For many rural districts, the two key community centres were the local school and the local church.
In several instances, both activities occurred in the same building, as the schoolhouse was used for church services.
However, in more established communities, the local congregations built their own places of worship. One of the oldest of the pioneer churches in the Red Deer area is the Anglican’s St. Paul’s Hillsdown, which was constructed 100 years ago in 1911.
The history of the congregation actually goes back to the turn of the last century. In April 1899, the new rector from St. Luke’s Church in Red Deer, Canon Joshua Hinchliffe, travelled to the home of Robin and Sybil Fiske to conduct a service of Holy Communion.
A meeting was subsequently held to organize a parish. Bishop Cyprian Pinkham agreed to the settlers’ request and Anglican Parish of St. Paul’s Hillsdown was officially created.
The Federal Government assisted by providing 40 acres of land to the parish. Work then began on a church made primarily of logs. Because the local trails were in very bad shape, the lumber for the roof and floor had to be rafted down the Red Deer River. A keg of nails was lost when the raft hit one of the rapids.
The new little church as completed in the spring of 1905.
The first service was held on July 2, 1905 with 17 people in attendance. On Sept. 24, 1905, Bishop Pinkham formally consecrated the church and adjoining churchyard, which was to be used as the local cemetery.
Canon Hinchliffe became the minister, travelling the 26 km. distance out from Red Deer once or twice a month, using a buggy or sleigh. His two black horses, which had been gifted to him while he was a missionary with the Peigan First Nation, were named Sam and Satan.
Ministerial work is almost never lucrative. Despite all the challenges in providing services at St. Paul’s Hillsdown, Canon Hinchliffe was given a stipend of only $50 per year. However, in the cash-short pioneer years, this would have been all that the parishioners would have been able to afford.
Disaster struck on April 17, 1910 when a large prairie fire destroyed the church and many of the nearby settlers’ homes. Fortunately, one of the parishioners was able to save the alter cloth, which is still in use today.
The congregation was also able to salvage a few of the furnishings.
Work began in the fall of 1910 on a new frame church building. However, funds were particularly short in the community in the aftermath of the big fire. Hence, Clement Brock raised much of the needed funds in England. James Edge-Partington undertook to collect enough money overseas to buy a new organ.
The new church was completed in the fall of 1911.
The first service was conducted on October 1, 1911 with Canon A.D. Currie of Holy Trinity Church, Pine Lake, officiating. Bishop Pinkham consecrated the new building the following Sunday.
While St. Paul’s Hillsdown has never been a large church, it has been the scene of a tremendous number of Sunday services, baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. The traditional Christmas service continues to attract people from across the region who enjoy the rustic nature of the church with its pump organ, gas lanterns and pot-bellied stove.
The closely-knit congregation of St. Paul’s has enjoyed many socials over the decades, with the annual summer picnic at the nearby Harold and Ada Fox farm being one of the most popular events for a great many years.
As the decades have past by, the churchyard adjoining St. Paul’s has become the final resting place for many of the district’s pioneers and long time residents. The little cemetery also provides a reminder of the many generations who have called St. Paul’s their religious home.
On Sunday, July 17 at 2 p.m., St. Paul’s Hillsdown will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the beautiful little church in the countryside.