This spring marks an important milestone in our community’s history. The Willow Valley Presbyterian Church (St. Andrew’s Valley Centre) is celebrating its centennial. As such, it is one of the oldest rural churches in Central Alberta.
The origins of the Presbyterian Church in this region actually go back more than 130 years. On June 24th, 1883, Rev. A.B. Baird held the first formal church service in Central Alberta at the home of Roderick MacKenzie, one of the earliest settlers in the Red Deer area.
As a reflection of the frequent ecumenicalism of the pioneer era, while Rev. A.B. Baird was Presbyterian; Roderick MacKenzie was a devout Anglican.
Subsequent services were held at such places as the home of Sage Bannerman, the ferryman at the Red Deer Crossing and at Fort Normandeau. Generally the services were conducted by travelling missionaries and student ministers, often nicknamed ‘saddle bag preachers’ or ‘sky pilots’.
By 1887, settlement at Red Deer had grown sufficiently that the Knox College Student Missionary Society assigned William Neilly to be the first resident student missionary at the Red Deer Crossing settlement.
In early 1890s, Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican ministers established residency in the hamlet of Red Deer, which had been created on the new Calgary-Edmonton Railway. Those ministers also ventured out into the countryside to conduct missionary work and to start new congregations.
In the summer of 1893, Rev. G.D. Ireland, a Presbyterian student minister stationed in Red Deer, began holding church services in settlers’ homes in the Willowdale, Valley Centre, Edwell and Hill End districts east of Red Deer.
In 1900, in another example of ecumenical cooperation, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches agreed to separate their mission fields to reduce overlap and competition.
The Methodists withdrew from the Willowdale, Valley Centre and Hill End districts, while the Presbyterians withdrew from the Horn Hill, Springvale and Clearview areas.
By 1905, the Presbyterian Church had grown in east Central Alberta to the extent that a beautiful little church building was constructed in the Willowdale district.
The mission field was also soon extended eastwards to Hillsdown, Cumberland and Bellgrove.
In 1910, Mr. Alex Purdie donated two acres of land along the Coal Trail as a future site for a new Presbyterian Church. Rev. William Eakin, a student missionary, was assigned to the Valley Centre-Hillsdown area and also provided services to other districts to the east.
The Valley Centre Young People’s Society was created.
Fundraising also commenced for a church building. On Sunday, May 17th, 1914, St. Andrew’s Valley Centre was officially opened with Rev. W. Shearer, superintendent of missions, conducting a morning service and Rev. W.G. Brown of Red Deer conducting another service in the evening.
In 1920, the Valley Centre congregation joined the Willowdale field.
Rev. C. McKay became the minister. In 1922, Valley Centre constituted its first session with three elders being ordained.
In 1924, the manse from Cumberland was moved to Valley Centre. A small church hall was added to the back of the church building. For more than 20 years after 1932, deaconesses served Valley Centre and surrounding districts.
Improvements were made to St. Andrew’s in the 1960s and 1970s with a basement, gas furnace, electricity and plumbing being installed.
In 2005, with the many changes happening with rural churches, the congregations of Valley Centre and Willowdale were amalgamated. The congregation then became known as Willow Valley.
In 2010, the Zion (Willowdale) Presbyterian Church was closed and the building put up for sale. Services have subsequently been conducted solely at St. Andrew’s Valley Centre.
The Willow Valley Presbyterian congregation will celebrate the centennial of St. Andrew’s on Saturday, June 21st at the Valley Centre Community Centre and on Sunday, June 22nd at the Church. All are welcome to attend.