McDougall church connects to broader Alberta story
As a warm wind rattles leaves in a nearby stand of aspens, the little white church with its distinctive bell tower glows in the late morning sun cutting a lonely, but welcoming figure, standing alone as it does in a broad sun-baked field east of Morley.
When McDougall Memorial United Church was built in 1875 at Morleyville, west of Cochrane, it stood as the centre of a thriving community of well over 200 people – the first pioneer settlement in southern Alberta.
Even though it is the last vestige of Morleyville, the church connects the Bow Valley region to a larger 150-year-old legacy that began when the McDougall family first arrived in what would become Alberta in 1860 to open the Victoria Mission northeast of Fort Edmonton.
The Canada Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church appointed George McDougall as chairman of the northwestern missionary district in 1860 and immediately, George and his eldest son, John, who would become a prominent Alberta missionary and politician, travelled west to investigate the land and meet the aboriginal people within the district.
While they certainly weren’t the first missionaries in the West, they, along with Father Albert Lacombe, would become the most influential, arriving at a transitory time in the history of Western Canada that saw the end of the fur trade and the bison, the arrival of white settlers, the signing of treaties between the West’s First Nations and the Crown and the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
And through all of that, the McDougalls, known for their great character and deep faith, remained one of the few advocates for aboriginal people
“They were very tenacious people; they had very, very deep beliefs in God and in the value of people being made by God and everybody was valued and cherished,” said Ross Stromberg, program coordinator for Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic site where the McDougalls settled before coming south. “They believed very much, not so much in charity, but in compassion and caring.”
Their work, Stromberg said, went beyond religion. The McDougalls tried to prepare First Nations people for the coming change and advocate for their well being.
“What it is that shaped what they did is the methodism and their deep faith,” Stromberg said, adding the extent of their involvement was shaped by who they were.
When the McDougalls came to the Bow River region in 1873 to work with the people of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and the Siksika (Blackfoot), they brought those same attitudes.
George sent his son, John, who learned to speak Ojibway as a boy, south in 1873 to establish a mission along the Bow River. Named Morleyville, this mission was first located on a rise of land near a small lake north of the flats along the Bow River. They relocated the mission to its current location the following spring, building McDougall Memorial Church in 1875. The North West Mounted Police built Fort Calgary at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers that same year.
The McDougall church is the first building in Alberta constructed in the carpenter’s gothic style and is still standing on its original site.
In a letter written by George on May 28, 1873 and held in the Glenbow Archives, the McDougalls stated they gazed upon the site along the Bow River, near both a traditional camping spot and a natural ford in the river, “with admiration and wonder. Within three miles stood a grand old mountain, the wild goat and sheep sporting on its highest summit. At the foot of the hill, and in perfect ignorance of our presence, a band of buffalo were feeding on the richest pasture. To the right of us, and on the north bank of the river, lay the location which we have selected for our new mission.”
With its ford, this site was a natural crossroads for people travelling in all four directions, with the Rocky Mountains to the west and the open prairies to the east.
A nearby archeological dig excavated by Bison Historical Services of Calgary showed many different people have used the Morleyville site for thousands of years, leaving everything from stone tools to a Civil War-era brass button from the U.S.
George and John, along with Andrew Sibbald, a carpenter and teacher, built the log church by hand from local timber, whipsawing boards for the floor and ceiling, which still show saw marks.
Once Sibbald opened a small sawmill along the north bank of the river in 1900, they covered the logs with vertical board-and-batten siding and added the steeple with a bell donated by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
When a new church opened at the Indian Agency west of Morleyville in 1921, the McDougall church was abandoned. It remained neglected until the 1950s when volunteers with the United Church formed the Morley Church Restoration Society. The volunteers replaced the roof and the broken windows. They also refinished the interior and exterior.
In 1952, upon completion of their work, the church was declared a provincial historic resource and the society held a service at the church in spring and again in fall, a tradition that continues today with services on the second Sunday of June and September.
An increasing number of weddings are held there and it has appeared in movies like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Even though the church sat unused for more than 30 years, a number of original fixtures remain, including the altar and confirmation rail, along with the large pot-bellied stove that stands in the centre of the church just beneath the edge of the original balcony and its rows of benches.
The fescue grasslands surrounding the church and the original Morleyville site are resplendent with native plants, including old man’s whiskers, a reddish-pink flower that grows in tight clumps, and stands of aspen.
In fact, the majority of the nearly 50 acres surrounding the church, owned and maintained by the McDougall Stoney Mission Society, were never broken and the sod is as it was when the McDougalls first arrived, making the land environmentally, and historically, important.
Ann and Gerald McDougall, George’s great-great grandson, continue what has become a family tradition, ensuring the church remains viable and intact and a treasured part of Alberta history.
“I’ve always been interested in history, I don’t know where it came from, but probably from my mother and father,” Gerald said. “They had two boys and we were very poor as a family in those days in the ’30s. We were terribly poor, but we lived with that and everything they could give my brother, they did,” Gerald said.
“And I think (George) was like that too, he was really good to the family and he wanted all of his boys to understand that, to help those Indian peoples, and be good people.”
McDougall Church remains the oldest building in the Bow Valley today, linking the history of this region to broader story of Alberta through one of the province’s first pioneering families.
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