Visiting Alberta’s Past
A Challenge to Heritage: St. John’s Lutheran Church of Heimthal
by John Althouse
Those of us who possess a deep and abiding interest in the past are indeed sensitive to those instances where ‘heritage’ is threatened in the interest of what is commonly referred to as ‘progress’. Such events are commonplace on the urban landscape. Regrettably, in most, if not all, of these situations, it is heritage that does not fare well. The story of another such clash was the subject of a feature column on the front page of the Edmonton Journal of September 14, 2011. However, this time, the backdrop for these events was not the city but rather a quiet, unassuming rural community just off Highway 19. The headline for the article announced “Highway Route Divides Church, Cemetery.”
The accompanying column written by Paula Simons provided the essential details of this most dire situation as it had developed. Plans for a new runway at the Edmonton International Airport would make it necessary to divert Highway 19 from its current route, forcing it to the north. The proposed new route would slash a path which would fall between St. John’s Lutheran Church of Heimthal and its nearby cemetery. The author noted:
The peaceful country church is well off the highway now. But if the province goes ahead with its preferred realignment, the proposed new four-lane divided highway will cut right through the churchyard, dividing the church from the cemetery, shattering the spiritual peace and forcing parishioners to drive for kilometres to get from the church door to the graveside.
This situation becomes even more poignant when one realizes the historic significance of this site. It has a long and illustrious history which goes back to a point that pre-dates the formation of the Province of Alberta by over a decade. It is a landmark site to the history of the German people of this province. The collected vignettes of its long history provide a kaleidoscope of all events, all the qualities that contributed to making the greatness of present day Alberta.
This rich legacy had its Alberta beginnings in the early 1890s when two German Lutheran farmers, John Albrecht and Christoph Miller, arrived in this area adjacent to the Rabbit Hills. These two men were from Volhynia, then a province of Russia (later to be a part of Poland, and today part of Ukraine). Within a year, several additional families from the Mariendorf area of Volhynia had joined them and settled in the area. These people were well suited to the hard life of homesteading. They were a hardy people who had a long agricultural history. They suffered their share of hardships during their early years at Heimthal, as many of the tombstones in the cemetery readily attest. Yes, they remained there and formed a solid community there over the years. As was their custom, these settlers named their community after a place in their homeland, choosing Heimthal (meaning Hopedale) to signify their new home.
While the settlers of Heimthal were a farming people, they also were strong adherents of the Lutheran faith. From their earliest days in the area, they held religious observances and worshipped on Sundays. In their earliest days in the community, they lacked both a church and a pastor. So, these Sunday worship services were held in a private home. But they were able to quickly secure theservices of a pastor who they initially shared with several other parishes in the Edmonton area. The congregation chose its own name, “St. Johannes Gemeinde zu Heimthal”, which translated is St. John’s Congregation of Heimthal. The founding families of this congregation are recorded as Albrecht, Besler, Biederman, Huff, Hirsekorn, Miller, Newmann, Oswald, Pachal, Quast, Schultz, Sommer, and Wedman.
It did not take long for the first church building to be erected. This first church was built in 1899 and dedicated the next year. From this point onward, the church site would become the centre of life within the community of Heimthal. The cemetery took up its current position about this time as well. Many of the tombstones are etched with the names of the members of the founding families of the church community as well as others who contributed in later years. To meet the needs of the congregation, a new church was erected on the site in 1926.
Over the decades of its history, the Heimthal congregation – like all other communities – has been blessed with good fortune and abundant yields. However, it has also faced its share of challenges and adversity. This has been wrought by the changing times and a changing society. Over a long span of years, the congregation has faced these challenges head-on with dignity and foresight. Its members have shown themselves to be survivors. In 1993, the congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church of Heimthal celebrated the accomplishments of their first 100 years in the area. In commemoration of the event, the congregation erected a Historic Monument on the cemetery grounds. In 2011, the community faced yet another challenge, perhaps the most serious to date, one that threatens the very fabric of it as a community.
If this planned separation of church and cemetery occurs as currently slated, what will remain of the rich legacy of Heimthal? What memories will be retained by the community and passed on to their children? What will their children come to know about the past steeped in strong values which their ancestors forged for them? Ultimately what will these children come to know of who they are?
Originally appeared in Relatively Speaking, v.40 #2 (May 2012)