By Michael Dawe – Special to Sylvan Lake News
Over the years, Sylvan Lake has experienced some very interesting times. One of the best times took place one hundred years ago when the community enjoyed one of the strongest booms in its history.
Sylvan Lake has always had many attractive attributes. It was surrounded by fertile farmlands. There were extensive forests, which provided a ready supply of lumber and winter fuel. The lake itself was clear, clean and full of fish. There were beautiful sandy beaches along the perimeter, particularly at the south end.
However, for many years, what Sylvan Lake lacked was easy accessibility. The trails to it were very rough and at times quite impassable. This was particularly true in the large marshy areas to the east at Burnt Lake. It was not unknown for a trip from Red Deer to Sylvan Lake to take one or two full days.
That was certainly the experience of Father Henri Voisin, head of the Central Alberta mission of the Fathers of Ste. Marie of Tinchebray. He made his first trip to Sylvan Lake on December 26, 1904. He did not get back to Red Deer until December 29.
The situation began to change rapidly in 1910-1911 when work began on not one, but two railways into the West Country – the Alberta Central and the Canadian Northern Western. New settlers began to flood into the Sylvan Lake district. With travel becoming much easier, the community rapidly became popular as a summer resort, as well as an agricultural centre.
Quite a few of the families in the burgeoning community were French, with several coming directly from France, but a number coming from Quebec and the United States. There were also quite a few Belgians as well as French and German Swiss.
Masses for these settlers were said by Father Voisin, or one of the other Tinchebray priests. They used such places as Charles and Raymond Archambault’s store, Adelard and Victoria Faucher’s farm and the August Loquet and Frederic Gerard homestead cabins.
By 1912, it was evident that the number of local Catholics had grown to the extent that a church was needed. Moreover, with the freewheeling pastimes often associated with a boom town and a summer resort, Father Voisin wrote that “the time had come to enliven the completely materialistic atmosphere by the salutary presence of a church”.
In the spring of 1912, Alexandre Loiselle donated a piece of land on the hillside on what is now 47A Avenue. Work on the church started thereafter. One of the big Sylvan Lake windstorms struck in July and almost blew the little church to the ground. Fortunately, the workmen were able to quickly make repairs and finish the building.
Father Paul J. Chauvin, one of the Tinchebray Fathers, became the first priest. The new church was dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. The first mass was said on Sunday, August 18, 1912.
Father Chauvin continued to conduct regular services until 1915. Father Paul Lamort acted as a replacement for a while, until Father Henri Voisin resumed charge in May 1915.
The First World War was a very tough time for Sylvan Lake and the local Catholic church. Many parishioners enlisted in the French, Belgian and Canadian armies and went overseas. Several never returned. With ensuing tough economic times, money became very scarce.
In 1923-1924, the Tinchebray Fathers moved from Alberta to Tisdale, Saskatchewan. Father Stacey, who was originally from Woodstock, Ontario, became the priest at Sylvan Lake in the summer of 1923. He was soon replaced by Father Joseph R. MacDonald, who was also the resident priest at Sacred Heart in Red Deer.
In 1927, conditions had improved enough that Sylvan Lake became a parish instead of a mission. Strong growth resumed in the community after the Second World War. The Our Lady of the Assumption parish grew as well.
In the fall of 1964, the old church was demolished and replaced with a much larger one. Dedication of the new building took place on March 23, 1965 with Archbishop Jordan of Edmonton providing the official blessing.
On Sunday, August 26, 2012, Our Lady of the Assumption will be celebrating its centennial. Archbishop Richard Smith will be in attendance for the special mass and celebrations.
Michael Dawe is Curator of History at Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery. He also writes a weekly column for Red Deer Express. He became the first full-time archivist with the Red Deer and District Archives and served as City Archivist until 2009.