Prince Albert’s Presbyterian beginnings

Tyler Clarke
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Linked directly with the beginnings of Prince Albert’s colonial history, it’ll be with a heavy heart that the congregation at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church moves to sell the building.


But, faced with a $1.5 million structural repair job, the congregation’s hand was forced on Monday into an almost unanimous vote to sell the building in hopes of renting its worship space.

“We have families with long ties with the building, some going back generations, and so they consider it part of their life and hate to see the idea of it being sold,” session clerk Norman Hill told the Daily Herald earlier this week.

“However, we need to have it fixed … so this is a working option if we can make it work.”

The year 1906 has been engraved on the cornerstone of the massive structure in downtown Prince Albert, but the building’s history dates back a few decades previous, as a twinkle in the eye of travelling missionary Rev. James Nisbet.


Rev. James Nisbet’s party

Born a shipbuilder’s son in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1823, Nisbet was of staunch Presbyterian stock -- a faith he was intent on sharing.

His family immigrated to Oakville, Canada West (now Ontario) in 1844. Nisbet initially worked as a carpenter before enrolling in the first class of the Knox College in Toronto.

As an ordained Presbyterian minister in January, 1850, Nisbet served congregations in Ontario for the next dozen years.

In 1866, Nisbet led a party of people through Western Canada, sailing down the North Saskatchewan River with “dream of bringing Christianity to Indians in the west,” as historian Jean Hunter Cockburn put it.

His goals were three-part, according to his personal diary.

• Induce the Indians to settle near the mission and learn to cultivate the land.

• Gather the children into a school to be taught the art of “civilized living” and to give them a Christian education.

• Set up a farm to serve as a model for the Indians and to provide provisions to the mission to make it self-sufficient.

The party arrived at what is now the Prince Albert area on July 26, 1866 -- an area originally a native campground called kista-pinnanick, which translates into “meeting place.”

As per most colonists, Nisbet re-named the area after Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert.

As Nesbit noted in a letter dated June, 1867, “We are here a very few in a great wilderness, with no white people with 60 miles of us; but plenty of work keeps us from thinking the time long.

“Let us hope and pray that we may, before long, have many Christian Indians settled around us, and that will afford us more joy than all the comforts we have left ever did.”

The group initially settled at “River Lot 78” -- a site that is today the corner of River Street and Central Avenue in downtown Prince Albert -- where they built two log houses and cow barn.

In October 2004, the Presbyterian Church’s presence at this site re-emerged when bones were dug up while crews installed a water drain for a parking lot at the Forest Centre, which was under construction at the time.

An excavation and study of the remains started in the spring of 2005, during which 21 bodies were found of Caucasian and native lineage, interred between 1866 and 1874.

The bodies included those of four young adults between 20 and 30 years of age, two adolescents and 15 infants.

"I want to acknowledge the fact we don't know the identity of these 21 individuals, but we knew something about the settlement they were part of," Rev. Sandy Scott told a crowd of more than 50 people who gathered for a memorial service at the site on Oct. 28, 2005.

The bodies were later re-interned in a Wilbert vault -- a cement vault about the size of a regular coffin in a grave at the South Hill Cemetery.  


The first Presbyterian Church

As their base grew with more settlers arriving all the time, Prince Albert’s first Presbyterian Church was built in 1872 at what is present-day Second Avenue West in downtown Prince Albert, where the Empress Hotel once stood.

The log church was able to seat 120 people, with about 100 people gathering for English services in the morning and 80 people gathering for Cree services in the afternoon.

“The walls of the museum are 10 logs high and measure eight feet to the eaves,” a report by Rev. R. M. Luckraft dated 1945 reads.

“These spruce logs were cut locally and hewn with a broad axe. The log walls are seven inches thick and well built.”

Everything was hand sawn, since the first power saw did not operate in Prince Albert until nine years later – incidentally, the first power saw in the province.

“I would venture to say there are not many men today who would care to take a 16-foot log, 12 inches thick and saw it lengthwise into lumber,“ Luckraft asserted.

In 1932, long after it had ceased operating as a church, the building was donated to the Prince Albert Historical Society.

Inmates from the Provincial Jail (now called the Provincial Correctional Centre) disassembled it log by log and re-built it in Bryant Park (now Kinsmen Park) where it remains standing today.

Earlier this month, outgoing Prince Albert Historical Society chair Deb Honch said that the church has fallen into disrepair at Kinsmen Park and that it’s the society’s intention to move the structure onto the riverbank.


The second Presbyterian Church

Nesbit died on Sept. 20, 1874, after which the local mission underwent various changes, along with the community as a whole, which by then had reached about 500 people.

The most significant change to the church happened when Rev. John Sieveright took over, with his first priority the establishment of a building committee for a new church.

The church opened on Oct. 2, 1881, and was described as “A neat and comfortable red brick church … seated for 180 persons, costing $2,000. This is the only church edifice belonging to the denomination in the northwest.”

It makes me glad to learn that the Lord is visiting some portions of our church with special tokens of His favour. James Nesbit

Although there’s some speculation as to the church’s exact location, it was around 11th Street, likely straddling what is now Central Avenue.

The church was built on a property about one city block in size, which the church owned. It also included a 65-student mission school.

During the Louis Riel Rebellion, the area became a fortified compound, with the church and manse (clergy house) surrounded by an eight-foot stockade of piled cordwood.

With the rebellion taking place further south, though, only one shot was fired in Prince Albert, when a man in the church accidently discharged his weapon, with the bullet shooting up through the building’s shingles.


The third Presbyterian Church

Prior to Rev. William M. Rochester taking over the church in 1891, the organization was in the midst of a less-than ideal financial position.

In 1890, the church sold a large portion of its property to the city for a town hall site, forcing the church itself to be demolished.

The congregation rallied together, and within a year a larger, solid brick church able to seat 350 people was erected within a year, at a cost of $4,000 with “considerable volunteer labour.”

This new church was located in downtown Prince Albert on 11th Street West.

After the third Presbyterian Church ceased function as a church it was used as an auto repair shop and an apartment complex.

The Prince Albert Daily Herald also found some use out of the third Presbyterian Church, with the newspaper printed in the building for a period of time.

The building was torn down in 1955, at which time a rose window that once graced the front of the building was removed and placed on display at the Prince Albert Historical Museum.


The fourth Presbyterian Church

Prince Albert’s population continued to grow through the early 20th century, with settlers flocking to the area -- the population of Alberta and Saskatchewan increasing by more than 400 per cent between 1901 and 1911.

Prince Albert became a city in 1904, and by 1906 had reached a population of about 4,500.

Although the 350-seat Presbyterian Church was only about 15 years old, the congregation had already outgrown it.

Designed to hold 750 people, the cornerstone to the St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church was laid in 1906. At the corner of 12th Street and First Avenue East, the building was built at a cost of $45,000.

The stained glass window on the southern exposure was created in Toronto and donated to the church by then-mayor of Prince Albert, William Cowan.

Recognized in the building were two of the church’s most influential figures -- Rev. Nisbet and Lucy Baker, who dedicated her life to teaching native children – who are both featured on large oil portraits.

On the north wall is a massive organ, which was installed at a cost of $5,000 and features a façade brought in from the 11th Street West church.


Danger befalls St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church

The current structural problems that face St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church isn’t the first dangerous situation to befall the building.

Until about 1940, the building was heated by a large steam boiler, and between then and 1973 was heated by oil.

At one point, the oil supplier almost burned down the building after mistakenly putting gasoline in the tank instead of oil, causing an explosion in the oiler that sent a plume of dust and smoke through the air vents into the ceiling and into the church organ.

The church went without an organ for about six months while valves were rated and shipped back to England for cleaning and repairs.

In 1980, the plaster in the church’s ceiling began to fall as a result of civic crews digging up the street in front of the building.

As a result, the church closed for the summer as crews repaired the ceiling, installing new drywall and plaster, as well as painting the structure.

Faced with structural problems, the St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church congregation has been worshiping next door, at Wesley United Church, since late last year.

Monday’s decision to sell the building and rent out its worship space means that the congregation is currently left playing the waiting game until an offer comes through.

The congregation is also looking at hiring an interim minister, since Rev. Sandy Scott left the church last year.

With the church having prevailed through a rebellion, an oil boiler explosion and four buildings, it’s hoped that the current structural problems that befell their current 108-year-old structure doesn’t mean an end to the congregation.

“It makes me glad to learn that the Lord is visiting some portions of our church with special tokens of His favour,” Nesbit wrote in correspondence dated July 6, 1869.

“Whatever is human in such movements we have to mourn over, but then good is done, souls are quickened and those who have long-followed the truth are revived by such scenes and seasons.“


This article was compiled from a stack of historical papers the Prince Albert Historical Society provided through its archives -- most notably the book “St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church 1866-2006: A History,” put together by a history committee and edited by Doris Barentsen. 

Organizations: Knox College, Prince Albert, Presbyterian Church Prince Albert Historical Society Forest Centre South Hill Cemetery Provincial Correctional Centre Prince Albert Historical Museum 11th Street West church Wesley United Church

Geographic location: Ontario, Toronto, Glasgow Scotland Oakville Canada West Central Avenue Western Canada North Saskatchewan River St. Paul River Street Bryant Park Kinsmen Park Alberta Saskatchewan 12th Street England

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Recent comments

  • denis j lacroix
    March 22, 2014 - 11:02

    nice to read some history from prince albert. I read the pa herald every day. brings back many memories. d j lacroix