St. Columba Church, Clandonald

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 Church 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 Saint Columba Church, 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.

Crafter's home in the Hebrides.
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 labourers, 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 FieldsThe Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement).

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 neighbours responded by saying, 'He can't be the Messiah; he's just a carpenter, the son of Joseph' (cf. Mt 13:55). 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' protecting those choosing to live a loving Catholic rural lifestyle from the destructive lifestyle of the world—much like a springtime cover-crop of oats protecting the delicate seeds of a new pasture from being overcome by the weeds.

Children of Mary
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 Saint Columba Parish. 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.

Here is an example from a holy card of a Consecration to the Holy Family that our fore-families may have used:

"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 thy 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."

The Holy Family lived the most perfect lifestyle of holiness. 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 (cf. Mt 2:36-39).

*        *        *

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. 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
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, a missionary monk, has a special place in the hearts and history of the Irish, the Scottish, and the English.

Saint Columba Parish was established in 1926 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 Church, 1927.
The building of the first Saint Columba Church was started in 1927 and blessed by Archbishop O’Leary on June 10, 1927. The 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 convent school drew students from Clandonald as well as a number of students from farther afield, who boarded at the Convent.

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.

Denis & Susan McCormack, 1929 Settlers.
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. A school building was erected 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. Men of the Parish volunteered in large number.

The end of the war brought prosperity to the countryside and the comforts of modern living. On September 14, 1961, a new church building 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 Catholic school run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peterborough was amalgamated with the Public School system. High school students were bussed to Vermilion, while grades 1-9 remained in Clandonald. As a condition of the amalgamation, the Sisters insisted that Catholic religious education continue to be offered in the school. This continues to be the case today.

St. Columba Church, 1961.Through the years, Saint Columba Parish also took care of four mission churches: Saint Patrick (northeast of Clandonald), Saint Andrew (HWY 41, west of Clandonald), Saint Anthony (Dewberry), and Saint Joseph (Derwent).

In 1990, Saint Columba Parish and Saint Joseph Church were joined to the Catholic Parish of the Holy Name in Vermilion, thus becoming mission churches of Holy Name. Currently, Sunday Mass is celebrated at Saint Columba Church every weekend.

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 Religious (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, especially the Sisters of Saint Benedict, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Father Andrew MacDonell and Father Donald MacIntyre.

The Priests who served at St. Columba until the amalgamation with Holy Name are:

Father M. 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




Benedict XVI. This Is the Moment for the Reevaluation of Agriculture.  November 14, 2010.

Chojnowski, Dr. Peter. Review of Flee to the Fields –The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement.

Chung Collection – Scottish Canadian materials.

Flee to the Fields – The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement, 2003. IHS Press: Norfolk, VA.

MacDonell, Father Andrew. The Story of Canadian Settlements. Clan Donald Magazine No 9 (1981) Online.

Martin, Sister Ellen, Settler. Personal Interview. November 2010.

St. Columba Parish 50th Anniversary 1926-1976 booklet


Photos: The Chung Collection, Rare Books Department, UBC (used with permission) and the St. Columba Parish 50th Anniversary booklet.