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St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church Historic Site

This blog post features a 1914 two-storey log church. The church was the result of the efforts of two Catholic Priests, Father Giroux and Father Falher. They were tasked by their Bishop to recruit French Catholic farmers from Quebec and the New England states to follow them to the Peace River region of Alberta, the last great western frontier .

Before we begin, let’s get oriented. This historic site is located 425 kilometers northwest from downtown Edmonton. There are a number of French communities nearby. Here is a list some of those communities with the corresponding official Province of Alberta 2021 populations for each one. There are other French communities in the Peace River area such as Guy, Normandville, Jean Cote, and others but they are not part of this story.

  • Girouxville – population – 248.
  • Falher – population – 1,114.
  • Donnelly – population – 327.
  • McLennen – population – 637.

The Problem and the Journey

The quote below describes the early century problem from the point of view of Bishop Grouard.

The English were beginning to publicize and to recruit settlers of their own nationality, mainly of the protestant faith, to this area. Seeing this, Bishop Grouard and the Grouard priests decided to establish a French-Canadian colony of Catholic faith to stabilize the missionary church that had already been opened for quite a number of years. Father Falher was assigned the task of surveying the region carefully to ensure whether or not a colonizing movement would be feasible. Father Falher’s report proved satisfactory, so, in 1911, Father Giroux OMI obtained from the Dominion Government the official title of Immigration Agent.

Father Giroux temporarily took up headquarters in Montreal for the purposes of recruiting settlers to the “Promised Land.”

They Came, They Saw, They Lived. Page 2

Much has been said about the promotional efforts of the Canadian government to encourage immigration to the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The government agents and their published material were known to exaggerate the positives such as the extensive expanses of free land for homesteading while omitting most or all of the negatives such as the complete lack of any infrastructure or that a climate that was much colder and harsher than most of the prospective settlers had ever experienced. Perhaps that is the nature of marketing. Father Giroux didn’t lie to the potential pioneers, but he was not above using carefully selected words to make the honey seem a bit sweeter than it really was. When asked, “Is Alberta’s climate more favorable than Quebec’s?” His response was:

The climate is very healthful. In summer the days are warm and the nights cool. Fall and spring are very agreeable, and the winters are pleasant and wholesome, but sometimes the temperature falls quite low.” Having lived in Alberta all of my life, I have to agree with Father Giroux that sometimes the temperature does “fall quite low“. Often it does so between November and April! I’m not sure that I would call our winters “pleasant and wholesome” even though I used to ski and snowshoe quite regularly. Accurate or not, Father Giroux convinced 14 men and their families to follow him to Alberta where they would start new lives as settlers.

Falher

Both priests accompanied the 14 men and their families in the initial group who departed from Edmonton in May of 1912, on their journey to the area we now call Falher. Their first major stop was at Athabasca, which is about 150 kilometers north of Edmonton, where they were joined by three more men who we’ll read more about below. When they arrived in the area where they could homestead, Father Falher said that they should build a cross and give the place a name. Father Giroux suggested they call the place Falher, and the idea was accepted unanimously. That was how the community of Falher came to be. I’ve found the name “Father Falher” difficult to say in English without it sounding like “Father Father”. Even as I type this blog out on my computer, I’ve had to go back several times to correct “Father Father” and replace it with “Father Falher”. It’s much easier to say if Falher is pronounced the the French way as the locals do without sounding the letter “r”. This man was a priest named Constant Falher who was from France so he would have been known as Père Falher, which doesn’t seem odd or difficult to say at all. According to the book, Place Names in Alberta, Father Constant Falher, a Roman Catholic Oblate missionary was born in Brittany in 1863, so at the time of this journey he would have been about 49 years of age.

The Church Site

The land on which the church now stands was originally the homestead of Alfred Pilon Senior, who filed in June 1912. Pilon’s 18 year old son, Alfred Jr, filed for the adjacent quarter section of land, but neither of the Pilons completed the requirements to prove up their homesteads on those locations. Alfred Pilon may have continued on further west because, according to the book, They Came, They Saw, They Lived, he was one of the three men or families who joined the group of 14, led by Father Giroux and Falher, in Athabasca. It goes on to say that “in Athabasca, they were joined by three gentlemen, Mr. Forgues, Mr. Pilon, and Mr. Gariepy, whose intentions were to continue from Grouard to Dunvegan”. It is probable that the two Pilons filed their claims in Falher solely to hold the land in case they didn’t find anything better further west. When Alfred Pilon and his son didn’t return, the land became available for anyone else. In 1913, Father Jean Dreau filed to homestead on that same quarter section. It wasn’t until 1917 that Father Dreau became the owner of the land even though the church had already been constructed there. This was likely a formality to prevent anyone else from claiming the land for themselves.

At the church site there is a sign with a brief description of the church’s construction. Rather than try to read this weather worn sign that is attached to an inside wall of the church, read the transcribed text below it.

This note has become quite wrinkled from moisture in the church. See below for the transcribed text.

St- Jean-Baptiste First Church
During the winter 1913-14, the men prepared the logs for the construction of the church. Like the first house-church, the proposed one measured 20 feet by 25, but it included above the first floor which served as a church, a second storey where the priest could live and even an attic under the roof. The church was built in squared logs, which had been angle grooved with a perfect finish and with cut dovetail joints, and the roof was covered in shingles. An exterior staircase enabled one to reach the priest’s apartment.
In June 1914, the St-Jean-Baptiste settlers and parishioners were very proud of their elegant house-chapel with its solemn staircase and its charming bell-tower.
Today this church is still on the original site south of Falher and is preserved as a historical site by the St-Jean-Baptiste Historical Society in co-operation with the Alberta Government.

Note attached to The Wall of the Church’s Interior
A very old photograph of this church. The date is believed to be 1916.

In some places this old church is referred to as the first church. This is because after St- Jean-Baptiste was constructed the railway had changed its route for the new line which resulted in Falher being established one township further north. One township is still close enough to commute even by 1913 standards so St- Jean-Baptiste Catholic Church was still used but the Town of Falher became established a short distance away to be next to the railway. Eventually a church was built right in Falher, and it would be referred to as the second church.

Fire and Water

I found a couple of interesting stories related to the nearby communities. The McLennan story isn’t really connected except that it pertains to the same general area and time period as well as it being from the same local history book. The Donnelly story has a direct connection to St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church

McLennan

This story describes how the town of McLennan came to be. If the story is accurate, it seems that McLennan owes its existence to an act of fraud. Fraud or not, McLennan is the second largest of the communities listed in the introduction to this blog post.

“An old pioneer from the Peace River Region, Mr. Hughie Hunter, had been employed by the Edmonton Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway to obtain a sample of water from Kiniwam Lake, since McLennan would become the divisional point where a station would be built if the water proved suitable for steam locomotives. Mr. Hunter made the journey to McLennan by car, and left Kiniwam Lake with his reservoirs (water containers) full of water.”

“However, the old trails did not easily accommodate a car, and when Mr. Hunter arrived in Grouard, he found that his containers were all empty. This didn’t faze him in the least. He got on the Northern Light (a paddle wheel boat), and when he reached Lesser Slave Lake, he leaned nonchalantly over the side railing, and filled his containers with water from that lake. This water was later analysed in Edmonton, and it proved to be quite suitable for locomotives. The divisional point was established in McLennan, and it was only after the railroad had been constructed that the mistake was discovered. Because of this, water had to be transported from Lesser Slave Lake to McLennan during all the years that steam engines were in use.”

They Came, They Saw, They Lived. Page 11

Donnelly

The town of Donnelly is only 8 kilometers from Falher so it should come as no surprise that there existed some degree of competition between the two communities. This is the sort of competition that likely exists wherever two towns are located very close together. Most townsfolk knew that eventually one community would thrive at the expense of the other, so they naturally wanted their town to be the one that grew and became the centre for business, residential and religious activity. Occasionally such rivalries can get out of hand and that may have occurred with Falher and Donnelly. Falher was the older and more established community and Donnelly the younger upstart.

The inhabitants of Donnelly had to go to Falher every Sunday to attend mass. For this reason, the settlers asked Bishop Grouard permission to build a chapel where they could pray for those who were gone to war. Bishop Grouard granted them permission and also promised them that the priest from Falher would come celebrate mass once a month.

Full of enthusiasm, the Donnelly settlers built a church instead of a small chapel. This caused many repercussions and much jealousy between the inhabitants of Falher and Donnelly. Falher wanted to remain the main centre, and the fact that a church had been built in Donnelly represented the beginning of a division of the colony.

One night, a misfortune vaguely foreseen by Bishop Grouard occurred. The Donnelly church, sprinkled with a flammable material burnt to the ground. It was a dark night, on Tuesday, October 17, 1922. A man on horseback, supposedly seen fleeing towards the west, was suspected as being the author of the fire.

In Falher, it was feared that the church would be submitted to the same fate as that of the Donnelly church, so a guard was hired to keep watch over the church at night. After a while, this fear disappeared, and order was finally restored.

In a letter dated November 16, 1922, Bishop Grouard announced to the parishioners of Donnelly that he was sending them Father José as their priest. Thus, Donnelly was officially founded as a parish.

They Came, They Saw, They Lived. Page 13

It is something of a coincidence that I read about this fire in Donnelly and as recently as this past October I wrote about the sad history of the “Roxborough Ruins” in Saskatchewan. If you want to discover what the connection is between Roxborough and Donnelly, you’ll just have to click here to read that blog post but wait until after you’ve finished reading this post.

The Church Building

Regardless of what happened in Donnelly, I’m glad that the Falher church is still standing. While it is simple in design, there is something quite striking about it. Perhaps it’s that outside staircase that leads to the priest’s residence (the church was on the main level) or maybe it’s just that this is such a fine log structure, with dovetailed joints and good workmanship throughout. Have a look at my photos of the old church and see if you agree that there is something distinctive about it. Log structures were quite common in the Peace River area, but two-storey log structures are rare. If you count the attic, this is actually a three-storey structure. Log structures are fairly straightforward to construct as long as there are lots of trees nearby, but they do get progressively more difficult the higher up they go. After each log is put in place the one that follows has to be lifted a little bit higher and that is why most log structures are not tall buildings, at least not log structures built before mechanical cranes were used to lift the logs.

Viewing the church was a pleasure because it lacked the vandalism that can often be found when a building is empty and in a remote location. Somehow though, birds still found their way inside and they did what birds tend to do. If you visit this church, watch your step and leave your Sunday best shoes at home.

My Images

The church faces south so this shows the south and west sides
The south and east sides.
There are five windows on the west side but only one on the north facing wall.

Below the cross is a small bell tower. The upstairs is the priest’s accommodation.

That staircase looks shockingly out of place on this log building, but it is an original feature. Off in the distant horizon, among the trees, is the cemetery. There’s a bird on the roof that you can see in the above image to the left. That bird has a guilty look to it so it’s probably responsible for the messy floor inside, especially on the second floor.

The door below the interior stairs to the attic is odd as it doesn’t completely cover the window (above right). The door opening is also narrower below the stairs than above the stairs. I don’t know why it was built that way as this seems to defeat the purpose of the door that doesn’t cover the full opening.

Upon returning home and examining the images from my camera I was probably as surprised as you are that there were so few images of the interior. There wasn’t much to see inside other than that narrow staircase that leads to the attic.

The priest could see the parishioners arriving from quite a distance away.
St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church Historic Site viewed from the cemetery

The Cemetery

There exists only one marker in the graveyard, and it was not legible. All of the other graves are in this area surrounded by trees, but they’re no longer marked as to the exact location. The large number of deaths in 1919 (and late 1918) are strong indicators of devastating effects of the Spanish Flu epidemic. Most rural prairie cemeteries contain a large number of burials in the years 1918 to 1920 with 1919 typically being the worst year.

St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church Historic Site

Wrap-up

Father Giroux travelled from the Lesser Slave Lake area to Montreal and then back again where he met up with Father Falher to begin the slow journey north with a number of settlers. Many of the descendants of those early settlers still live in this area. Most of the old buildings are gone but fortunately this historic site is still standing and is open to the public.

Citations:

  • They Came, They Saw, They Lived. 1973. Loiselle, Lorraine; Gagnon, Joanne; Laberge, Myriam, Publisher not stated. Digital version – UofC Digital Resources.
  • Heritage Resources Management Information System (HeRMIS) https://hermis.alberta.ca/ARHP/Details.aspx?DeptID=1&ObjectID=4665-0970
  • Place Names of Alberta. Volume IV. Northern Alberta. Aubrey, Merrily K. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press. Digital version – UofC Digital Resources.
  • Province of Alberta website – 2021 populations of the communities cited in this post.
St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church Historic Site
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11 thoughts on “St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church Historic Site

  1. Thanks for this educational post of my old stomping grounds Glen. I lived in Falher and worked in McLennan in 1972/73. I made the 20.5 km commute 5 days a week. For my first month on the job, I lived in the McLennan Hotel in a room for $6/night and got to listen to the NAR shunting engine running all night long. Hard to believe that a village the size of McLennan has a Cathedral and Falher has a mere church. It was an interesting posting. Loved the story about the water shenanigans. There were a lot of characters up there. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Allan. There certainly were a lot of characters up in that area and here back in those days. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the Falher church.

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  2. Wow! Another amazing find! I especially loved the priest’s claims of the weather: “The climate is very healthful. In summer the days are warm and the nights cool. Fall and spring are very agreeable, and the winters are pleasant and wholesome, but sometimes the temperature falls quite low.” I wonder how many people prayed for his demise upon experiencing their first winter. 😉
    The cemetery cenotaph is so sad – lots of babies and young children.
    Thanks for sharing the pics and history, Glen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I had to laugh at those comments about our healthful weather too. I’ve usually had enough of the healthful stuff by mid-December.

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  3. Lucille Bussiere January 22, 2023 — 6:19 pm

    If you want to read more about the history of FALHER we have the four volume history book, titled The Land of Wheat and Honey for sale.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Who are you referring to as “we”? Does it contain important information about this church that is missing from the blog post?

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      1. We as the FALHER History Book Committee. They are on sale for $ 80.00 for the four volumes. The first volume contain the history of the St Jean Baptist church , the arrival of the first pioneers, schools, sports and businesses.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it interesting that with all of the available open space the settlers decided to build up rather than out. It must have been difficult to raise this logs to that height. Odd that they built such a substantial staircase outside for the purpose of one mans use. Perhaps it was so he could make a grand entrance…
    Also from your opening statements it sounds like there was a war of sorts between the English (Protestants) and the French (Catholics) as to who could claim the land first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No not a war, but the usual desire of each group to see that their church prospers and is not dominated by the other denomination. They were bringing their European values to the new world. Thanks for reading the blog Hugh and for commenting.

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  5. Bernard J. Boutin January 30, 2023 — 11:17 am

    A very interesting Blog and so nicely created as per usual. You make our local history so much fun. It really is a lovely building and in such great shape, at least on the outside.

    Marketing, it was popular even way back then eh? Not lying, just not telling the who truth I suppose. I thought the bit about the lake water samples was hilarious. the guy probably thought, well what is the difference, it is just water.

    The bit about the arson really surprised me. Church going folk burning down other churches…amazing what competition can do to people.

    Reading the ages of the people in the cemetery, was quite sad with so many youngsters perishing.

    Pretty interesting stuff Glen, and some wonderful shots to illustrate this historical landmark structure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Bernard. I’m pleased to read that you enjoyed this post. I got a laugh as well out of the water samples switch but I doubt that the railroad found it as funny was we did.

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