The War Years at (Old) St. Stephen’s College

The faculty and students of Old St. Stephen’s College were not immune to the impact of war. When the First World War broke out in 1914 and the Second in 1939, a number of the college’s own enlisted, while many others assisted on the homefront. The war years were a difficult period for the people of Old St. Stephen’s, but there are several accounts of compassion that emerged during this time. Two people in particular, Nettie Burkholder and Cylo Jackson, showed that those who were affected by the wars were not forgotten.

This article will look at the St. Stephen’s building that converted space to accommodate soldiers, veterans and nurses and the people who stepped in and offered their services when it was needed the most.

A soldier wearing a gas mask in Front of the Alberta College Building (now Old St. Stephen’s College), ca. 1917.  (City of Edmonton Archives, EA-63-115).
A soldier wearing a gas mask in Front of the Alberta College Building (now Old St. Stephen’s College), ca. 1917.
(City of Edmonton Archives, EA-63-115).

Throughout most of its history, St. Stephen’s College functioned primarily as a teaching facility and a dormitory for students.[1] This changed during wartime. Injured soldiers returned home from the First World War in large numbers and space for convalescent homes became vital. In 1917, the Military Hospitals Commission set up a hospital within the college to care for some of Alberta’s wounded soldiers. The converted hospital housed up to 300 soldiers and for the next three years, the hospital treated soldiers who were physically injured or afflicted by nervous diseases from the war. According to one veteran, the convalescent hospital was “second to none in the whole of Canada.” Throughout this time, the college continued to operate by offering courses, although much of the classwork was moved to Alberta College North or to other buildings on the University of Alberta campus.

There are stories that indicate the compassion of the college’s educators and show the close ties that formed between students and staff during the wars. Nettie Burkholder was the principal of the Alberta Ladies College, which was located in the north wing of Alberta College South and served as a residence and teaching college for women. During the First World War, she corresponded with the students who went overseas; soldiers stationed overseas sent over 302 letters and cards to Nettie from the battlefront. Nettie also led the college’s initiative to send comfort packages to the soldiers, which were carefully packed with soap and vermin powder, along with treats. The extent of Nettie’s care shows the strong relationships that she maintained with the students of the college and the compassion she demonstrated during wartime indicates her dedication to the school and to the war efforts.[2]

Nettie Burkholder, c.1888 (Courtesy of Whitby Public Library, 23-000-043).
Nettie Burkholder, c.1888 (Courtesy of Whitby Public Library, 23-000-043).

In the early 1920s, the college made the decision to commemorate the students and instructors who served in the Great War with two plaques. The names of more than 80 students and graduates from the Methodist College who enlisted to fight in the war, as well as the eight who died in battle, are inscribed upon it. A second plaque is dedicated to the eight students of Robertson College who lost their lives. These plaques were erected in the college’s chapel where they have remained to the present.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, enrollment and residency declined as more students enlisted in the armed forces and departed for overseas. This created plenty of extra space in the building and St. Stephen’s College offered the use of their northern wing to students in the Canadian Officer Training Corps, who used it as a barracks. The college also leased a portion of the building to the University of Alberta hospital as a dormitory for their nurses. In 1943, Principal Aubrey Stephen Tuttle allowed an additional 45 nurses to room in the building’s west wing, resulting in the number of resident nurses to surpass resident students. Many of the male students who resided at St. Stephen’s College at this time said that there was no issue in sharing the residence with the nurses. D. J. C. Elson, a former Dean of the college, noted that an unusually high number of United Church ministers married nurses around the time of the Second World War and shortly thereafter.

Commemorative plaque in the Old St. Stephen’s chapel, 2014 (Photo by Erin Hoar).
Commemorative plaque in the Old St. Stephen’s chapel, 2014 (Photo by Erin Hoar).

By early 1941, five pupils from the college’s theological program had enlisted in the Second World War. The first student casualty was Royal Canadian Air Force Observer, Flight Sergeant Alexander Granton Patrick. Patrick was killed on January 28, 1942, at the age of 22. Just days later, the college held a memorial service for the fallen soldier in its chapel. The death of a student impacted the members of the college, as shown in the correspondence between Dean Cylo Jackson and Patrick’s mother. Jackson wrote that Patrick was “a kindly lad, upright with a directness in his look and speech which made him engaging…I am very sorry for the loss which the church sustains in his passing.” The Dean’s personal words indicate the relationship that existed between staff and students, which was clearly visible during a time of tragedy.

Throughout both of the wars, when news of casualties reached St. Stephen’s, it affected the students and staff. Wartime proved to be a difficult period, but also illustrated how the people of St. Stephen’s College stepped up and supported their fellow Albertans. The college gave their space, services and whatever else they could to contribute to the war efforts. The stories of compassion from Nettie Burkholder and Cylo Jackson demonstrated how strong the bonds between students and instructors could be. The history of the college during the war years highlight an important era in St. Stephen’s history.

For more information on the history of Old St. Stephen’s College, refer to the previous post: The First Heritage Landmark Built on University Grounds.

Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer.


Designation File # 132, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.

Elson, D. J. C. “History Trails: Faith, Labour, and Dreams.” University of Alberta Alumni Association. (Accessed September 23, 2014).

Schoeck, Ellen. I Was There: A Century of Alumni Stories about the University of Alberta, 1906-2006. Edmonton, Canada: The University of Alberta Press, 2006.

Simonson, Gayle. Ever-Widening Circles: A History of St. Stephen’s College. Edmonton, Canada: St. Stephen’s College, 2008.

University of Alberta. “University of Alberta: St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).

University of Alberta. “University of Alberta: University Facilities, Departments, and Faculties During WWII.” (Accessed January 29, 2015).

[1] A note on naming: during the First World War, the institution was known as Alberta College South. ACS and Robertson College were amalgamated and the name St. Stephen’s College was chosen in 1927. It became known as Old St. Stephen’s College in 1952.

[2] Special thanks to Adriana Davies for providing the information on Nettie Burkholder. For further information on Nettie, refer to Davies’ essay “The Gospel of Sacrifice: Lady Principal Nettie Burkholder and Her Boys at the Front” in The Frontier of Patriotism: Alberta and the First World War, edited by Adriana A. Davies and Jeff Keshen, that is soon to be released.

What is OPaC?

Alberta Culture and Tourism manages the Online Permitting and Clearance (OPaC) system, which has two main purposes: to discover if a historic resource will be impacted by a proposed development and to regulate the approval of archaeological and palaeontological excavation permits.

Developers and municipalities use OPaC as a tool to determine if a proposed development may affect a historic resource. Before beginning development, the project’s proponent submits an application for approval to proceed. The application is reviewed by the Historic Resources Management Branch to determine if the proposed development has the potential to damage any historic resources, such as archaeological, palaeontological, historic or Aboriginal traditional use sites. The Branch reviews approximately 3,000 development applications each year!

Archaeologists and palaeontologists obtain permits through OPaC before proceeding with an excavation. Anyone who intends to excavate for the purpose of archaeological or palaeontological research must submit an application with the details of their project to the Historic Resources Management Branch for review. Permits are given out in order to regulate the amount of excavation activity that takes place in the province and to ensure that those who are excavating for archaeological and palaeontological purposes are qualified to do so. 500 applications for archaeological and palaeontological research permits are received per year by the Branch. The Archaeological and Palaeontological Research Permit Regulation has more information on the qualifications necessary to hold such permits and the conditions under which studies must take place.

Ten years ago, applications were managed the old fashioned, paper-based way and reviewing them was a much slower process. With the boom in the oil and gas industry, the workload increased substantially and this created the need for a more efficient permitting system. In 2009, the idea of OPaC was introduced as a semi-automated way to process applications. This was a welcome transition and has made the application procedure more convenient for developers who are seeking to conduct work on Alberta’s land as well as for the people managing the applications.

There are a number of advantages to the OPaC system:

  • It has brought a consistent approach to the process and ensures that applications and inquiries are addressed in a timely manner.
  • The online database stores information on the location of archaeological, palaeontological and historic resources as well as Aboriginal traditional use sites. This data is used to build a cumulative sense of the resources and developments that are on Alberta’s landscape. This way, strategic measures can be taken to protect the resources.
  • It serves as a starting point to capture heritage data and assists in identifying issues in advance to better protect Alberta’s historic resources.

With the help of the Geographic Information System (GIS), we can map the locations of proposed developments and historic resources to help identify and minimize potential conflicts.

GIS map showing the locations of development projects that have been processed through OPaC.
GIS map showing the locations of development projects that have been processed through OPaC.

OPaC has brought efficiency to the application process, but a wider significance lies in the fact that it supports a regulatory process that helps to discover historic resources that may otherwise go unnoticed and, therefore, unprotected – an important point, since the more we can preserve, the clearer picture we can create of Alberta’s past and this has immense benefits for future generations.

The Historic Resources Management Branch is responsible for the preservation and protection of Alberta’s historic resources as mandated by the Historical Resources Act. OPaC is a key tool in fulfilling this responsibility, as it allows experts the ability to easily and quickly determine the level of impact that could potentially threaten Alberta’s historic resources. Alberta Culture is committed to the preservation and protection of Alberta’s historic resources and this system helps to ensure that the opportunity for enhancing that knowledge is not lost.

For more information on OPaC, please refer to our website.

Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer, with special thanks to the OPaC team for their assistance.

Oil Sands history and archaeology featured in award winner’s poems

In the spring of 2010, I took award-winning poet David Martin on a tour of Bitumount, an oil sands separation plant located on the Athabasca River north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. This provincially-designated historic site was founded in the late 1920s by Robert Fitzsimmons, a man whose unique sense of entrepreneurship and ability to stir convention made him one of the most colourful characters in oil sands history.

Bitumount Site Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort McMurray  (Historic Resources Management Branch, July 2005).
Bitumount Site Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort McMurray
(Historic Resources Management Branch, July 2005).

Fitzsimmons’ story is an important element of David’s recent work, a collection of poems that examines the oil sands milieu from historical, archaeological and even geological perspectives. His compositions have been published in literary journals such as The Malahat Review, Grain magazine, The Fiddlehead and CV2, and he won the 2014 CBC Poetry prize for his oil sands themed poem “Tar Swan.” Fitzsimmons and the oil sands archaeological record are also featured in “Ballad of RCF,” a song from Stone Boat, the second album from David’s pop rock group The Fragments.

Our visit to Bitumount, and the pre-contact period archaeological excavations nearby, provided David with insight into the oil sands past that he could not gain by other means. This illustrates an element of historic resource preservation that is rarely documented: literary inspiration. I spoke to David about the trip, oil sands as poetry and how he incorporates archaeological information into his work.

The powerhouse at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).
The powerhouse at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).

What drew you to write about Robert Fitzsimmons and Bitumount?

I felt that the Fitzsimmons story offered me a smaller, more manageable way to write about the oil sands, rather than to focus on current industrial operations. Fitzsimmons was undoubtedly a very charismatic person, so naturally I was drawn to his experiences. I read about him in several history books, as well as in his personal letters and a small pamphlet that he published; although I quickly learned that he was not always the most reliable source in discussing his own work.

How did the trip to Bitumount and the surrounding area influence your writing?

I had done a great deal of research before the trip, such as reading books and examining documents in the Provincial Archives. However, being at the actual site offered me many details that I would never have discovered in books or photographs. I was able to incorporate these small details into the poems, which I believe helps to give my work a sense of verisimilitude.

I was keen to visit Bitumount because it presented a tangible way to understand the development of the oil sands, and it was fascinating to see it in the context of the surrounding environment: an abandoned industrial site hidden within the boreal forest. As well, there are different phases of history within this single space, such as the original Fitzsimmons plant, the larger provincial pilot plant that was later built and the modern debris left by people who have passed through the area.

Remains of a small barge at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).
Remains of a small barge at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).

What site feature or landscape feature struck you the most?

I had previously seen a brief archival film of Fitzsimmons piloting his boat, The Golden Slipper, and it was an amazing moment for me to see the same boat tucked beneath a small A-frame shelter. The boat is slowly falling apart but the name is still visible, and this was a powerful way for me to connect the history I had been learning about with a physical object in front of me. It’s always inspiring when history appears in a concrete form.

It was also interesting, and a bit eerie, to see handwritten words at the entrance to one of the buildings, supposedly from Ernie Eakins, a long time caretaker of the Bitumount site. In neat blue cursive it reads: “You will never never make it home again if I catch you in this lab.” He probably wrote this note to scare off trespassers, but it was unsettling to read it in the abandoned building.

The incorporation of boreal forest archaeology in your poems is certainly unconventional. What role does archaeology play in your compositions? What source information did you draw upon?

The archaeological work in the Athabasca area was important for my poems because it reveals a historical context that extends back thousands of years. Just as important, though, was my learning about excavations of more recent sites, such as Fitzsimmons’ early drilling camp. The archeological dig serves as a narrative frame for my work; it demonstrates a way of literally uncovering history.

Another archaeological idea that is central to my work is debitage: making inferences about the past based on debris and fragments. Debitage analysis seems like a fitting analogy for what my poems are aiming for — building a connection to the past by using the imagination and the fragments that have survived from that time.

Will you continue to mine historical information for future compositions?

Currently I’m researching about lake sediment sampling for some poems. I’m drawn to the idea that a core sample can contain a great deal of information about what the environment was like thousands of years ago.

Written by: Robin Woywitka, Cultural Land Use Analyst, and a special thanks to David Martin for his participation.

David holding a piece of bitumen (photo by David Martin).
David holding a piece of bitumen (photo by David Martin).

Below is an excerpt from David Martin’s oil sands poetry manuscript:

The road, paved with bitu-phalt,
rutted, dimpled, summer-soft:

a stubborn swipe between
Fitzsimmons and Government.

Frogs draw in counterpoint
behind the boiler house.

Across the river, the Horizon Project,
a mouth-brooding grandnephew,

punctures its dull tonic
with bleats of backfiring cannons –

Where do you stand?
Where do you stand?

The boat is slack, leaves
and moss rising, no one to bail.


South: other minds left behind
a beached steam engine, fridge

shamed in the woods, wind-hewn
garage, stalagmite-filled pump house,

and clutches of tanks and tubs –
all mute actors in a government-funded

play that closed on opening night.

Behind the scrum: a muskeg’s frame
freed of its burden.

Topographic hills relent; a drop
of bitumen syrup galls the whorls,

stains the finger.
The song resents the singer.

Narcisse Blood Remembrance

Mokaakiit Iikakimat!

Narcisse Blood (Tatsikiistamik) was a Blackfoot Elder, teacher, academic, artist and visionary. Narcisse passed away, along with Michael Green, co-founder of the One Yellow Rabbit (OYR) theatre company and founder of the Making Treaty 7 initiative, Michele Sereda, artistic director of Regina’s Curtain Razor Theatre, and dancer Lacy Morin-Desjarlais in a tragic car accident on February 10, 2015. Narcisse was well known to those of us in Alberta Culture and Tourism who had the privilege of meeting and working with him for well over twenty years. His commitment to sharing Blackfoot culture, his welcoming and sharing approach to teaching others and his ability to bring people together will be dearly missed. Seeing Narcisse on the many fieldtrips he took with students from Red Crow College or the chance to hear Narcisse speak and teach others about Blackfoot culture has all been integral to the work we do here at Alberta Culture and Tourism. Through all of his efforts and all of his talents, Narcisse challenged us to see ourselves differently in our relationships with each other, for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. He taught us to be honest about the past but not be limited by the hard legacies left to us. He encouraged us to share stories about the past so we may learn from each other, so Blackfoot people and their stories are shared and heard by others, so we can all understand and appreciate our history better. We are all Treaty people after all.

Narcisse Blood, photo by Jack Brink.
Narcisse Blood, photo by Jack Brink.

In Narcisse’s own words, “mokaakiit Iikakimat”, to strive and persevere, may we all take this message to heart as we continue working together to preserve our past, share our stories and build a more inclusive and meaningful understanding of who we are as a community.

The following are a few personal reflections from the staff at Alberta Culture and Tourism who had long standing personal and professional relationships with Narcisse:

“There are those who stand out in time and place and Narcisse was one of those. He left a legacy of hope and future for our Blackfoot ways of knowing things, all those things that teach about humility, the great spirits teachings and reaching out to those who seek out knowledge about the land. He was a true ambassador and champion for his people.” – Blair First Rider, Aboriginal Heritage, Historic Resources Management Branch

“Narcisse leaves a huge void in the Alberta cultural heritage and arts community and in the hearts of all those who knew him. He contributed in so many ways to building cultural understanding–the heart and soul of what we do. Narcisse worked closely with staff at the Royal Alberta Museum and Alberta Justice on developing the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act. With characteristic patience and good humour, he gently but firmly educated Government of Alberta staff on the importance of bringing home sacred Blackfoot Bundles. The First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act (FNSCORA) – the first repatriation legislation in Canada – is a testament to his vision and his dedication. Over the years, Narcisse’s hard work and unwavering commitment brought home to Blackfoot country sacred Bundles from museum collections around the world.

As a member of the Royal Alberta Museum’s Aboriginal Advisory panel, Narcisse sparked ideas for our displays and counseled us on exhibit development. He helped identify themes for the Museum’s future history galleries, advised us on display content, and encouraged us to think in new ways about what we could achieve, working together. We will miss this esteemed colleague and beloved friend very much.” – Susan Berry, Royal Alberta Museum

“For many years Narcisse worked closely with archaeologists from across the province, including staff at the Royal Alberta Museum and the Archaeological Survey. Narcisse was a visionary who saw the value of collaboration. He routinely invited archaeologists to accompany his Red Crow College students on visits to important archaeological sites, such as buffalo jumps and medicine wheels, so that the students were exposed to both traditional and scientific perspectives. He willingly participated on archaeological tours lending his informed and reasoned voice to the interpretation. He has been a major force in the interpretation of sacred rock art sites in Writing-on-Stone Park, and was a key player in the development of the new Visitor Centre. Few if any other Aboriginal leaders had such a profound and lasting impact on the practice of archaeology across Alberta and on archaeologists themselves. His contributions will live on, but his warm and welcoming presence will be sorely missed.” – Jack Brink, Royal Alberta Museum

We would like to send our heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Narcisse, and Michael Green, Michele Sereda and Lacy Morin-Desjarlais. Our thoughts are with you during this most difficult time.

African American Immigration to Alberta

In the early twentieth century, hundreds of African Americans crossed the border in search of land and opportunity in the Prairie West. Many of these immigrants ultimately settled in Alberta, establishing communities such as Wildwood, Keystone (now Breton), Campsie and Amber Valley. The story of these settlers is one of perseverance on both sides of the border – driven out of the United States by persecution and violence, African American migrants had to overcome racist hostility and other barriers on the road to successful settlement in Alberta.

In the minds of many African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Canada was a land of freedom and opportunity. As detailed by historian Sarah-Jane Mathieu, this positive view was rooted in several factors, including Canada’s status as a refuge for runaway slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, and a general perception that African Americans would enjoy fairer treatment under Canadian than American law. This idealization of Canada was heightened by the harsh reality of life for many African Americans, as promises of land and equality in the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) gave way to segregation, violence and legally-sanctioned discrimination. By the late nineteenth century, many African Americans viewed migration to Canada with increasing favour.

L-R: Thomas Mapp, Richard Hinton, Geneva Mapp, Eva Mapp, Ferris Mapp, Nouvella Hinton, an African American family from Amber Valley, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives, NA-316-1).
L-R: Thomas Mapp, Richard Hinton, Geneva Mapp, Eva Mapp, Ferris Mapp, and Nouvella Hinton, from Amber Valley, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives, NA-316-1).

This view of Canada as a haven for African American settlers would prove overly optimistic. A sharp increase in African American immigration to western Canada in 1909-1910 sparked a severe backlash across the region, including several cities in Alberta. The Edmonton Board of Trade prepared a petition calling on the federal government to act against the “serious menace” of ‘negro’ immigration, warning that it would result in “bitter race hatred” if left unchecked. The petition was endorsed by the Boards of Trade for Fort Saskatchewan, Strathcona and Calgary, and was signed by over three thousand citizens of Edmonton, at a time when the city’s population was only twenty-four thousand. Newspapers printed sensationalist stories about the impending “invasion of Negroes,” and while some voices were raised in support of the rights of African American settlers, the federal government came under intense public pressure to take action.

This pressure placed the Government of Canada in a very awkward position. The government was reluctant to openly admit that its immigration policy was dictated by considerations of race (even though that precedent had already been set with the passage of the Chinese Head Tax in 1885). Specifically barring African Americans from entry into Canada at a time when the government was working hard to attract white American homesteaders would create a glaring inconsistency in Canada’s immigration policy. Further, the Canadian government did not want to risk a public dispute with the American government over the issue by explicitly banning the free movement of some of its people across the border.

Instead of enacting an outright ban, the Canadian government took other measures to try and restrict African American immigration. For example, medical examiners stationed at border crossings were instructed to scrutinize African American immigrants for any medical condition that would justify their exclusion, quietly offering a financial bonus to doctors for each African American immigrant rejected at the border. Inspectors were also told to make certain that African American immigrants had adequate cash on hand to successfully homestead – at least two hundred dollars – even though such agents had the power to waive such a requirement for white immigrants. Frustratingly for the federal government, these measures were met with limited success – African American immigrants proved to be healthy, prosperous and well prepared for the challenge that met them at the border. The influx of African American immigrants thus continued through 1910 and 1911.

Facing continued pressure to act, Minister of the Interior Frank Oliver drafted an Order in Council in 1911 that banned “any immigrants belonging to the Negro race” from entering Canada for one year. The Order in Council was approved by Prime Minister Laurier, but the government continued to stall, fearing that enacting an open ban would harm Canadian-American relations at a time when the two governments were negotiating a major trade agreement. Instead, the Canadian government made one final effort to cut off African American immigration at the source by deploying agents to warn potential immigrants about Canada’s harsh and unforgiving climate. The hypocrisy of this strategy was remarkable – at a time when the Canadian government was working hard to assure white Americans that rumours of Canada’s cold climate were exaggerated, other agents were telling potential African American immigrants that Canada was a barren, arctic wasteland. These measures, coupled with the hostile reception already given to African American immigrants, worked to discourage potential migrants and African American immigration to Canada declined after 1911.

To some degree, this legacy of hostility dictated the settlement patterns of those African Americans, about one thousand, who did make it across the border to settle in Alberta in this period. Rather than accepting the best available land as individual homesteaders, they tended to settle in somewhat isolated rural areas where land was plentiful, if somewhat marginal, and they could establish self-sufficient, independent communities. The isolation that allowed such cohesive communities to form also worked against their survival, however, as the children of the first wave of immigrants tended to move on to Alberta’s urban centres in search of better economic opportunity. Of the early settlements, Amber Valley proved to be the most durable, surviving through the Great Depression and World War Two as an important centre of African American settlement in the province.

The story of early twentieth-century African American immigration is an important chapter in the broader history of agricultural settlement in the Canadian west. African Americans sought land and security in Canada at a time when the federal government was eager to attract homesteaders with farming experience. There was little question that the African Americans fleeing Oklahoma possessed the qualifications that the Canadian government prized in immigrants – even the Edmonton Board of Trade’s petition did not deny that “these people may be good farmers or good citizens.” However, the backlash against them, at a time when they comprised up a miniscule proportion of the population, illustrates the extent to which considerations of race entered into immigration policy and what constituted, in the public mind, a desirable settler for Canada. Approximately one thousand African Americans managed to find a home in Alberta between 1909 and 1911, but the public reaction and sustained effort to keep them from entering Canada speaks volumes about the challenges they had to overcome on the road to starting a new life in Alberta.

Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer.


Mathieu, Sarah-Jane. North of the Colour Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Palmer, Howard, and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.

Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd ed. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.

Celebrate Heritage Day

Heritage Day Poster

We all know that next Monday February 16th is Family Day in Alberta and a time for us to get together and appreciate our loved ones; but did you know that Heritage Canada The National Trust has another reason for you to celebrate next Monday? February 16th is also Heritage Day. The theme for this year’s Heritage Day is Main Street at the Heart of the Community and is a chance to appreciate our historic districts and the vibrancy they bring to our lives. Heritage Canada the National Trust has also launched their I Love My Main Street contest. Check out the link to learn how you can participate.

We believe Alberta’s main streets have many stories to tell and that their continued success contributes to healthy, diverse and aesthetically pleasing communities. As many of you are aware, the Alberta Main Street Program is designed to assist historic commercial areas across Alberta. The program is founded on the understanding that properly conserved heritage areas are destinations in themselves. When conservation is coupled with efforts to attract business, host events and otherwise create an animated public space, historic downtowns can have continued life. The Alberta Main Street Program currently has five members – Camrose, Lethbridge, Old Strathcona (Edmonton), Olds and Wainwright – who are working to ensure their main streets remain the heart of their community. The next time you travel to these communities take the time to stop and stroll the main street – you won’t regret it!

This Family Day take a moment to appreciate your local history and perhaps consider taking your family to a historic district to enjoy the sights and sounds. While you are at it, don’t forget to stop and consider the people, the businesses, the streetscape and the beautiful historic buildings which, collectively make it such a special place to be.

Written by: Rebecca Goodenough, Municipal Heritage Services Officer

The First Heritage Landmark Built on University Grounds

Old St. Stephen’s College sits on the grounds of the University of Alberta near the bus loop. Did you know that it is the oldest building on campus? Designed in the early 1900s by Herbert A. Magoon, the building is a collegiate Gothic style that can be seen among early British universities. The college emulates a castle-like appearance and there are very few other examples like this in Alberta or even western Canada.

Over a century has passed since St. Stephen’s was constructed and the elm trees that were planted during the college’s early years have now grown to almost completely cover the building’s façade. This is a testimony of its endurance and the college’s longevity continues to contribute to its interesting history. This post will look at the unique construction of this structure and detail the notable features that make the Old St Stephen’s College a significant historic resource.

Old St. Stephen’s College, 1974 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-01-M).
Old St. Stephen’s College, 1974 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-01-M).

The construction of Alberta College South, as the building was first known, began in 1910 on the University of Alberta campus and welcomed 41 theology students the following year. The college first functioned as a non-denominational theological school and co-ed residence, offering the basics in biblical scholarship and trained students to become ministers. Church history, biblical languages, systematic theology and homiletics are just some of the courses that were available. Within a decade of the school’s opening, the theological program began to attract students from all over Canada and other parts of the world.

By the early 1900s, Edmonton was home to Alberta College South, a seminary of the Methodist Church, and a Presbyterian instructional college known as Robertson College. In 1925, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches merged, forming the United Church of Canada. Around this time, the Government of Canada passed the United Church of Canada Act, declaring there to be an amalgamation when two or more colleges doing the same classwork were situated in the same locality. The outcome of this had the Robertson College relocate to Alberta College South and the institution was renamed the United Theological College. Two separate boards remained, one for the Methodist church and one for Robertson College, until 1927 when the two boards united and settled on the name St. Stephen’s College.

Old St. Stephen’s College, 1971 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 71-R0001-34).
Old St. Stephen’s College, 1971 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 71-R0001-34).

A new building was built immediately south of the original building in 1952. Old St. Stephen’s College (as it was henceforth called) continued to be used as a student dormitory, while the new St. Stephen’s College held classrooms and offices. By the 1970s, there was an increase in student housing around the university area and less students were choosing to reside at the college. Within a few years, Old St. Stephen’s was vacant and in danger of becoming a parking lot, until considerable protest was mounted by members of the public. Demolition was averted in 1979 when the Government of Alberta leased the property from St. Stephen’s College as office space for the Historical Resources Division of Alberta Culture. The building is now owned by the Government of Alberta and houses many employees of the Heritage Division. This past September, we celebrated 35 years of residency in the historic building.

Old St. Stephen’s College was designed by one of Edmonton’s first architects, Herbert A. Magoon. In the early 1900s, Magoon moved to Western Canada where there was an increasing amount of city development. He eventually settled in Edmonton and quickly became one of the city’s most reputable architects. Magoon was involved in designing a number of buildings that are now Alberta historic resources, including the Knox Presbyterian Church, the Metals Building, the H.V. Shaw Building in Edmonton and the Old Town Hall in Wainwright. A number of Magoon’s designs are of similar style to buildings found in Chicago, where he worked and studied architecture, indicating that he was influenced from his time spent there.

In the spring of 1910, H. A. Magoon was commissioned to design the future St. Stephen’s College. St. Stephen’s was inspired by the architectural style that was popular in Europe in the early twentieth century. The design of the building is consistent with the collegiate gothic style that was common to many colleges and universities built across North America during this time. This design was favoured because it emulated a British tradition found among some early universities. There are subsequent buildings on campus that are in line with the appearance of St. Stephen’s, including the Rutherford Library and St. Joseph’s College.

Alberta Association of Architects, ca. 1906.   Back row: Hopkins, R. P. Barnes, J. Wise, H. D. Johnson, Front row: A. Magoon, F. X. Deggen-Dorfer, A. Pirie.  (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1998).
Alberta Association of Architects, ca. 1906. Back row: Hopkins, R. P. Barnes, J. Wise, H. D. Johnson, Front row: A. Magoon, F. X. Deggen-Dorfer, A. Pirie (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1998).

The exterior’s notable features are its red brick veneer, octagonal towers and battlemented fortifications, which give the structure a castle-like appearance. The overall design of the building fit with the vision of the principal to-be of Alberta South College, John Henry Riddell. Riddell wanted a building that would “stand out, conspicuous against the horizon…appearing so clearly…as to challenge every passer-by.” The resulting structure was an impressive brick building that has drawn comparison to St. James’s Palace in London.

The interior of Old St. Stephen’s has a number of distinguishing features that make the building unique, such as an entrance foyer with oak detailing, a fireplace in the former Dean’s office, a vault and the remnants of a gymnasium on the top floor. When the building was first constructed, it featured 65 bedrooms, a 300 person capacity assembly hall, faculty residences and a dining hall. In 1935, a classroom was converted into a chapel with stained glass windows, which still remains in the north wing of the first floor. The chapel contains the original wooden pews and pulpit that were crafted by a former St. Stephen’s student.

The gymnasium on the 5th Floor, 1974 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-12-M).
The gymnasium on the 5th Floor, 1974. The gym is no longer in use and now serves as a mechanical room for the building (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-12-M).

This is the oldest building to be constructed on the grounds of the University of Alberta, the province’s first post-secondary institution. Although separate from the University, the college has become integrated into the campus over the past century and has served as a recognized landmark in the university area. Old St. Stephen’s is an example that historic buildings need not necessarily be demolished, but they can successfully be reused, thus continuing the preservation of Alberta’s built heritage.

Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer


Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Old St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).

Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950. “Magoon, Herbert Alton.” Accessed January 9, 2015.

Designation File # 132, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.

“Old St. Stephen’s College.” Alberta Past 2, no. 2 (August 1986): 1.

Simonson, Gayle. Ever-Widening Circles: A History of St. Stephen’s College. Edmonton, Canada: St. Stephen’s College, 2008.

St. Stephen’s College, Edmonton: Report #428. Alberta Culture, Historical Resources Division, Historic Sites Service, 1979.

University of Alberta. “University of Alberta: St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).

Heritage Energized Oct. 22-24, 2015! – Save the Dates

Which of you RETROactive readers out there doesn’t love the annual Municipal Heritage Forum? What started in 2007 as a small “Summit for Stakeholders,” has grown into something which has brought Alberta’s heritage community together, building connections and raising the bar. We have received lots of positive feedback on the Forum over the years, and – we have to be honest – it’s also a lot of fun to put on!

Well, this year, as we announced at the Forum in Lacombe that the 2015 event would have a whole different spin, a whole new energy – Heritage Energized! 


Mark your calendars now – October 22-24th – we are linking up our already dynamic Forum with the premier, Canada-wide heritage conservation conversation. We’ll converge in Calgary, one of Canada’s most energetic cities, for a few days of exploration, engagement, and inspiration.

Fred Bradley, Chair, Alberta Historical Resources Foundation
Fred Bradley, Chair, Alberta Historical Resources Foundation

At the 2014 Lacombe Forum, Fred Bradley, Chair of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, announced that the Foundation would be assisting 120 Albertans – including municipal heritage advisory boards, Main Street communities, students, and others – to attend the Heritage Energized through sponsored registrations. Henry Maisonneuve, Alberta Governor of Heritage Canada the National Trust, thanked the Foundation for their strategic partnership in this way, stating that he looked forward to a strong contingent of Albertans participating. Stay tuned to RETROactive for additional information on how you may be eligible for one of these spaces.