, 1916, at a total labour cost of $46.75.  A statement, signed by Mr. Walter Dennis on December 5, 1916, indicates that his carpentry labour charges for the complete church building were $235.80. 


It should be noted that the original entrance door was on the west side of the church. (Its location is still evident from inside the church). The church was open for services early in 1917 and the first minister was Reverend Scallon, who commuted by horse from St. Paul's Mission House at Hartshorn, about 14 miles S.E. of Big Valley.  For several years services were only held on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. Reverend Scallon was followed by Reverend Bateman.  A tiny room above the west entrance provided sleeping accommodation for the clergy when they were forced to stay over due to inclement weather. 


The church, which seated about 100, was built in the shape of a cross. Two shallow alcoves or transepts on either side of the main seating area (nave) form the arms of the cross, which the chancel area around the altar and the five-sided, semicircular apse in which the altar stood form the short top section.  It was soon found that the west door was unsuitable, because of the prevailing winds so, in 1923, the bell tower was constructed, the building was re-sided (for the first seven years the outside of the building apparently had a stucco finish), and the present entry came into use. The chimney that was used in the initial heating of the building is still in place (in fact the top of the chimney is now enclosed within the bell tower that was added in 1923.  


The purpose of the bell tower was to provide an entrance door that did not face into the prevailing northwest winds).  A "hole" was dug, under the church, to accommodate a floor furnace (the pile of earth is still visible outside the cellar door on the east end of the structure) and a brick chimney was built on the south side (this chimney was demolished in 1979 for safety reasons). The last chimney (concrete block) is still in place.  Although the bell tower was built in 1923, there was no bell installed until the 1950's, when one was obtained from an unused country schoolhouse near Big Valley. 


Records indicate that the first wedding was performed on June 20, 1917.  In a letter dated May 2, 1917, Reverend Scallon requested photos of the completed church be sent to Mrs. Leffler and the architect of the building.  Marjorie Johnston's family arrived in Big Valley in 1918, when she was six. She recalls when St. Edmund's held weekly services attracting 35-40 persons. The bishop visited to confirm youngsters once a year, and there were occasional special events like Sunday school picnics. The "junior WA" (woman's auxiliary) was active and raised funds to add the steeple, buy a collection plate, and install a memorial to men killed in the first world war.  Mildred Usher, who also attended, remembers that at one time there was a choir. An organ stood to the right of the apse and altar. Sunday school was organized and taught for decades by Mrs. Dave Olive, one of the first members. Mrs. Usher recalls services held every two weeks, dropping to monthly in latter years, when the congregation had dwindled to eight.


By 1974, the church was no longer in use on a regular basis and was in rather a sad state for paint. Big Valley's Homecoming '74 committee saw the need to "brighten up" the old building but had almost no funds to do so. The local lumber yard had a large quantity of pre-mixed bright blue paint, available for a very modest price. Much to the chagrin of the local Anglicans, the church turned blue almost overnight. Once the furor died down, Big Valley became known as the Town with the Blue Church.  In fact it was repainted blue in 1989 and again in 2009 with no furor these times.  The Big Valley Historical Society took over the restoration and maintenance of the church, as an historic site, in the late seventies and gained title to the property in 1987.   It is now a major tourist attraction of the village and is used occasionally for weddings and other celebrations. It has been officially decommissioned from being a church and it is now registered with the province of Alberta as a provincial heritage site..

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