Sion. That’s a word that is not often used, at least not on the Canadian prairies. In fact I hadn’t heard of it before I visited this particular area in Alberta in 2021. I started with a search at one of those on-line dictionaries; the kind with more ads than words. It produced five results for the definition of Sion.
- (Placename) a town in SW Switzerland, capital of Valais canton, on the River Rhône. Pop: 27,171 (2000). Latin name: Sedunum
- (Ecclesiastical Terms) a variant of Zion
- (Bible) a variant of Zion
- (Judaism) a variant of Zion
- (Sociology) a variant of Zion
Conclusion; Sion probably means Zion for people who don’t like the letter Z.
Wikipedia says that there is a place called “Sion” in France, India, Switzerland, Netherlands, Czech Republic and Alberta. That’s it, or at least that’s all that Wikipedia knows about the name. Oh, Wikipedia also suggested that it could mean a computer game called “THE UNDEAD JUGGERNAUT SION”, “A war hero from a bygone era, Sion was revered in Noxus for choking the life out of a Demacian king with his bare hands—but, denied oblivion, he was resurrected to serve his empire even in death.” I dismissed that definition completely because it just doesn’t fit with my usual genre of old buildings in western Canada, although it could be a fun game.
Today my blog post will feature two Sion destinations, Sion United Church and Sion Epiphany Lutheran Church, (actually Goshen United Church will make an appearance too). Both old churches ceased to be used many years ago but they are watched over by local residents. They both have historical significance as extolled by the signs out front of each structure. Sion for this adventure (did you see what I did there?) and perhaps we’ll meet some interesting characters along the way.
I don’t want to start a stampede to Sion so I’ll just tell you that it’s northwest of Edmonton. Sion is in the middle of cottage country as it’s surrounded by well known recreation areas such as; Lac La Nonne, Nakamun Lake, Alberta Beach, and Sandy Beach.
Sion United Church
Let’s begin with a photo of this aging church. There was once a sign between those two posts but it’s gone now.
There is something unusual about this old church that those with a keen eye may have already noticed. To be honest I was on site to photograph it but I somehow completely missed this obvious, unusual feature. There is definitely something unusual about the structure pictured above and it has nothing to do with things such as the patina or boarded up windows or even the new modern looking door.
This is a log construction building. Log construction was quite common in north and especially northwest Alberta because of the abundance of trees. Why pay someone to mill your trees into lumber when you can just build with logs? Normal log construction with horizontal logs creates a strong self-locking and very solid structure. Log structures can be built with an either an axe or a saw depending on how nice you want it to look. The unusual characteristic of Sion United Church is not that it’s a log structure but that the logs are vertical like a fence or fort rather than horizontal like a log cabin. Why did they do that? The only advantage of construction with vertical logs that I can think of is that the builders didn’t have to lift the heavy logs one upon the other. Perhaps all of the builders had bad backs? If anyone out there can enlighten me on why vertical log construction was used, beyond aesthetics, please send me an email or comment below.
The sign in front of the church explains a lot about Sion (but not why the logs are vertical). There’s no need to search for a magnifying glass because I’ve transcribed it below.
The people who designed this sign likely thought it was pretty clever and, in fairness, it is. The blend of text with an old photo or drawing of the area is interesting and a popular way to make a sign grab attention and communicate in two ways. However photographs of this type of sign are very hard to read. I’ll transcribe it to make it easier to read.
“Access into the Sion area began in 1825 when the Hudson’s Bay Company established an overland route to Fort Assiniboine. A trail was built from Edmonton, through Riviere Qui Barre, past Deadman Lake, through Sion, with a stopover at Lac La Nonne. From there the trail went north through Belvedere and on to Fort Assiniboine. In 1897 this HBC trail became the first part of the Klondike Trail and was travelled by many gold seekers. The old trail crossed range road 20 several meters north of this intersection.”
“In 1898 the North West Mounted Police were set up ¾ mile west of Sion corner on the Northeast shore of Nakamun Lake in order to monitor traffic on the Klondike Trail. The original five cabins still stand as of 2011.”
“The land in the Sion area north and south of the 15th Baseline, township road 570, was surveyed in 1903 and 1904, and the homesteaders followed. They built houses and farm buildings, churches, a one-room school, a community hall, two stores, a post office and a telephone exchange at Sion.”
“From the early years right up to the 1970s, small mixed farms filled the area. Most people milked cows and relied on the weekly cream cheques to pay for day-to-day living expenses.”
“In the 1950s electric power was distributed through the area and farm machinery became more available. Electricity meant that the family didn’t have to milk cows by hand anymore and farm tractors meant that they didn’t have to make hay with a horse-drawn mower, a dump rake and hayrack.”
“The farming operations changed to a few dairy farms selling milk, some hog operations and many farms raising beef cattle.”
“In 1948 many schools in the area were moved to the new site of the Dunstable consolidate school. The children were bussed to the new school location at Dunstable and a modern school was built shortly after. This new school then became the center of a larger community.”
“In 1968 the post office was closed, and the country store that had served the local farmers also closed. In the 1970s the Ste. Anne Natural Gas Co-op Ltd. distributed natural gas throughout the area. Sion Hall and property were sold in 2006.”
That all sounds pretty impressive. Sion was a crossroads of sorts. That wasn’t enough to keep it from fading away though. The Klondike Trail has a lot of stories associated with it. Of course there are the usual stories of men trying to head north and get rich quick at the goldfields in the Yukon. Here’s one that pertains to Sion.
The old trail had its disappearances, its births and its deaths. The strange disappearance referred to, occurred when a storekeeper of Sion completely disappeared between Sion and Riviere Qui Barre. To the best of my knowledge, no trace of the body or the horse and buggy was found. No person was ever suspected of crime but it was a known fact that he was carrying a considerable amount of money with the intentions of buying a supply of groceries for the store. He was seen to leave Sion but was not seen at the Indian Agency on the Alexander Indian Reserve nor at the Riviere Qui Barre stopping place on the trail. As this happened 60 or 70 years ago chances of solving it are very dim.Busby’s busy years – page 7
Now lets take a look at what remains of Sion. The colour images that follow were taken in 2021. All colour images were taken by me unless the caption says otherwise.
The inside of the old Sion United Church was too dark to photograph because I didn’t bring my tripod or flash, but I did obtain these two images of the interior from Gloria Cathcart. They show water damage on at least one interior wall. Interestingly these images show the boards are horizonal on the inside while the outside has vertical logs. In the first image you can see a little of some old church pews.
Ray? Who’s Ray?
This blog post was supposed to be just about Sion and the two old churches that are still standing there. However my blogs often move from where they were supposed to be and include other areas as my research progresses. So before we move on to the people of Sion, I should mention that there was a place called Ray that plays an important role in this story. I think that some readers of this blog post might wonder where Ray, Alberta is. I admit that I had not heard of Ray before I started my research for this blog post and I’ve lived in Alberta ever since I was just a glint in my parents’ eyes. I searched for Ray on a map or through Google Maps but that didn’t help. Ray is not there anymore; it’s simply gone. It’s as if someone erased the buildings and the place called Ray from all maps. Ray was roughly between St. Albert and Riviere Qui Barre, northwest of Edmonton. Here’s what I learned about it.
The word “Ray” is an abbreviated form of “Glengarry”, the place in Ontario from which most of the original settlers came. Ranald MacDonald, brother of the late Sandy MacDonald, supposedly suggested the name.
The settlement began that day in August, 1891, when Big Ranald Macdonald, Angus and Miles MacMillan, father of Dan and Duncan, filed their homestead entries on three quarter sections. At the turn of the century this hamlet consisted of a hotel, a livery stable, carriage shed, a store and a post office, with the school close by.The Wheels of Time : a history of Riviere Qui Barre, page 2 and 3
The above article can be found in the Riviere Qui Barre local history book but it doesn’t say where or when it was originally published. Many old communities have faded away but usually there remains something of the former place to indicate what was once there. Rarely have they been so completely committed to oblivion as in the case of Ray. The old townsite is now just farm and acreage land and it’s now all part of Sturgeon County.
The above quote says that “Ray” is an abbreviated form of “Glengarry”. Something must be lost in the Scottish translation to make the leap from Glengarry to Ray.
The People of Sion
The local history book called The Trails Northwest: a history of the district of Barrhead Alberta, 1867-1967, contains just over three pages about Sion and those who lived there. They really can’t do Sion justice in just three pages. There are other local history books that overlap and fill in some of the information that this Barrhead book omitted.
Typically when there are restored or preserved buildings like this old church it’s either because of a connection to an interesting person or family who lived there in the early century or because a family member now wishes to keep up their history along with the old buildings. In this case I think it’s a little of both. I can definitely say that there were a lot of Scottish folks in the area at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
In this community the memorable person was James Kelly. If you lived in Sion or Ray in the early century you would probably know him as Preacher Kelly. He was a lay minister who preached in this area both before and after he became Reverend Kelly.
Although he had not attended seminary, in 1913 James Kelly received special ordination from the Presbyterian Church and then he became the Reverend James Kelly, but he was still fondly called Preacher Kelly. He served for 32 years prior to retiring in 1934 at the age of 79. He died 3 months prior to his 80th birthday.
Rev James Kelly and his wife Ellen Baird Kelly
Information about Preacher Kelly can be found in at least three local history books. It seems that he travelled to wherever he was needed. In each book the comments about this man were very favourable. James and Ellen Kelly had 12 children but they still found the time to be of service in their community in whatever capacity was required. If there was ever a man worthy of being remembered from the pioneer era in Alberta it was Preacher Kelly.
That’s not to say that he didn’t have a contrary opinion now and then. For example he was not at all in favour of his Presbyterian Church becoming part of the United Church of Canada. He wasn’t alone with that conviction given that 30% of Presbyterian Churches refused to join with the United Church. That’s why you still see Presbyterian churches in Canada to this day.
The movement to unite various denominations to form the United Church must have happened while Preacher Kelly was at the Sion Presbyterian Church because in 1921 the Kelly family moved to the Sion district, west of Independence and a church congregation and building was then established there (built on Preacher Kelly’s land). For a long time prior to that he pastored the Independence Presbyterian Church (Independence was north east of Sion between Busby and Alcomdale). In fact he had been connected with the Independence church since its inception on October 2, 1902. That’s when the first church service was held in the Independence district with James Kelly officiating. It was held in a sod roofed log house, the residence of the Richard Pickering family, across the road from what was known as the Ellett Bros. farm (page 317 of Busby’s busy years).
In the local history book Busby’s busy years, it says, at pages 317 and 318, that “In 1925 a church union became a vital issue. The church which was Presbyterian decided to join the United Church, but Mr. Kelly, who was a staunch Presbyterian required much persuasion and it was not until 1927 that the final transfer was made. The records quote that Mr. Kelly resigned from the conference in 1929. The congregation followed his lead and the church reverted to Presbyterian for a few years”.
It’s not easy to say where Preacher Kelley spent most of his time because, like many rural pastors, he split his time between churches that were a reasonable commute from home. Preacher Kelly was an itinerate minister – he served several congregations at the same time. He was associated with the Independence Presbyterian (United) Church and Goshen Presbyterian (United) Churches at the turn of the century. One local history book says that he was the pastor of Goshen 1904 – 1908 (The Wheels of Time : a history of Riviere Qui Barre- page 45). Also, at page 45 and 46, I read that the “1908 records from the Edmonton Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church state that James Kelly was in charge of Goshen, Independence, Advance, Lovelock, McInnes Camp and McMillan, as a catechist or lay preacher”. It’s hard to pin this man down to any one place because he went wherever he was needed.
The Independence Church has since burned down so I don’t have any 21st century images of it but here are images of the Goshen Church, old and new.
Below are my 2018 images of the old and new Goshen Church buildings. Goshen came into the story because Preacher Kelly spent a lot of time here including being the place of his first interment before his remains were exhumed and moved to Sion. Fortunately I photographed Goshen in 2018 so the images were readily available. As a point of interest if you are ever at Goshen you are in what was the Ray district.
Notice that there are two buildings (sort of three) at the Goshen location. The newer building above was moved from St Albert circa 1926. The original church shown above is the old church with an addition giving it a T shape (hence the sort of third building). It’s a log church – horizontal logs this time – with the addition. Reverend Kelly would have spent a lot of time in the old building and certainly would have at least seen the new building. I recently learned that Apple and Windows devices will display the images differently. As a result I can’t refer to the images as to the above right or left as you may see the opposite and get totally confused, if you aren’t already confused. Software can be our friend or foe.
These images in the circle gallery below are from a private family collection so you probably won’t see them anywhere else. They are used here with permission.
Click on any of the above circles to enlarge it and see the full image.
Each of these three images was provided by Gloria Cathcart, the great granddaughter of Preacher Kelly. The two old photos are of Rev James Kelly and his wife Ellen Baird Kelly. The top formal image was taken in 1913 at the time of his ordination by the Presbyterian Church of Canada, the other in 1932 when they were celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary. The newspaper article describes Reverend Kelly’s 30 years of service in Alberta churches. The article was also provided by Ms. Cathcart. The original source of the article is unknown but believed to be an Edmonton newspaper.
The reason I reached out to Gloria Cathcart, the great granddaughter of Preacher Kelly, is because her name kept popping up in my research. She is like a local historian when it comes to Preacher Kelly and Sion and that whole area. Gloria Kennett Cathcart has been very helpful in pointing me to where I can find more information and providing some helpful summaries. She too has deep roots in the area as the Kennett family settled just four miles east of the Sion corner in 1906. The text that follows was paraphrased from one of her emails to me.
James Kelly was born June 10, 1859 in Catrine, a little village near Sorn, Ayrshire, Scotland. He was the tenth of eleven children born to Alexander and Agnes (Gregg) Kelly. At the age of ten, James emigrated along with his mother and most of his siblings to Scotch Valley, Nemaha County, Kansas. James’ father died just days before the family was to leave Glasgow by ship.
At the age of 23 James married Ellen Baird on January 25,1882. Eleven children were born to this couple and then in 1902 they left Scotch Valley, Kansas and came to Ray, Alberta. One more child was born after they arrived at Ray. James was the minister at the Goshen Church and later became an itinerate minister (one who travels from place to place to perform one’s professional duty), and served at many points in this area.
At about 1921 the Kelly family moved to Sion, bought a farm and on the southwest corner of that land, the Sion Presbyterian Church (later United) was built with its vertical logs. As of 2013 this land still remains in the possession of a descendant of Rev. James Kelly. The Kellys celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Camp Nakamun in 1932. Rev. James Kelly died at the age of 79 at Ray, Alberta and was buried in the Goshen Cemetery there at Ray. After his wife Ellen died his remains were exhumed and buried beside Ellen’s at Sion, Alberta in the cemetery of the church where he had last served, on the land he had owned.Gloria Cathcart -Preacher Kelly’s great granddaughter
Preacher Kelly passed away in 1939 at the home of his son, William Kelly. Below are the summary details obtained from the Find-A-Grave website.
The old Sion United Church may be facing its biggest challenge yet because water is leaking through the roof and causing the walls to deteriorate. Hopefully Mrs. Cathcart’s efforts to raise funds to repair it will be successful. Upon seeing it you might think that it’s just another old building from the early century. However by scraping away the dust, and maybe now the mould, it reveals a fascinating provenance with links from Scotland to Kansas to Ray and, of course, Sion. The church is not just another old building, it is a structure with a fascinating history that links it to surrounding communities. This old building wants to tell its story and be remembered as the place where good people gathered a long time ago. It would be sad indeed if that is lost because of the cost of a roof.
Sion Epiphany Lutheran Church
Strangely, or maybe not so strange, I couldn’t find any information about this Lutheran church beyond what was printed on the sign out front of it. I’m left to conclude that German Lutherans are not as outspoken as Scottish Presbyterians. That is not an exaggeration. Many German immigrants kept a low profile due to the two world wars that occurred in the early century. The church is well cared for though, as someone has either paid for the newer metal roof or successfully petitioned the government to assist with the costs. That roof will go a long way toward preserving the church building. I have learned that local families take turns caring for the old church.
I don’t have to transcribe this sign because it’s very easy to read.
Many of the congregation of this old Lutheran church were part of the German diaspora in Poland (Find-A Grave memorial for Bertha Mittelstadt Kirchner says they were Germans from Poland). These, and many German people like them, left the farm lands granted to them by Catherine the Great after the USSR made remaining on these lands intolerable.
Similar to Sion United Church, the congregation of Sion Epiphany Lutheran Church is quiet now, but not completely silent. A memorial service is held once a year to honour those early pioneers who now reside in the adjacent graveyard. The congregation can still speak though the memories of their descendants and the words, if any, recorded in local history books.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed to blog post as much as I enjoyed writing it and assembling the photos. It took an unexpected twist from just showing images of two old church buildings to writing about an extraordinary man. That’s because I discovered one of the stories behind the place. Every place has a story, the hard part is discovering what it is.
- Busby’s busy years, 1989, Busby History Book Committee.
- The Wheels of Time: a history of Riviere Qui Barre, 1978, Rev. Walter P. Fitzgerald.
- The Trails Northwest: a history of the district of Barrhead Alberta, 1867-1967, 1967, Barrhead and District Historical Society.
- Gloria Cathcart, Great granddaughter of Rev. James Kelly (Preacher Kelly).
- Find-A-Grave website: Sion Lutheran Cemetery in Sion, Alberta – Find A Grave Cemetery
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.