Notre Dame de Savoie is one of the first old churches that I photographed. I stopped to capture its image before I even discovered that old structures on the prairies would eventually become my favourite subject for photography. Since then I’ve sought out and captured thousands of old churches, schools, barns and other such places. Notre Dame de Savoie remains a special place to return to again and again. This is also a very popular church for others to photograph, although being nearly surrounded by an active coal mine can make this little church hard to find. Perhaps that is why it’s experienced less vandalism than some old churches I’ve seen. The French church on the side of an Alberta dirt road has stood in this spot for many years.
I thought that rather than just showing you what it looks like in 2020, I would show the transition from how it looked many years ago. Of course readers of my blogs expect a little history so let’s begin with the story of how this church came to be.
It all began in 1904, the year that Father Ferroux and his nephew, Michael Ferroux left Savoie, France, for the Big Knife area of Alberta to homestead. I don’t know why a Catholic Priest would be homesteading but likely he planned to build a church on his land once it was proved up through homesteading. Father Ferroux encouraged others to join him in this adventure, and many left their native France for the new world. The settlement would be locally known as Notre Dame de Savoie and it soon had a post office which added an official and permanent feel. In 1908 Father Louis La Conte of Rome joined the other settlers here to instigate the construction of two churches, Notre Dame de Savoie and also St Joseph’s Church in Halkirk.
Some might say it was a miracle that this church was built at all. This is because in addition to all the other hardships of the time, they faced a significant language barrier. The construction foreman was Italian, the workers were from France or Scotland and spoke French or English respectively. None of the workers were bilingual. The builders overcame the communication problem with the help of a young girl named Fetaz. I have no idea how she learned to speak three languages or how old she was. Early records indicate that two of the area settlers were Frank Fetaz and Jacque Fetaz so the multi-lingual girl was likely a woman and wife to one of those two men. There was also a Juliette Fetaz who taught at the local Apremont School in 1943 (the school was closed in 1953 and moved to the Westwoods Community Recreation Society to be added to the back of their building). The critical role that Ms Fetaz played in the construction of the church has only a one line mention in the local history books.
The church is known to those who have visited it as Notre Dame de Savoie but back in the day, it was also more formally called “Church of the Notre Dame de Savoie of Tinchebray” according to a brief comment in the book called “In the Bend of the Battle, A History of Alliance and District”.
Father Ferrouz, who was among the first to arrive in this area, departed for British Columbia in 1908, before construction of the church was completed. He rented his land to Mons. Leon Thibault who became the post master for Notre Dame de Savoie (Apremont Post Office) from 1908 to 1915.
1964 was likely the last year that Notre Dame de Savoie was in regular use because a new church was built a few kilometres west. The old church is now nearly surrounded by the coal mine that fuels the power plant. The mine was prohibited from taking coal from where the cemetery is located, kitty-corner to the church, which cuts into their mining lease.
I explained above about the girl who helped translate for the builders of the church; her last name was Fetaz. She had a critical role in the construction of the church as it prevented a Tower of Babel situation where the builders could not understand each other. A woman related to that girl read read this blog post and commented below. This is a wonderful example of the past reaching out to the present and shows that the walls of old buildings really can talk if the right people can be found. With Yvonne’s permission I have copied her comment and placed it in the next paragraph as a quote.
I am a daughter of Colette Fetaz and will show her your post. I never had the chance to attend mass in the old church as I was born after it closed. But I remember as a little girl and into my teenage years, driving the half mile south with buckets of water, soap, and other cleaning supplies to clean the church every summer. After vandalism started we no longer continued this. The windows were broken and my dad covered them with plywood, pews were stolen, the alter smashed. My dad locked the church, but eventually the door was kicked in. The old church is now home to just the pigeons, cooing their own hymns. Thanks for preserving our old church through your camera lens and for these beautiful pictures on your blog.Yvonne Roland (see her response in comments section)
The photographer of the exterior image below is unknown. The photo is from the private collection of Adele Cordell. Adele was told that the photo was take in 1927. It’s a wonderful image of the completed church, still quite new, surrounded by parishioners and a few cars of the period. Click on the two images below to enlarge.
This superb interior photo of Notre Dame De Savoie was also provided by Adele Cordel (photographer unknown). It’s probably the best existing interior photo of the old church from when it was the new church. Anyone who has seen the old church has wondered, at one time or another, how so many people could gather in such a small building. Now we can all see that with some careful placement of the furnishings this little church can hold a lot of people. There are reports of either 7 or 5 pews on each side of the church with each seating approximately 4 people (so possibly around 56 maximum). Here are some comments directly from Adele:
We are so fortunate to have these photos so we can actually see what it was like. The Halkirk article mentions the items that were donated by parishioners eg. the altar linens, chalices, candle holders, the altar (donated by the lady from Toronto). And you can see the curtained confessional area (on the left). And there’s a communion rail in front where parishioners would kneel to receive the communion host.
According to my dad, the organ was located in the back of the church, on the left. On the right was a pot belly stove. My older sister Michele recently recalled the heat from the stove and said on one occasion when our family went to Mass in the winter, she sat next to the church wall and found it very cold. More than likely there was no insulation.Adele Cordell
2009 is approximately 100 years after the church was built. If the windows were not now covered with wood, the old church would look quite similar to how it appeared in those early days. Look below and notice how straight the roof line is. The steeple might be missing some slats of wood but it’s still straight. The shady side of the building might even have some white paint on it. Most wood frame buildings will last a long time but when decay eventually sets in the changes seem to accelerate. Soon every year will show some new twist or bend to this humble little church on the prairie.
Ten years have now passed from my first photos of the church. The walls are twisted and the roof has the look of a saddle (inspired perhaps by Calgary’s Saddledome?). The vibrations from the heavy machinery at the nearby coal mine can’t be good for this old structure. There’s not much to see inside and it’s definitely not safe to go in there. The old church has lasted a long time but the end is near.
2020 is an anniversary of sorts. Notre Dame de Savoie was used as a church for 56 years and has stood abandoned for 56 years. Actually I don’t know what it was used for when it was replaced in 1964 but there’s no mention of it in any books I researched so I’ll assume for the sake of simplicity that it was abandoned in favour of the new church. Likely it had some use for the occasional funeral as the cemetery is so close.
The photos from the summer of 2020 are the result of a search for a school. I didn’t plan to photograph Notre dame de Savoi that day but by chance I was there and why pass up on an opportunity? Only one year passed since the capture of the 2019 images but notice that there used to be a steeple on the roof which is gone in 2020? What will it look like in 2021?
My dad always laughed when he looked at a photo and remembered the times an old (slightly deaf) parishioner would go to confession behind the blue confessional curtain in the corner at the front of the church. The other parishioners would try to ignore this individual’s LOUD profession of “sins” to the priest.Adele Cordell
Images of the general area
There is a delightful provincial park on the other side of the coal mine from where the church stands. It’s a park with land features and cacti that are normally associated with the badlands of the Drumheller area to the south.
In the book, In the Bend of the Battle, A History of Alliance and District, there is a section that deals with the practicalities of homesteading in this area. It was surprisingly frank about certain known facts including who would make a good homesteader. The book states that “the Government had some sound advice for the persons considering coming west.” “A man accustomed to farming in Canada or United States, might bring his family with him. A man from Great Britain would probably do better to bring them later.” This is not the first place that I’ve read that the British were not well suited to homesteading on the prairie. It must be true as a former British colony would not likely say such a thing unless they wanted to caution homesteaders about the potential risks to their families..
- In the Bend of the Battle, A History of Alliance and District, 1976, The Alliance Lions Club.
- From the Big Knife to the Battle, Gadsby and Area, 1979, Gadsby Pioneers Association.
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.