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The Churches of Big River

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The Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church was established in Big River several years before any other denomination. The exact date is not known, but a small log church was in use in 1909 and could well have been here even before that date. This little building was located close to where Howard Swanson's home is now. With the arrival of the railroad in 1910, many people of the Catholic faith were arriving to work in the mill and logging camps. A priest by the name of Fr. Gagne from Quebec came with a train load of parishioners to add to the fast growing population. The need for a larger parish church was soon felt and willing hands erected a new lumber church close to the location of the log structure which was torn down when the new building was completed. Gaudoise Tremblay remembers serving Mass in both of these churches when he was a boy.

The Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church, Big River.

The Historic Roll Book (now under the care of Fr. Roland Gaudet in Debden) shows that Fr. Normand Gagne was the first priest to be recorded in 1911. Baptisms, burials and weddings are meticulously recorded in this beautiful old book, giving us a clear and true record of the past. The first baptism recorded was on May 5,1911 and took place in the little log church. An infant girl was buried May 15th of the same year. The marriage of Horace Chenard and Maria Godin, a well known pioneer couple of this district took place in the same little church on October 3rd, 1911.

The new lumber church was ready for use in the spring of 1912, but was only to remain a short time before it was completely destroyed by fire. Fr. Gagne left this same year and was replaced by Fr. Clovis Mollier, the second priest to serve this community.

Another church was started immediately, this time located high on the hill overlooking the village and Cowan Lake. This is the same location on which the Catholic Church stands today, in fact it is the same building with several renovations and repair jobs done over the years.

During the next few years several priests came in from Victoire on a temporary basis. These included Fr. Laurent Voisin (uncle of John Voisin), Fr. T.E. Teston and Fr. F. Ancel.

In 1918, there arrived a missionary priest, Fr. J.A Lajeunesse, who not only served the village church but traveled far and wide throughout the whole area to bring the Word of God to the Indian camps, homesteaders and men in the scattered bush camps for miles around. From excerpts of letters written to his mother, we find he compares the church building at that time to a large hanger. He says he has much work to do and sometimes meets with hostility.

Fr. D.E. Paquette arrived in 1920, followed by Fr. J.P. Sanne who was directly out from France. Later Fr. Richard Gregorie came.

Fr. Defossier came to Big River in 1928 and remained for twenty-two years serving his parish through the hard times of the 1930s and the war years. He is fondly remembered by all who knew him for his devotion and faithful service.

Over the years many improvements have been made both inside and outside the building. The wrought iron cross on the top of the steeple was especially made and donated by Mr. Henri Bouchard, as were many of the iron crosses that mark the graves of the early settlers. Much of the beautiful wood work in the interior of the church is the work of Mr. Horace Chenard. In the early years, Mrs. Maria Chenard played the organ as did Mr. Thomas Thibeault. There were, of course, many others who contributed to the music part of worship. Some members of the early choirs were Mrs. V. Griepl, Mrs. Sarah Neilson, Alice Dube and Mrs. Fortin. The Catholic Church has served this community continuously for at least 70 years.

Inside view of the Roman Catholic Church.
Inside view of the Roman Catholic Church.

No one seems to remember just when the Ladies Altar Society first began but their many services are certainly well remembered over the years. Always on hand to help, the ladies of the church have offered financial aid, support and strength to the on-going work of the church. They were responsible for the many happy occasions when good friends got together to enjoy a family picnic, a card party, bake sale, bingo or even a rodeo. Many can remember the corn roasts and good times shared at Gallant's farm and the lakeside picnics at Michel's on Stoney.

The Altar Society could always be counted on to supply board and room for the Sisters who were here during the summer and to put on suppers and to look after the annual Christmas party with the help of Santa Claus Lamothe.

Now officially known as the Catholic Woman's League, the ladies of the church continue to lend their support wherever it is needed.

The Lutheran Church

A small quaint church on the hill was the place of worship for the Lutheran congregation during the 1930s and 1940s. The first pastor was Hans L. Wagner. His mother, who lived with him, was a renowned opera singer of her native Germany. They had fled Hitler's rule and had found their way to Canada and eventually to Big River. Many happy hours were spent around their piano, sharing their mutual love of music with their friends.

Rev. R. Sedoe was the next minister and he was followed by Pastor Hangerude. The church withdrew in the late 1940s and the little building was sold and moved to a new location.

Jehovah's Witnesses

The first congregation was formed in 1938 with Mr. Harold Huxted as minister. The following year, Mr. Einer Anderson was appointed and served as minister for many years in this position. At the present time, the role of Presiding Overseer rotates yearly among the elders of the congregation.

During the first years meetings were held in private homes, then as the congregation grew in numbers, the Legion Hall and the Theatre were rented.

The first Kingdom Hall was built in 1950 and then in 1970, a larger building was moved in from Yellow Creek and this serves the congregation today.

The Evangelical Free Church

The congregation of this church purchased the small church that had been the Lutheran church in 1949 and moved it from its hillside location to the Evangelical churches location on Second Avenue North.

Mr. Harold Foster was pastor until the summer of 1951. Mr. Ed Kempling followed him and served as pastor until the summer of 1953. Mr. Alex McComb came the following year and stayed as resident pastor for ten years.

The little church was sold in 1957 and the school from the Greenmantle district was purchased and moved onto the church property.

For the two years following the time Mr. McComb moved away, Mr. Dave Anderson came and held services each week. Mr. Anderson lived in Mont Nebo, however and was not resident there. Mr. Isaac Martins was pastor the following year, then Mr. Art Baum, again from Mont Nebo, motored up to Big River and held Sunday and mid-week services here. Mr. John Penner and family were here from 1969 to 1977.

Members of the congregation formed a singing group and spent many hours bringing musical pleasure to those confined to hospital. A Bible Camp on the shores of Delaronde Lake is operated during the summer months for various groups of young people and adults.

The Evangelical Church is at present in the process of obtaining a new building which will be located on Sixth Avenue. This building has been moved from Meadow Lake and will give more room and accommodation. A new resident clergy is expected soon.

The Union Church

The lumber company built a Protestant church for the people in 1910 and this became known as the Union Church. Many denominations were represented and the pulpit supply came from various clergy coming in to the community. Rev. Macklin, an Anglican minister served this church from 1917 to 1919 and Rev. J.C. Cornell held services in the 1920s. Rev. Cornell also farmed in the Eldred district.

When the lumber company moved out of Big River in 1922, it gave the church building to the congregation but the land was sold, along with all the other land the company owned, to the Big River Development Company. This was a group of five local men who bought the entire community from the lumber company. The five men were Peter Figeland, Anton Johnson, Ernest Brownfield, Was. W. Turple, and John Waite.

The Union Church
The Union Church.

In 1925, the Development Company decided to donate the title of the land to the Union Church and Mr. Anton Johnson asked Mr. J.S. Forbes to arrange to have trustees appointed to whom the title of the land could be transferred. At this point, the Anglican people, having decided to maintain their own church, voiced their opinion that they should have had some consideration in the transaction of the donated land and building. Agreement to this claim seemed general and a meeting was called August 26, 1926 at the home of Mr. E.J. Oliver. Attending the meeting were the Trustees, the Board of Managers of the United Church, the Directors of the Development Company, Mr. Macdonell of Prince Albert, Dr. Murray of Saskatoon and John Waite who represented the Anglican Vestry of Big River. Mr. Macdonell explained the object of the meeting was to arrive at an amiable and satisfactory agreement with regard to the lot on which the church stood. It was readily agreed that the Anglicans had some claim which should be recognized in all fairness. The question of what value to be set on the claim was arrived at by Dr. Murray stating, "Would one hundred dollars be satisfactory?" Mr. Waite agreed this would be a very generous offer and he had no hesitation in saying that the Anglican people would accept it. The Trustees also agreed on this sum. Several days later, Mr. Forbes met with the Vestry of the Anglican Church in Big River, making them the offer of one hundred dollars in consideration of all claim to the church building and Lot 4, Block 7, Village of Big River. This offer was accepted and the transfer of the title was made to the United Church of Canada.

The first payment of the hundred dollars was made as a donation from Dr. Murray, President of the University of Saskatchewan. The seventy-five dollar balance was advanced by the Prince Albert Presbytery and was refunded by the local congregation at twenty-five dollars per year.

So it was that the Union Church of the lumber company days was dissolved and from it emerged two congregations, the newly formed United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of England.

First United Church

Big River First United Church was among the first to join in church union in Saskatchewan, the decision being made early in 1926. Services were held once a month during the winter and each week during the summer when the student ministers arrived to serve the community and to learn first hand the joys and trials of the rural pastoral charge.

Times were hard and living conditions left much to be desired but most of the students went on to become ordained ministers and all have written of the happy memories they hold of the little church at Big River and of the affection and warmth of the people here. These memories have lingered with them over the years. Especially mentioned were Mr. J.S. Forbes and Mr. Fred Buckley; they will be remembered for their many kindnesses, good advice, invitations to meals and many good times shared with all student ministers that served in this community.

Inside the First United Church
Inside the First United Church.

Living accommodations for each student consisted of the one small room at the back of the church, furnished with bare necessities, a cot, wood cook stove, table, chair, and coal oil lamp. Meal tickets were supplied for one meal per day and salaries for the entire summer amounted to around eighty dollars. Travel to the outlying points was often on foot, occasionally a horse was provided or a bicycle and in later years, a car of sorts. Services were held in Big River, Eldred, North and South Delaronde and at Black Duck Lake.

Some of the clergy to serve during the winter months after the students were gone were Rev. Macdonell, Rev. Cornell and Mr. Potter.

The congregation was small in these years and money was scarce but somehow with lots of faith they managed to keep the church active.

The first student minister to arrive in Big River under the United Church of Canada was known locally as Jim Waters. He is now Rev. Moir A.J. Waters and lives in Ontario. Mr. Waters spent two summers on this Field and remembers the many trips he and "Baldy", his horse, made to and from Eldred. He mentions his good friend Gordon Phillips, who was the Anglican student minister at that time. Rev. Waters has written two books and one of his hymns is included in the new hymnal.

The United Church C.G.I.T. Group
The United Church C.G.I.T. Group.

Rev. Harold Snell came in 1928 and rode many miles on "Tom" the bronco that was borrowed from the Craddocks for the summer. Starting early in the morning he would ride to Eldred, have dinner with Sam Reed the storekeeper and then after service ride back to Big River in time for evening worship.

Rev. James Terry came in 1929 and it is also noted that a C.G.I.T. group was formed this same year.

In 1930, Rev. Donald J. Scoates was the first lucky (?) student to have the use of a car. It was part Ford, part Gray and the rest was homemade!

Rev. H.E. Parsons came in 1931. The usual custom of supplying one meal ticket per day applied, however, it appears Mr. Parson misunderstood this arrangement and with the healthy appetite of any young chap, ate two meals a day and used up his meal tickets in short order. A special meeting was called to debate what action should be taken. This situation has a bit of humour today, but it makes one think of how serious a business eating was in 1931.

Rev. George Struthers recalls serving Eldred and Dumble. The school house was the location of all gatherings in both places and there the faithful gathered on Sunday whenever the trails were at all passable.

In 1933, Rev. George J. Minielly conducted the dedication ceremony of the Big River Cemetery.

Rev. Dr. John B. Corston was here the summer of 1934 and established contact with Black Duck Lake district as well as Delaronde areas. A routine was set up where Mr. Corston would walk to Stoney on Friday, hold services at the homes of Milligans or the Dunbars, then walk back to town. The following week, he would walk north and visit families along the way. Grimmlers, Eismans, and Runges were some of these families. An interesting note in the minute book that year states: "All collections large or small to be handed to the student, this to cover all expenses including washing." It is also noted, the total collection for the summer was under eighty dollars.

The following year, Rev. Herbert Blezard walked the many miles in service in the Field.

Rev. Einar Egillson came in 1936 and tells of the Young People's Group he formed with the help of John Hackett. His autograph book includes the names of John Hackett, James Forbes, Fred Buckley, Joe Oldham, Dorothy MacAskill and Jean Hackett.

In 1937, Rev. R.H.N. Davidson consecrated a knoll on Halls Bay, Delaronde Lake as a cemetery. This knoll overlooks the lake. Three graves are there; one is that of Doris Beeds, another Grace Beeds and the third is that of Smokey Joe.

Rev. S. Hiltz came in 1938 when times were so hard and the people had to struggle for their existence. He remembers the kindness of one lady who shared her meal of cheese, bread and tea with him and of how good it tasted.

Reverend Morgan E. Rowland arrived in 1939 and tells of the clay roads over which he rode his bicycle, rain or shine. Homesteaders were coming in to the district to try to escape the drought of the south. Most were lonely, hard pressed, but sincere, hard working folks. Huge gardens were grown to help feed the families. He remembers the beautiful garden Mrs. John Milligan grew that year. Reverend R.J. Williams and his wife spent the summer of 1940 in Big River, the first married couple to share the work of the Charge. They write that names are difficult to remember, but there is no trouble in remembering the warmth and kindness of the faithful group of wonderful people they spent the summer with.

These brief excerpts are from letters received from the student ministers serving the church here in the early days. All are now ordained ministers in churches across Canada.

The following is a list of those who have served in this Field since 1941, up to the present date: Rev. Keith Wollard, Rev. R.H. Dobson, Rev. W. Pethwick, Miss Agnus Oliver, Miss Anna Cline, W.A. Lawrence, Rev. T. Earle Millson, Rev. A. Avery, Rev. C.E. McCara, Rev. Donald Thierry, Rev. Ernest Breen, Rev. R.B. Hefflefinger (who was the first ordained minister to reside here and remain on a regular basis), Rev. David Bould who stayed in this community for seven years, Rev. Les. McSpadden, Rev. Fraser Williams, Rev. Gary Clark, Rev. Ron Clark and the present minister, Rev. James Scott. In 1967, the old church was sold and a new multi-purpose church was built on Fourth Avenue.

The Ladies Aid dates its beginning back to the early days of the Union Church. The colourful and varied activities of this energetic group of women can be followed through the years of church life. Each set of minutes records a special vote of thanks to be given to the ladies for their faithful service and support. Always willing to help, they taught Sunday School, visited, cleaned, put on concerts and festivals which added to the fellowship of all. Often small in number, their invincible spirit shines through from year to year.

Mrs. Carrie Milligan and daughter Viola.
Mrs Carrie Milligan and daughter Viola.

Some of the names listed on the Ladies Aid Roll Call include: Mrs. Oliver, Mrs. MacAskill, Mrs. Kowalyk, Mrs. Brownfield, Mrs. Gould, Mrs. J.K. Johnson, Fanny Johnson, Mrs. Thomas Maxwell, Mrs. Pearl McNabb (who will be remembered by her help at suppers and bake sales, just no one else had the special knack of making things taste so good), Mrs. Jane McInnis, who was handy with needlecrafts and often supplied most of the bazaar items herself, Mrs. Margaret Crashley, Mrs. Allan Martin and Eileen Dunn and Mrs. Carrie Milligan. Of course there were others but these are a few who helped to keep things going with their willing hands. In later years, the Ladies Aid became known as the U.C.W. or United Church Women.

The Church of England

Rev. Gordon Phillips. First Anglican minister at St. Mary's Church.
Rev. Gordon Phillips. First Anglican minister at St. Mary's Church.

Shortly after the lumber company sold the Union Church land to the Development Company, the Anglican members decided to form a church of their own. Headed by three men, John Waite, Martin B. Olson and Harry Gilbert, meetings where arranged and a decision made to purchase a building that was situated on Lot 6, Block 3. Having received one hundred dollars settlement for their share of the company's church land, they were able to invest this in the new building and to obtain title to the land.

Mrs Rhoda Johnstone, wife of the Village policeman, was a strong supporter of the new church and remembers raising money to buy the first organ by charging a small fee to all overnight guests staying at their home.

The Church was called St. Mary's. It provided a worship area in the front of the building and living quarters for the clergy at the rear. The first minister at St. Mary's was Rev. Gordon Phillips who married Bluebell Stewart, school teacher at Bodmin. Many of the early settlers remember Mr. Phillips coming to their homesteads and bush camps, travelling by horse and toboggan.

Rev. Palmer came in 1928 and Rev. R.E. Smith and his wife were here in 1929 and remained until 1932. Mr. Smith began the ministry in the Ladder Valley area and served there as well as in Big River. Mrs. Smith was active in leading youth groups and was guide leader for some years. Rev. Harold Parrott came in 1932 and more areas were added to pastoral care, Sleepy Hollow and Rapid Bend. Most travel in these days was done by horse and buggy or in the winter time by sleigh. John Waite was always good enough to stable the horse used by the clergy. Rev. Robert Jones spent some time here before returning to his native England.

During the period of 1934 to 1936, when Rev. Norman Calland was the minister, a lady in England, Mrs. Mary Covert, made money available to the Anglican Diocese to build churches in rural Saskatchewan. Both Big River and Ladder Valley were selected to receive a new church through her kind offer. St. Martin's was built on Lot 5 Block 4 in 1937 and St. Leonard's Church was built in Ladder Valley the same year. The two names chosen, Martin and Leonard, were in honour of the kind lady's two sons who had been killed during World War I. When St. Martin's was ready for use, St. Mary's was turned into a Mission Hall and was a very busy and active place, meetings, study groups and social events taking place almost every evening. The Van ladies made this their summer home and you would likely find them busy with the work of the mission field. However, there was always time for a friendly chat or a cup of tea. Many weary, rough miles were traveled by the van ladies to bring the Gospel Message to the out-of-the-way homesteads of the district.

Anglican Sunday School Mission Van and the Vold family.
Anglican Sunday School Mission Van and the Vold family.

During the war years and even after, when it was difficult to get clergymen, several Deaconesses served in Big River. Some of these were: Miss Ethel McIntyre, Ruth Yeoman, Miss Craft, Miss Budd, Miss Newton, Miss Paris, Joan Yates, Miss Neile, Doris Knight, and Constance Colpus.

Other clergy to serve at St. Martin's were: Rev. Horace Ashmore, Capt. Hague, Rev. W.R. Craven, Archdeacon W.F. Payton, Capt. Bartrum, Canon Parker, Fr. Toon and the present minister is Rev. George Honor.

Church of Christ

The first services of the Church of Christ held in Big River in 1947 were conducted by Mr. Ed. Benoit at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Roland Burt. Over the next two years enough interest was shown to warrant hiring a full time minister to lead the congregation. Mr Ralph Whitrow and his wife Leeta came in 1949 and shortly after their arrival the old Legion Hall was purchased and renovated into a church with the upstairs serving as living quarters for the Whitrows.

Any youngster growing up in Big River in these years will remember the Young People's Group led by Mrs. Olive Burt and Leeta Whitrow. Meetings were held every Tuesday after school and they were the most popular event on the calender for the children. Few missed attending and all gained something worthwhile from the patient and kindly guidance of the leaders.

After the Whitrows moved from this district in 1960, Mrs. Burt carried on this programme for many years and gained the love and respect of all who knew her for her Christian devotion and service to others. She was a friend to everyone.

The Church of Christ closed several years ago, the old building needing too much repair to keep it going.


A Shantyman is a traveling minister, from a particular religious sect, who lives a life of self-denial as he goes about the country sharing his beliefs with his fellow man.

One exceptional man who lived this type of life was Mr. Hubert Smith (now deceased). He and his wife came to the Big River district in the mid-twenties and made their home at Stoney Lake. He spent little time at home, however, as his mission was to minister to people in out-of-the-way places, such as logging camps and fishing camps. He made many visits to northern settlements throughout the years, particularly the Green Lake, Dore Lake and Smoothstone areas. His only means of travel was on foot. He would start out confidently on an eighty-five mile trip carrying the necessary items he would need for the journey. As he often had to spend the night outdoors his bedroll was his main requirement together with some food, his bible and a slide projector. In the winter he used a small hand sleigh to transport his belongings.

After he arrived at his destination, he would persuade several people to join him in an informal discussion of the Bible. He would show slides to emphasize a particular message he wanted to convey.

He was a welcome visitor to many people regardless of their religious affiliations. He was admired for his devotion to a cause he believed in.

After his death, his wife moved away, but always came back to spend part of the summer at the lake. The home and grounds were converted into a memorial Bible Camp in memory of Mr. Smith.

It remained as such until recently when the property changed hands. It is now called Big River Bible Camp. Nevertheless, this has not altered the fact that Mr. Smith lives on in the memory of those who knew him.

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