There’s plenty to see around the Big Valley region, but one unassuming bright blue structure perched on a hill may very well be one of the biggest highlights.
St. Edmund’s Anglican Church, which was built in 1916, is also a provincial heritage site.
“At that time, there were no churches in the valley at all,” explained Sue Boswell of the Big Valley Historical Society of the church’s beginnings.
“This was the first one,” she said, adding that the first service was held in the spring of 1917. The church’s first wedding took place on June 17th of that year as well.
“People used to hold services in their own homes.” For a time, services were also held in Backstrom’s Hardware Store.
According to the Village’s web site, in late 1914, the Anglican Diocese of Calgary received a letter and the sum of $500 from Mrs. Caroline Leffler, an English lady, who raised the money by knitting and selling children’s clothing.
“The letter indicated her wish that the money be used to establish a Church of England anywhere in western Canada that the Diocese saw fit.”
At that time, Big Valley was booming with a brisk and flourishing economy.
“It was a well-established ranching community, an important divisional point on the Canadian Northern Railway and a prosperous coal mining center.”
So the Diocese naturally saw the community as the ideal location to construct a new church. “They chose a site on top of the valley edge overlooking Main Street and contacted a local craftsman, Mr. Walter Dennis, to build it.”
Unfortunately, after many busy years of service to the community, the church gradually saw less use. The last regular service was held on Dec. 11th, 1966.
After this, signs of neglect began to show. “It stayed empty – with nothing done to it – for at least 10 years,” said Boswell. “You can imagine the wear and tear that this poor building took.”
Then, a community homecoming was organized in 1974 and it was noted, for starters, that the church was in need of paint.
That was also the time that the Big Valley Historical Society took over the restoration and maintenance of the church. They later gained title to the property in 1987.
“So they went around to all of the different merchants in the village, and one of them said, ‘You know, a farmer came in here two years ago and ordered this particular paint. But he never came back for it.
“They said, ‘Okay, we will take the paint!”
So what was a cream-coloured church became the ‘little blue church’.
“We’ve had it colour-matched, and we have painted it the same colour ever since,” Boswell added with a smile. “The blue really stands out – I’ve had people from all over the world who have told me that they’ve seen pictures in their countries from others who have visited here before and come to see ‘the little blue church on the hill’.”
“In 1997, the quaintness of the Blue Church was further enhanced by the addition of an automatic bell ringing device donated by Harry Stuber and designed by his son, Lionel,” notes the Village web site. “The huge bell now rings out the hour, much like a grandfather clock. It’s rather like the ‘Big Ben of Big Valley’.”
Visitors to the church today will learn that the first three rows of pews on both sides are original, with the following two from the Catholic church and the back rows from the Presbyterian church.
“So we have memories from all of the churches that have been in the Valley,” explained Boswell. The original – and beautiful – organ is still there, and it still plays as well, she pointed out. “It sounds as beautiful as the day it was built. It is just awesome.”
On typical years, when the Alberta Prairie Railway visitors pop in for a tour, Boswell will ask if anyone would like to play the organ.
These days, the church is used mainly for small weddings and memorial services.
“There was also a Christmas service in here last year as well,” she said.
“People from miles around, all you have to say is, ‘Do you know where the little blue church is?’ They will say, ‘Oh, I know where blue church is!’
“It’s a very peaceful place.”