(Editor’s Note: Following is the first part of the speech given by Brian Inglis during celebration of the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church, Aug. 26. Watch for the second part next week.)
by Brian Inglis – Special to Sylvan Lake News
I am honoured, to have been asked to speak on some aspects of the history of Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church. I owe a debt of gratitude to Father Voisin and Ed Dietrich, for their writings on which some of this history is based. Various archives and local history books have been consulted in my research. A chronological summary of our Parish history and the priests who served us is available today on the tables and display boards. This week’s Sylvan Lake News has a nice article on our history written by Michael Dawe.
I would like to start by describing the Catholic community in Sylvan Lake that existed before the first church was built.
In November 1898 the first catholic French Canadian families arrived, having tried life in Michigan for a short time. The 23 people consisted of the two Fauchers with six children, the 13 Loiselles in two families, and bachelors Joe Boquette and Peter St. Pierre.
In the next 14 years they were joined by Catholic families with names of Archambault, Loquet, Gerard, Monette, Dallaire, Chambon, Bellefontaine, Ballu, Fison, Dominique, Rousseau, Le Bihan, Blomme, Rosse, Le Saunnier, Jamoye, Berroyer, Jauvels.
In 1903, Catholic German families with the names of Heinrich and Kroetch arrived along with their non-Catholic Swiss friends, the Huerlimans and the Cuendets.
They worshipped in their homes when a priest came to visit.
There were other families with French names in the area but I can find no record of them worshipping with the Catholic community. Some were associated with the anti-papist French socialist commune under the leadership of Dr. Tanche.
Why did they come to Sylvan Lake?
The attraction was cheap land. The even numbered sections were owned by the crown and were sold as quarter section homesteads for $10. Title was given provided the settlers cleared five acres of land per year, for three years and built a home. The odd numbered sections were owned by the railways and sold for $1.25-$2.50 per acre. The land, when cleared, was productive.
It is reported that a two acre crop of spring wheat yielded 60 bushels per acre. This was on land that would have cost $100 to $150 per acre in the USA.
In 1912 land in this area was selling for $10 per acre. This price increase was partly driven by the economic spinoff of the two railways being built to the coal fields of Nordegg and partly by speculation. The improvement of the land by homesteaders added value to their land.
In 1913 the parish reported 100 members. 71 were French, 16 Belgian, eight Irish, four Germans and one Englishman. With such a large number of French families it is not surprising that Sylvan Lake had a bilingual newspaper in 1913.
What has become of the 21 founding Catholic families?
There are few descendants of the original French families in our area.
I could find only one descendant of the founding families who attends our church. Her name is Gertie McDonald.
Gertie is a resident of Eckville now. She is the granddaughter of Adelard and Victoria Faucher who farmed north of Lakewood golf course. Her mother Ada (Hagerman) was born in 1903 and was one of the first white children born in the Sylvan Lake area.
The answer as to what has happened to all the founding families is complex. It includes the loss of many sons in World War I, the subsequent Spanish influenza, the post war recession and the drift of people from farms to cities and to other provinces. Gertie herself was born in Saskatchewan as her family moved there for better farming opportunities. We are glad her family returned and that she married the late Ewart McDonald and that they stayed in this area to farm.
How did our parish and the old church come into existence in 1912?
The driving force behind the building of the church was Father Henri Voisin. Father Voisin was a member of the French teaching order named the “Freres de Sainte-Marie de Tinchebray.” Five members initially came to Western Canada from France in 1904. The change to missionary activity of this order of teachers occurred when their roles as teachers ended with the closure of church-run schools and colleges in France. This was a result of the anti-cleric movement of the 1880s.
This bias against Catholic education is periodically raised in political circles to this day!
Father Voisin was a builder. He built churches in Innisfail in 1904-05, in Red Deer in 1905-06 and Sylvan Lake in 1912. He and his order are credited with founding churches in Stettler, Castor, Delburne, Big Valley, Trochu and Tinchebray.
Our original church was located on the corner lot of the current church site. The lot was donated by in 1912 by Mr. Alexander Loiselle, who owned the subdivision. I consider Mr. Alexander Loiselle to be the founder of Sylvan Lake. We will learn more about him next year when Sylvan Lake celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Father Voisin engaged a parishioner from Red Deer, Mr. Emile Hermary to build the structure.
Mr. Loiselle also donated two statues to adorn the church.
Comparison of old photos leads me to believe that the statue of Our Lady of the Assumption in the narthex and the statue of Sacred Heart of Jesus in the church proper are these statues. If others agree then I suggest we place a plaque on them honouring the Loiselle donation.
In 1913 the adjacent two lots, on which our current church stands, were purchased from Mr. Loiselle for a future rectory.
The history after World War I is that of depopulation of Sylvan Lake and the onset of the great depression. Not much is documented of our church history for the next 25 years.
From our foundation in 1912 to 1941 save for two years we were a mission of Sacred Heart Church in Red Deer. In 1924 the Freres de Saint Marie left and the diocese reassumed responsibility for our mission parish.
Why and how did we get a resident priest in 1941?
In the write up about Don Donlevy in the history book “Reflections of Sylvan Lake” it is stated that a committee of parishioners including Don Donlevy petitioned Archbishop MacDonald for a resident priest and Father Sidney Stewart, Chaplin at Penhold air base relocated to Sylvan in September 1941 to live in a residence about six blocks from the church.
The war years saw the end of the great depression. Sylvan Lake’s population grew, partly because of cottage rentals to families of the airmen at the Penhold airbase. The church saw an increase in attendance.
A flurry of activity occurred at our church during the war years. The CYO raised $30 to build a choir loft. The church had a new ceiling installed. The church was repainted and the woodwork restained. The coal and wood stoves were replaced by an oil burning heater. Storm windows were installed.
Sylvan Lake’s history book attributes all this activity to the Donlevy gift of persuasion and leadership. We have relatives of Don Donlevy with us today – Evelyn, Christine, William and Margaret. Don Donlevy was a parishioner from 1941 to 1964.
Back to our church. Good times continued after World War II. A rectory was built in 1951 or 1952 east of the church. In 1964 it was moved and eventually sold to make way for our current church with its attached rectory.
(Continued next week)