Among the immigrant groups to settle in the Dakota’s during the latter 19th century were the Icelanders. Due to severe drought conditions during the mid-1880s however, several of these immigrants decided to seek new horizons in the more northerly climes of western Canada. By this time, the trail between Calgary and Edmonton had become a well used wagon road, and the community at Red Deer Crossing could offer many services to incoming homesteaders. As the district southwest of the Crossing was largely open, appeared fertile, and had just been surveyed, it was recommended by certain Icelandic South Dakotan advance scouts that it offered a good chance for a new life. These people possibly preferred this more hilly and wooded environment to the Dakotas as it was more similar to Iceland, and the Dakota flatlands had not brought them prosperity. They were also intent on mixed, and not just flatland, grain farming, a pursuit more suited to parkland than open prairie.
In the summer of 1888, some fifty Icelandic South Dakotans headed north from Calgary, crossed the Red Deer River, and took homesteads off the banks of the Medicine River, mostly to the east. A community was established called Tindastoll after a mountain in Iceland. The following year, another party of Icelanders arrived from South Dakota and settled further north. This party included Stephan Stephansson, who had founded the Icelandic Cultural Society of South Dakota. While in Alberta, he would become recognized as the greatest poet in the Icelandic language since the 13th Century. His concern for his Icelandic heritage was reflected elsewhere in the community, and, in 1892, a literary and debating society was formed, the same year that a school district was established. The women of Tindastoll also formed their own community club called Vonin, meaning “hope.” The first president of Vonin was Stepansson’s sister, Sigurlaud Kristinsson.
For years, social events conducted by the sisters of Vonin were presented from a Lutheran perspective. Indeed, their socials seem to have taken the place of regular church services until 1905, when the Reverend Sjera Peter Hjalmsson arrived from Winnipeg with his wife, Jonina, to establish a Lutheran church as part of the Icelandic Synod of western Canada, headquartered in Winnipeg. Serja had been trained in theology in Copenhagen and Reykjavek. He immediately began to conduct services in the newly constructed Fensela Hall, but strongly urged the members of his congregation to pull together to construct a regular church. Finally, in the spring of 1907, a group of men, including John Olsen, Asmundur Christianson, John Hillman and Chris Johanson, formed a committee and planned the construction of a wood frame church building on NE26 TP36 R2 W5, on land donated by J.M. Johnson. This was in close proximity to the other buildings constituting the community of Markerville, which were also constructed on Johnson’s land.
Work on the new church began immediately, with sandstone for the foundation being hauled in from the Red Deer River. By the end of the year, the building was completed, with a bell tower and a wooden Celtic cross added the following year. Sjera Hjalmsson continued to serve the MarkervilleLutheranChurch until 1935, although, in later years, he was blind. He passed away in 1950. All the while, Jonina continued to play the organ, while A. J. Christvinson served as secretary-treasurer to the congregation from 1915 until 1964.
As a community, Markerville never became big enough to become incorporated as a village. It was too close to Innisfail and Penhold on the Calgary & Edmonton Railway, and so grain shipment and major shopping for the district settlers took place at either of these two centers. Markerville nonetheless continued to harbour the trappings of Icelandic culture, made stronger by the international reputation of Stephan Stephansson. Structural evidence of the founding of this community, including the community church, therefore survived, and, together, present strong trappings of Icelandic culture. In August 2009, The Markerville Lutheran Church was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.
Written by: David Leonard, Historian
Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Markerville Lutheran 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 Markerville Lutheran Church.