Presbyterians

The first Presbyterians in Saskatchewan were probably young men from the Orkney Islands working for the Hudson’s Bay Company; the first Scottish settlers arrived as part of the Selkirk Colony in 1825. From there, the Kildonan congregation sent out Rev. James Nisbet, accompanied by two “catechists” serving as interpreters. On August 6, 1866, they camped on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, at a place later named Prince Albert, and established a mission there. On May 8, 1877, John Mackay was ordained by the Presbytery of Manitoba and came to the North-West. A church was built in Prince Albert in 1881, and Mackay became the first resident missionary at Mistawasis, formerly the Snake Plains Reserve. An important development occurred when the General Assembly, at the request of the Presbytery of Manitoba, appointed a Superintendent of Missions for the North-West: the Rev. James Robertson resigned from the pulpit of Knox Church, Winnipeg to accept this task, which he fulfilled until his death in 1901.

By 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway reached as far as Swift Current. There followed rapid expansion of mission work among the Ojibwa bands in the Qu’Appelle valley. The Rev. Hugh Mackay was appointed in 1884 as missionary to that area, and his daughter Christina opened, at her own expense, a school at Mistawasis. The Acts and Proceedings of the 1886 General Assembly listed the Presbytery of Regina for the first time, including congregations at Prince Albert and Edmonton. Regarding missions the Proceedings stated, “There are thirteen reserves under our care.” The May 1888 issue of the Proceedings also stated that “32% of the [Caucasian] population of the North Territories is Presbyterian.” By 1890, there were eleven missions under the care of seven missionaries on nineteen reserves, and six schools were built or under construction.

Other denominations were very active in the 1890s in the North-West. In 1899, the General Assembly appointed a committee “to meet and confer with other evangelical churches, having power to enter into an arrangement with them that will bring about a more satisfactory state of things in our Home Mission Fields.” The Methodists named a committee for this purpose in 1902, and “Union” Sabbath Schools resulted from this co-operation. In 1912 a Presbyterian theological school was opened in Saskatoon. The Assembly Minutes of 1915 declared that there were 350 ministers and missionaries preaching the Gospel in 965 places in the province; and it was reported that “the hospitals at Wakaw and Canora continue to render the most efficient service.”

In January 1917, meetings were held with Methodists regarding church union, and in 1918 the Presbyterian Church gave its support to any region demanding local union. As the move towards church union advanced, some Presbyterian members were reluctant to amalgamate with the Methodists for theological reasons. After the 1924 General Assembly, those attending a November 5 meeting agreed that “a Provisional Synod of the Presbyterian Church be formed for Saskatchewan.” Votes were held in congregations, and in only seven were the negative votes sufficient to keep the property and manse with the Presbyterian Church. On June 10, 1925, the United Church of Canada came into being.

The Presbyterian Church never fully recovered from its near demise in 1925, although there was modest growth through the 1950s and 1960s. Some people, however, tried to encourage positive action. In the 1950s, George Porteous urged the General Assembly to build seniors’ homes, but the appeal fell on deaf ears. A decade later, Jack Wells and others were willing to contribute generously to the building of a Presbyterian residence on the campus at Saskatoon, but lay people in general felt unable to support these projects. Although many Presbyterians have viewed their mission as one of simply surviving as a denomination, there are many who continue to work for the well-being of their Church: they welcome the opportunity to share in the ecumenical movement and are active on the Board of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism.

Walter Donovan