History of St. Columba Church

The Story of Saint Columba’s Parish
Clandonald, Alberta

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Jer 29:11

When asked to prepare a history of our parish, Saint Columba’s, the first thought was to rely heavily on a previously written history from the St. Columba Parish 50th Anniversary 1926-1976 booklet and simply add the necessary updates. This may have happened if not for the placard on the Saint Columba’s Cemetery gate with the donor inscription that reads Scottish Immigrant Aid Society. An investigation of this name revealed a rather incredible fact: the University of British Columbia has a significant portion of its Chung Library dedicated to the study of the development and creation of the Clandonald Colony.

After some extensive review of this material as well as interviews with children of the immigrant families, it is clear that the settling of Clandonald Colony and the establishment of Saint Columba’s parish is truly a Love story. It is the story of families of fishermen from the Hebrides, of miners from England, and of farmers from Northern Ireland leaving everything behind to settle in a distant land united within a colony called Clandonald.

History can be cold and dead, the simple recitation of names and dates that provide only the most basic information while losing the story or “why” that lies behind “just the facts.” However, there is more to our history at Saint Columba than one might imagine. When one begins to explore the story, it becomes very clear that the fact that we are here in Clandonald, at the Parish of Saint Columba, is no accident. It is indeed the work of a Loving God.

Our settlement finds its roots in what has become known as The Catholic Back to the Land Movement, a movement originating in Scotland following the turn of the last century and stemming in part, if not in full, from the powerful encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII. It is a story of the courage of fathers who left their homelands and livelihoods to bring their families to a land of opportunity, and of priests and bishops who took an active role in encouraging their faithful to emigrate, but primarily it is the story of a Loving Father who guided his children to a place where they could truly be Catholic.

The Scottish, the English, and the Irish were all fleeing from lands of poverty, both physical and spiritual; from persecution for their Faith; and from the erosion of their Catholic family life and Faith through the spread of industrialism – with families moving into the inner city to serve as laborers, where a man’s place of work was in one location and his home and beloved family in another.

Better to move to a new way of life, in a new land, with the challenges that would present—harsh weather, inexperience with farming, separation from family “back home”—

..but to live the dream of being a free man on his own land with his family at hand.

Flee to the Fields – The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement
A family of twelve from the Hebrides on the deck of the Marlock, enroute to Canada. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

See an April 1, 2019 Scottish news article (the Sunday Post, Glasgow), “A family of twelve from the Hebrides on the deck of the Marlock, enroute to Canada.”

The priests and bishops who spearheaded the Back to the Land Movement had an even greater hope—the hope that the emigrating families would have an opportunity to live the hidden life of the Holy Family. The life of the Holy Family was a life of simplicity and solitude spent in prayer, in work, and above all—in Love. Rural Alberta would provide each family with a beautiful setting for living a simpler way of life in the country, a lifestyle that from its very nature, in conjunction with the truths of our Faith, could impart all that would be needed for imitating the hidden life of the Holy Family.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived a life of simplicity in a small rural village. They had no appliances and electricity; when they wanted to cook something, they built a fire. They effectively camped out most of their lives. Jesus could have been a city lawyer or anything else he wished to be, but instead he chose to live a rural life as a carpenter and lived at home for the first 30 years of his life. When he began his preaching ministry, his lifelong neighbors responded by saying, “He can’t be the Messiah; he’s just a carpenter, the son of Joseph.” This meant that for thirty years he had kept the fact that he was the Messiah hidden from everyone except his family. That’s just how much of a hidden life he lived. He spent his time in prayer with his Heavenly Father, in loving fellowship with his family, and at his work.

Called to imitate Jesus, the priests and bishops of the Back to the Land Movement reflected on how He came as a newborn baby into a family – as the gift of Love – sanctifying the precious gift of family life. By imitating the Holy Family, their moments became filled with love, peace, and joy and the contentment that can only come from the presence of an all Loving Lord and Father. They prayed a similar lifestyle would be possible in western Canada.

The demanding winter climate of Alberta would extend an invitation for the development of fortitude, perseverance, and a more total dependence on our loving God. The rugged and untamed parkland of eastern Alberta and the pastoral rolling hills of the Lakeland region would provide each individual with the opportunity to contemplate the beauty and wonder of God‘s creation. The isolated nature of the area would make solitude and the opportunity for prayer more accessible for those committed to growing closer and closer to God while serving as a “natural barrier,” in effect, protecting those choosing to live a loving Catholic rural lifestyle from the destructive lifestyle of the world – much like a spring time cover-crop of oats protecting the delicate seeds of a new pasture from being overcome by the weeds.

The self-sacrificing actions of the faithful priests, pastors, and bishops, who, guided by the Holy Spirit, provided encouragement, direction, and direct care for the emigrating families, were the foundation stones of the hamlet of Clandonald and the Parish of Saint Columba that exist today. They encouraged within each family the restoration of their primary goal, that is, striving to live the hidden life of the Holy Family through simplicity, solitude, prayer, and Love. This truth enkindled in each family the hope and courage necessary for them to launch out in faith. This is where we will find our hope and courage, too, in the example of our precious Holy Family. These spiritual fathers accompanied our families on both sides of the ocean and across, even acting as agents on their behalf with the Canadian government and begging for funds in support of the new colony.

In order to live a life of imitation of the Holy Family, the settlers would first dedicate themselves to each member of the Holy Family in a trusting manner, asking them to guide, protect and love them and their family. This is making a consecration to the Holy Family. It is typically the beginning of a very special relationship.

O Jesus our most loving Redeemer, who having come to enlighten the world with thy teaching and example, didst will to pass the greater portion of thy life in humility and subjection to Mary and Joseph in the poor home of Nazareth, thus sanctifying the Family that was to be an example for all Christian families, graciously receive our family as it dedicates and consecrates itself to Thee this day. Do Thou protect us, guard us and establish amongst us Thy holy fear, true peace and concord in Christian love: in order that by living according to the divine pattern of Thy family we may be able , all of us without exception, to attain to eternal happiness.

O Mary, dear Mother of Jesus and Mother of us, by thee kindly intercession make this our humble offering acceptable in the sight of Jesus, and obtain for us His graces and blessings.

O Saint Joseph, most holy Guardian of Jesus and Mary, help us by thy prayers in all our spiritual and temporal needs; that so we may be enabled to praise our divine Saviour Jesus, together with Mary and thee, for all eternity.

Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be three times. Amen.”

A Consecration to the Holy Family from a holy card that our fore-families may have used

The Holy Family lived the most perfect lifestyle of holiness and although the immigrant family members might never totally imitate the Holy Family in this perfection, they felt called to continually strive toward making every effort to live as the Holy Family did – totally self-given to loving God the Father with their whole heart, soul, mind and strength and loving their neighbour as themselves.

In the late spring of 1926, forty-eight Hebridean families who had been working on training farms for two years in the Red Deer and Edmonton areas were moved onto their own farms within the Clandonald Colony.

Following this initial establishment, eleven families from Ireland arrived, and then two weeks later forty-one more families from England, Ireland, and a few from Scotland came with Father Andrew MacDonell, O.S.B.

Fr. Andrew MacDonell, O.S.B.

Father MacDonell had previously organized the construction of 100 four-room stave-lock homes and barns for the immigrating families.

Each family would have an approximate 160 acre farm.

In addition, ten acres of land had been broken and ploughed on each farm prior to each family’s arrival. Two months of food provisions, furnishings for the home, a wagon, fencing materials, and livestock and implements were also made available.

Payment for the land, the house and barn, the horses, cows, and machinery would be made over a thirty year period.

It is to these early settlers that we owe the founding of our Saint Columba parish. It is significant to note that Saint Columba the missionary has a special place in the hearts and history of the Irish, the Scottish, and the English.

Saint Columba’s was established the same year and Masses were held in many homes, as well as in tents on Minici’s quarter (the present site of the Catholic cemetery), one mile due west of the hamlet’s present location. Father MacDonell, assisted by Father Donald MacIntyre of the Hebrides, cared for the families until a permanent pastor was assigned in 1927.

Father Malcolm MacDonald was our first pastor from 1927 to 1930. It was during this time that the rail line was extended through the Colony of Clandonald.

St COlumba 1927

The building of the first Saint Columba church was started in 1927 and blessed by Archbishop O’Leary on June 10, 1927. Confirmation of 28 boys and 31 girls took place the same day.

The construction of the convent was completed in 1929 and became home for the Sisters of Saint Benedict for two years and then the home of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peterborough for thirty-seven years.

As there were many children, a Catholic school, operating first in the church and then in the convent, soon followed. The school in the Convent drew students from Clandonald as well as a number of students from farther afield who boarded at the Convent

Denis & Susan McCormack 1929 Settlers

In 1929, 57 more farms were established within the Clandonald Colony. A number of the immigrating families eventually left the area, unable to adapt to the rugged life and still pining for the homes they had left behind.

Those that remained fashioned their lives through perseverance and the joys that come from working closely together as a family.

The people were rich in faith but poor in money; Father MacDonald lent the parish $1,000 to pay the teachers, a debt that took ten years to pay back to his mother, following Father MacDonald’s death in 1930.

The separate school was built in 1941 and stands as a true testament of faith in the midst of the Great Depression. A glimmer of hope began to penetrate with the dawn of the 1940s, but at a great cost – the country was at war. The men of the parish volunteered in large number.

The end of the war brought prosperity to the countryside and the comforts of modern living.

St Columba

In September 1961, our new parish church was blessed by Archbishop Anthony Jordan.

The old church building was moved to Raft Lake, where it served for many years at the camp run by the Knights of Columbus and the parish. Many current parishioners have fond memories of those camps, with the girls’ and boys’ dormitories and the many enjoyable activities provided. The annual Parish Picnic, too, was held at Raft Lake for years.

In 1968, the separate school, run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peterborough, amalgamated with the public school, with high school students being bused to Vermilion and Grades 1 – 9 remaining in Clandonald. As a condition of the amalgamation, the Sisters insisted that Catholic religious education continue to be offered in the school.

Through the years, pastors at Saint Columba’s have also served the faithful in the Saint Patrick’s area (northeast of Clandonald), Saint Andrew’s (west of Clandonald), Saint Anthony’s (Dewberry), and Saint Joseph’s (Derwent).

Currently, the Saint Columba’s parish and Saint Joseph’s parish are joined with Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Vermilion. At the time of the amalgamation, lay-led liturgies were held in each parish for a short time period; by the Grace of God, however, we were sent priests who returned us to the fullness and beauty of the Holy Mass and have given us the opportunity to participate in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction each month. Currently, Mass is celebrated at Saint Columba’s every weekend and on Wednesdays,.

Saint Columba’s has been blessed with many vocations: four priests (Father Allen MacInnes, Father Joe McGuckin, Father Henry Nowakowski, and Father John Nowakowski), one deacon (Deacon Anthony Organ), and seventeen nuns (Sister Marie Benoit, Sister Therese Boudette, Sister Annie Cusack, Sister Annie Greely, Sister Bernadine Kelly, Sister Kathleen Kelly, Sister Ellen Martin, Sister Mary Martin, Sister Eileen MacAleese, Sister Mary McAlleese, Sister Rhoda McMann, Sister Annie McMullen, Sister Mary McMullen, Sister Agnes Nowakowski, Sister Kathleen O’Fee, Sister Ellen O’Neil, and Sister Gloria Butler).

We thank the many priests and religious who have sacrificed for us and served us through the years here at Saint Columba: The Sisters of Saint Benedict, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Father Andrew MacDonell and Father Donald MacIntyre, and our Pastors and Associate Pastors: Father Malcom MacDonald, Father A. Gillis, Father W. MacPhee, Father L. Scriven, Father S. Stewart, Father A. Hensel, Father F. Otterson, Father C. Nearing, Father J. Leszczynski, Father E. Purcell, Father J. Murphy, Father D. MacDonell, Father A. MacDougall, Father W. MacLellan, Father Carter, Father P. O’Neill, Father A. Hickey, Father K. Zynel, Father M. Strankowski, Father Stan Blaszkowski, Father Ken West, Father Ed Escober, Father Len Cadieu, Father Stan Lasko, Father Adam Deren, Father Roger Rouleau and our present pastor, Father Joy Vadakkan Poulose CFIC.

Catholic Parish of the Holy Name