Back in the day, religion played a much more important role in the lives of every day people than it seems to today.
Churches were not only places of worship, but also important social centres for the community, hosting town meetings, fundraising events and social gatherings.
Most of the permanent community members were affiliated with a church and attended regularly.
In the very early days of the town’s life, the Catholics made their way out to St. Joseph’s Mission for the Sunday celebration of mass.
The Protestants would meet in various locations, sometimes in the PGE Station House, sometimes in the dance hall and sometimes in various stores.
In 1921, the year after the village of Williams Lake was founded, St. Andrews’ Presbyterian Church and manse were constructed on the corner of Second Avenue and Oliver Street (where the present Bank of Commerce now stands).
This church was officially dedicated in 1922 by the new Presbyterian minister, Rev. A.D. MacKinnon. A bell, which had once been on one of the early PGE locomotives that served Williams Lake and the Cariboo was donated in recognition of the town’s first church.
When the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches in Canada joined together in 1925, this local church became St. Andrews’ United Church.
Over the years, the congregation grew, and the original church became too crowded, so in 1953, the church and manse were sold.
A new site, on the corner of Cameron Street and Third Avenue (now a city parking lot across from Marie Sharpe Elementary School) was purchased.
There, a new church hall and parsonage were built, with the intention of adding a worship sanctuary at a later date.
That sanctuary never was built, and the hall became both a place of worship and a meeting centre. It was named MacKinnon Hall in honour of the first minister.
The parsonage still stands today — it is the front part of the present Youth for Christ building.
On April 9, 1980, an arson fire completely destroyed MacKinnon Hall.
The Anglican congregation immediately offered accommodation and support, and the United Church began holding worship services in their sanctuary on the Sunday following the fire.
By the fall, more space was needed, and permission was granted by the school district to use school gyms for worship and for Sunday School.
Within two years, two acres of land was purchased from B.C. Rail on the edge of town, architects’ drawings were developed and working plans for a new structure were made, and construction of the present St. Andrews’ was begun.
Much of the work was volunteer labour and on Thanksgiving Sunday, 1982, the new church was dedicated.
In keeping with tradition, the large new hall was once again named MacKinnon Hall.
The cast iron bell, which had been gifted to the original St. Andrews’ church, had been saved when that church was demolished.
For years, it sat outside the Comer Street location, awaiting the construction of a sanctuary with a bell tower.
In the 1960s it was taken home by a local businessman and historian, Doug Stevenson, for safekeeping.
After the construction of the new church building, a bell tower was erected and the bell installed.
Out of consideration for the neighbours, however, the bell has never been used at the present location.
It is there as a symbol now of the church’s historical roots in the community.
The first Anglican service in Williams Lake was held in the dance hall above T.A. Moore’s General Store in 1921.
Although the service was Anglican, the congregation included people from several denominations.
Seating consisted of planks supported on crates of canned goods. Once the Presbyterian church was completed, however, most Anglican services were held there.
In 1926, the first Anglican minister, Rev. Basil Resker, arrived to serve the parish. It was a vast and isolated area, covering an estimated 15,000 square miles.
Roads were little more than widened pack horse trails, which allowed for motor transportation in the summer and horse and sleigh in the winter.
The people of the parish were informed by the Bishop in Kamloops that a vicarage was to be built for Rev. Resker, and that the money was to be raised by the parish.
This was done at the cost of about $1,000, with some of the money coming from an insurance payout after the Anglican church in Quesnel burned down, and the rest from donations from the congregation.
Rev. Resker held his regular Sunday services at the United Church, his evening services at the theatre on Oliver Street, and communion in the rectory and at numerous private homes in the Cariboo and Chilcotin.
In 1928, a new Anglican Church building was constructed. A lot on the corner of Third Avenue and Oliver Street (where the Empire garden Restaurant is currently located) was purchased from the PGE at a cost of $538.
The new church was designed by John Dexter Smedley, one of the town’s leading citizens and co-owner of Smedley and Sharpe’s Hardware Store.
It cost just over $3,900 to build the new church, with $3,100 of that coming from the proceeds of a couple of Olde English Country Faires organized by the Anglican Church women.
The building measured a whopping 24 feet wide by 40 feet long and was heated by a wood stove.
Its stained glass windows were salvaged from the St. John the Divine church in Quesnel, and the bell was a gift from Rev. Resker’s home parish in Surrey, England.
This new building was completed and dedicated in the fall of 1928, and by 1931, it had been completely paid for.
A new parish hall was erected next door in 1932, with the foundations being installed by R.A. Leonard, and the construction being done by Fred Buchholtz and Alex Haller.
By 1957, the town had crowded in around the site of the church, so it was decided that it should be moved to a new location to allow room to grow and to provide better housing for the minister.
A new site on Carson Drive (where St. Peters Anglican Church is located today) was purchased from the PGE, and that summer, the church was moved there and a new rectory built on the 2.8-acre site.
This move was very controversial, since the new location was considered to be too far out of town.
In the early 1990s, it became clear that the church was far too small for the size of its congregation.
Thus, in 1993, an expansion project was undertaken.
An addition was made to the original building, with great care being taken to preserve as much historical integrity as possible.
During this construction, ceiling panels were removed from the old church building to reveal beautiful fir beams, trusses and arches.
The original fir flooring was restored and the new flooring matches to it.
The aspect of the building was rotated 180 degrees and new rooms were added to the ground level.
The result was a beautiful new building with a 1920s country church appearance which will serve the community for many years to come.
The Sacred Heart Catholic Church was a relative latecomer to the town.
There had, of course, been a Catholic presence in the area since the early 1840s with the Oblate missionaries and later with the establishment of St. Joseph’s Mission.
For the first 10 years or so of the town’s life, the Mission provided for the spiritual needs of the Catholic people in the region.
However, by 1930, the need for a local parish church in the village had become evident.
Fundraising was carried out, and a lot was purchased on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Yorston Street (where the Yorston medical Clinic is situated today).
Construction was begun on a new church, and even before it was fully completed, in January of 1931, the first mass was celebrated there.
It was a very cold winter that year, and the parishioners felt that it was much more preferable to meet in a partially-completed building than to travel all the way out to the Mission.
Sacred Heart Church was officially dedicated by Father Monaghan, O.M.I., on April 12, 1931.
In 1951, a parish hall, named Columbus Hall after the Knights of Columbus, who did much of the fundraising, was completed.
As with the other churches in town, it was a time of rapid growth, and by 1955, the congregation had outgrown its small church, so an interesting interim solution was reached.
Columbus Hall became the church for Sunday masses, but remained as a parish hall at other times.
The church was used as a chapel for smaller gatherings such as baptisms, marriages and funerals.
This arrangement continued until 1966 when the large, modern church building was completed on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Comer Street.
In 1976, Columbus Hall was torn down and the property sold off.
At the current time, Sacred Heart Parish is making plans for its 50th Anniversary celebration of the dedication of its “new” church.
These three churches were the first ones in Williams Lake. They played a large role in the growth of our town and its history.
They also provided a spiritual home to generations of townspeople, and they are still a significant part of the fabric of this community.
My thanks to Dorothy Denny, Stacy Wright and Barb Aquilon for their help on this one.
Barry Sale is a freelance columnist with the Tribune/Weekend Advisor.