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Iconic southern Alberta church could rise from the ashes with original salvaged timber

One year after the church near Morley burned down in a suspicious fire, a non-profit group has taken the first steps toward a possible rebuild.

'I think we can save a lot of these logs,' says Dave Chalmers

Brenda McQueen, whose great, great, great grandfather George McDougall helped establish the McDougall Stoney Mission Church in 1875, wants to see the building restored using timber salvaged from the wreckage. (Left: Matt Foudy, Right: Dave Gilson/CBC)

A collapsed roof, piles of splintered wood and four scorched walls are all that remain of one of Brenda McQueen's most cherished childhood places — at least for now.

"I think I cried that whole day," she recalls, once again overcome by the very emotions that rocked her when she first heard of the devastating fire that gutted the McDougall Stoney Mission Church in May 2017.

"I'm sorry, here I go again," she says, breaking down.

This is what remains of the first permanent Protestant church built in southern Alberta. The building just east of Morley on Highway 1A was destroyed by fire on May 22, 2017. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

For McQueen, the building evokes warm memories of singing, praying and playing with Stoney Nakoda children, gathering with cousins and grandparents at the twice-yearly services and watching her daughter get married in 2016.

More than 140 years ago, her great, great, great grandfather George McDougall established the church.

"It's a connection that gives me goosebumps, actually," she says.

McQueen wipes away tears as she reflects on what the building has meant to her over the course of her life. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

And so McQueen is determined to keep that connection alive.

As president of the McDougall Stoney Mission Society, she's spearheading a conservation initiative to transform the scorched remains into something that once again holds meaning for the community.

That could mean building a memorial to the church on site, establishing a new gathering place or — McQueen's personal favourite — fully restoring the church, exactly as it once stood, using materials salvaged from the wreckage.

"I couldn't just let it stand here as a burnt building."

The McDougall Stoney Mission Church, the oldest permanent Protestant church in southern Alberta, was destroyed by fire in May 2017. (McDougall Stoney Mission Society/Matt Foudy)

Cultural significance

Over its 143-year history, the church became an icon in the southern Alberta Foothills, both for its striking silhouette against the landscape and its cultural significance.

Built in 1875 in a Carpenter's Gothic style, it was the first Methodist church in southern Alberta, and it has long been a symbol of Morleyville, the first pioneer settlement in the province.

In recent years, it had become a popular spot for wedding bookings.

Understanding and assessing

The feasibility of rebuilding the church using salvaged material is the question du jour.

The blueprints exist. In 1985, University of Calgary students undertook a building analysis study and produced precise building schematics, down to the size and location of each nail used.

But it's a question of cost and condition of the original building materials, says Dave Chalmers, owner of Chalmers Heritage Conservation.

At first glance, it's hard to see promise in the once-white, now scorched church, he admits. But an unthwarted Chalmers says to call him an optimist.

"I think we can save a lot of these logs."

'It looks bad. It looks like it’s in really poor condition. But as you start to scrape back the charring, we’re seeing a lot of sound building material in behind,' says Chalmers. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Over the coming months, he and his crew will meticulously disassemble the structure and document each blackened log, its condition and position within the building structure, its depth of charring and its reusability.

Eventually, this information will be used to assess whether a restoration could be done, and if so at what cost. 

The process began just last week, but Chalmers is already encouraged.

"As you start to scrape back the charring, we're seeing a lot of sound building material in behind."

'It's pretty tragic circumstances, but in light of that, it's a blessing to be on this project with this team,' says Chalmers. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Testament to sheer determination

Chalmers called it a blessing to be able to work on this project. 

He relishes the challenge and "tremendous opportunities" of preserving the church's cultural significance as a relationship-builder between pioneer settlers, missionaries and First Nations people.

He's also humbled by the resourcefulness and intensive labour required of the early craftsmen who built it.

The church itself was constructed with massive, 30-inch butt, hand-hewn timber, likely a type of pine, and hand-cut nails.

The chinking and dobbing, or infill material between the logs, is a composition of clay, straw, sand, horsehair and limestone — all materials that would have been readily and locally available.

"When they settled here, the entire building was built with whatever's around you," he said.

"It really is a symbol of faith. It's a symbol of the testament to early Albertans and the sheer amount of work that they were willing to go through to settle here."

One year after the church near Morley burned down in a suspicious fire, a non-profit group has taken the first steps toward a possible restoration. 0:34

Still early stages

Once Chalmers' restoration crew is done with their cataloguing and cleaning, the site will be turned over to Lifeways, a company hired by the provincial government to do an archeological assessment of the area.

"The site's been recognized as a provincial historic resource for a very long time but the area up around the church, archaeologically, isn't very well understood," said Kendra Kolomyja, the archeologist on the project.

The company plans to survey the area and investigate the foundations of the church. Kolomyja said their findings likely won't be material but they are hoping to gain an understanding of the site and build a record of it.

"If we can find anything that ties it a little bit more closely to the people themselves, that's always fascinating," she said.

A final decision on what to do with the site likely won't land until the end of the year, and any plans will require provincial sign-off on account of this being a heritage site, says McQueen.

Still, she's filled with hope, excitement and determination.

"We don't want to just let it go. It's part of the history and we should be building on that."

With files from Dave Gilson