In the aftermath of World War I, the Dominion government established the Soldiers Settlement Board, which was to serve two purposes. First, it was a mechanism whereby the government could reward men who had physically defended their country in time of need; second, it could provide an outlet for an unemployment problem that was rapidly building up. The Board identified tracts of land in arable districts which had not hitherto been taken up by homesteaders and proceeded to have portions of them set aside for the soldiers. One region where considerable land was reserved was the Peace River Country, the central grasslands of which had been settled much earlier. One of the districts of this region where soldiers were encouraged to come was a small stretch of parkland off the Bad Heart River, which flows through the Burnt Hills into the Smoky River. Here, in TPs74 & 75 R2 W6, several veterans took advantage of the government’s offer and applied for land in 1919, including the highly decorated but soon to be notorious George Frederick “Nobby” Clark.
The war veterans were soon joined by other settlers, and, gradually, the community to be known as Bad Heart evolved. A school district was incorporated in 1928 and a store and post office was built the following year. Bad Heart was, however, somewhat cut off from the more heavily settled areas of the Grande Prairie, and conditions were far from ideal for farming. A number of foreclosures occurred, but the community did hang together, as cattle, hogs and poultry were raised to offset the costs of dry land farming. Being remote however, amenities were few, and it wasn’t until the late 1950’s that electrical power and telephone services were extended there.
Until the mid-1950’s, the Bad Heart district was without a church, with local residents attending Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches in the Teepee Creek district just to the southwest. At the time, one of the most energetic Roman Catholic priests in the region was resident at Sexsmith, over 50km away. This was the Redemptorist Father Francis Dales, who, as a trained architect, had just designed a new $70,000 church in Sexsmith. He had also constructed, and would design and construct other public buildings, the work being either volunteer or undertaken by young teenagers at a small wage. To complete his projects, Father Dales often salvaged lumber from demolished buildings. Scrap metal from demolished vehicles and farm equipment was also recovered and sold. Other fundraisers of varying kinds were also undertaken.
As his parish included Bad Heart, Father Dales decided, in the early 1950’s, that it was time for a church of the right persuasion to be built there. For the district at this time, the major problem was financing, for all Roman Catholic churches relied strongly on local support, and the people of Bad Heart were hardly in a position to fund a new church structure, being relatively few in numbers and anything but wealthy. Work bees and salvaged lumber would not be enough. Father Dales, however, had learned that, in eastern Canada, certain farmers had built cattle sheds out of straw bales, the oil from the rye or flax serving as a preservative. He therefore submitted a design to the Vicar Apostolic of the Archdiocese of Grouard, Bishop Henri Routhier, who approved the plan, and, apparently, personally advanced $500 towards its fulfillment.
In the summer of 1954, work began on the soon to be famous rye straw church at Bad Heart. Before long, word spread of the unique venture, which was completed in about six weeks. Eventually, even the Toronto Star Weekly did a story on the church and its builder. All work, of course, was volunteer, while fixtures and furnishings were salvaged from other churches in the region. The pews, for example, were taken from the old Roman Catholic church in Sexsmith.
In March 2009, the Bad Heart Straw Church was designated a Provincial Historic Resource. Its significance lies foremost in its representation of the ability of people in remote rural areas of the province to find ways of adapting what they have into useful purposes. The building is also important in being directly associated with Father Francis Dales, the ebullient architecture priest who designed and built many structures in the region and elsewhere, including several churches, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic School in Sexsmith, and the Anglican Speke Hall in Grande Prairie.
Written by: David Leonard, Historian
Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Bad Heart Straw Church. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Bad Heart Straw Church.