St. Andrew’s United Church of Lacombe, a century old in 2009, was recently recognized as Lacombe’s first historic site. A ceremony marking the event will be held this month.
Rev. John Fernie was the first ordained minister called by the managers of Lacombe’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. He had come to Ontario from London, England in the 1880s with his wife and family. He was ordained in 1892 and came to Lacombe on June 11th, 1893. Very early in his ministry he was preaching and performing other church-related duties in three different fields of which the Lacombe field alone embraced five locations – Spruceville, Fairview, Milton, Turville and Blindman.
Present day ministers are not unfamiliar with two or three point charges but the roads and mode of travel today bear no resemblance to the saddlebag days of Fernie.
All of Fernie’s charges prospered and the search begun before his arrival for a site to construct a church and manse resulted in the church dedicated Oct. 11th, 1893. He had an active role in its construction but a manse would not be built for many years.
Instead, the house built by Fernie served that purpose. This was the first lumber dwelling constructed west of the hamlet, the present day footprint of Mae Thompson’s home. He named his huge house ‘Woodlea’. It crowned the hill and was designed to accommodate the congregation, indeed any and all residents, for religious services and to serve as a stopping place for saddlebag missionaries, among them Father Lacombe, that passed through.
No church prospered in those days and construction of the Presbyterian Church which began in 1895 left a string of promissory notes in its wake. Session minutes recorded several instances when Fernie was asked return the ‘promissory note as it could not be paid’. In lieu of pay he was to receive ‘all loose and envelope collections except for amounts necessary to pay for other operating expenses’.
Sam Watt, an elder of the board and representative of the community of Spruceville was the successful bidder for construction of the church. Somewhere along the line he locked horns with Fernie and the latter voiced objections when Watt was chosen Jan. 19th, 1897 as chairman of the board. Indeed, he appealed to Presbytery in Edmonton to bar Watt from the holding of any office. Presbytery obliged by ordering Watt to appear before Kirk Session to answer charges brought against him.
Managers who sided with Watt circulated a petition for funds which read in part, “We whose names are hereto subscribed promise to pay weekly the sums set opposite our names during the year April 1st, 1897 to March 30th 1898 – but in so doing be it distinctly understood that the present incumbent resigns or is removed.”
The nature of the charges against Watt were never disclosed. Minutes of Session the Presbytery and the Conference were all mum on this issue and its aftermath but it was Fernie, not Watt, who was barred from holding any office with the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He resigned in April 1897 but the year he left Lacombe could not be determined from records currently available.