Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Presbyterian church served Red River settlers

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In 1854, 42 years after the first Scottish-Presbyterian settlers and first pioneers of the Red River area arrived in what is now Winnipeg, the first Presbyterian church in Western Canada finally opened its doors.

Landlords, who carried out highland clearances in Scotland in the early 1800s, drove the poor folk of Sutherlandshire and other parts of Scotland away from their homes in order to make way for sheep grazing.

At the urging of the fifth Earl of Selkirk, hundreds of Scottish people left the familiar rolling hills and green glens of their homeland to settle along the Red River here.

Of several promises made to the settlers before they left Scotland, one promise was to enable them to continue to worship and be ministered to by a Presbyterian minister. It would be almost 40 years before this promise would be kept. Until then, the settlers worshipped in the Church of England's Upper Church, now St. John's Cathedral, which was built in 1822. The settlers worshipped in that church for the next 30 years.

Repeated appeals from the settlers over the years finally resulted in the Free Church or Presbyterian Church in Canada sending Rev. John Black, who became the first Presbyterian minister in Western Canada, to the Red River area in 1851.

Born in 1818 in Scotland, his family moved to New York when he was 23 and he was ordained in 1851 after graduating in theology from Knox College in Toronto.

Persuaded that same year to go to the needy Red River area, Black agreed to go for a short while only.

The 33-year-old minister arrived by birchbark canoe on the Red River in September 1851. Rev. Black arrived that first day at the home of local sheriff and historian, Alexander Ross. Intending to stay only briefly in the settlement, Black ended up marrying Ross's daughter, Henrietta, fathered seven children with her and remained in the settlement for the rest of his life.

Earlier in 1851, the Hudson's Bay Company had granted a plot of land at Frog Plain (just north of today's Chief Peguis Bridge) and 150 pounds to the Presbyterians for the purpose of building their church.

The 300-member congregation set their hearts upon fashioning their new church on that site after the old church in their homeland of Sutherlandshire, Scotland. They used sleds to carry limestone from Stony Mountain and wood was hand-sawn in preparation for the building, but the ruinous flood of 1852 washed away much of the timbers.

Rev. Black delivered his services that spring at Stony Mountain, where settlers sought refuge from the devastating flood waters using only a stone as his pulpit. This rock is now incorporated into the John Black Memorial United Church on Henderson Highway.

Kildonan Presbyterian Church officially opened its doors in January 1854.

Built with massive stone walls and a four-foot-wide foundation, the church held about 500 people and was as unpretentious on the inside as it was on the outside, in keeping with the Presbyterian tradition of the time. The Scottish stonemason, Duncan McRae, who helped to build Upper and Lower Fort Garry, St. Andrews on the Red, St. Clements and many other churches, supervised the construction of the Kildonan church.

An adjacent manse, or minister's residence, and a schoolhouse, Nisbett Hall, were also completed, which together, rapidly became the hub of the religious, academic and social life of the Presbyerian community. The first Manitoba College building was built on the site in 1872. It is now the oldest constituent college of the University of Winnipeg.

John Black died in 1882 at the age of 64, and lies buried in the Kildonan cemetery among the settlers whom he served so well.

In the 1980s a larger church was built just north of the old church. This church, now the Kildonan Community Church, incorporates the original Nisbett Hall schoolhouse, which was moved, brick by brick, from its home on the banks of the Red River to the new church where it was attached.

The older church still stands today, not far from the winding Red River, as a testament to the strongly held faith of the settlers who struggled but never gave up on their determination to worship as did their forefathers.

Tours are conducted at this church, which is a provincial heritage site.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2010 H13

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