This year marks the 125 anniversary of the formation of the first three religious congregations in Red Deer. They are the Presbyterian, Methodist (United Church), and Anglican, all of which were formed in the spring and summer of 1887.
The Presbyterian Church has very deep roots in Central Alberta. Rev. A,B. Baird, a Presbyterian missionary, conducted the very first formal church service in the fledgling settlement of Red Deer in 1883. Interestingly, the service was conducted in the home of Roderick MacKenzie, a former resident of the Red River Colony in Manitoba and a staunch Anglican.
Rev. Baird continued his missionary work in the area, although he remained based in Edmonton. This meant a lot of arduous travel by horseback over rough pioneer trails. Baird’s hard work was much appreciated by people of all denominations. He earned the popular nickname of ‘the saddle bag preacher’.
By 1887, the settlement at the all weather ford across the Red Deer River (widely called the Crossing) had grown to the extent that the Knox College Missionary Society decided to assign William Neilly to be the resident Presbyterian missionary there.
Neilly was a native of Ontario and a theological student of Knox College. He also had experience teaching school in West Gwillinbury Township in Simcoe County, north of Toronto.
Sage Bannerman, the operator of the ferry across the Red Deer River and a steadfast Scottish Presbyterian, provided Neilly with a small log shack near the ford on the edge of the river. While it has not been clearly recorded, this was probably the trapper’s shack built by Addison McPherson in 1869 or 1872, when he became the first non-native to live at Red Deer.
Neilly not only used this crude structure as his residence. He also used it as Red Deer’s first schoolhouse. The nature of the school is somewhat unclear. In some reports it was called a mission school, while in others it was stated that Neilly conducted regular classes five days a week. It was also reported that there were 21 pupils on the register, although there were nowhere near that number of children in the community.
Neilly conducted two church services every Sunday. Many of these were conducted at Fort Normandeau, located at the Crossing settlement. While most everyone in the community turned out, some of the police stationed at the Fort decided not to join in. It was later written that they would watch the proceedings through the access door to the upper floor barracks.
Conditions were primitive. Despite the small nucleus of a settlement, Red Deer remained quite isolated. Neilly wrote to complain to his superior, Rev. James Robertson that he arrived with only two cents to his name. A few weeks later, however, he wrote that he still had the two pennies because he had not found a place to spend them.
Although the work had been challenging, Neilly generally found his time at Red Deer to be enjoyable. In particular, he found the local settlers to be warm and friendly. They made very sure that he was always well fed.
By the end of his assignment in the fall of 1887, Neilly claimed to have 20 Presbyterian families in the district out of a total population of some 60 families. He also reported that up to 100 people had turned up for some of his services. Neilly was able to collect $63 from the locals in offerings, which offset the total cost of his posting to Red Deer of $370.50
Neilly returned to Toronto at the end of September. Later, he was assigned to Northern Ontario at Schreiber. On Nov. 10, 1891, tragedy struck while Neilly was making his way in a canoe across Lake Superior from Steele River to Jackfish. A storm struck and Neilly was drowned. His loss was sincerely lamented throughout the Presbyterian and missionary communities.