History Trails

Everyone who has passed through the portals of learning at the University of Alberta is familiar, directly or indirectly, with St. Stephen's College. But to date little has been written of its history. Now, on the occasion of the building of a new theological addition to the mother college, we are afforded an insight into the faith, labour, and dreams that accompanied the growth of this laudable religious institution.

Our chronicler, Mr. D. J. C. Elson, B.A.'35, M.A. (Columbia) '38, is Dean of the Faculty of Theology at St. Stephen's College.


Faith, Labour, and Dreams

by D. J. C. Elson

Not long ago, from the lectern in the north classroom of St. Stephen's College, there was an unobstructed view of the campus to Saskatchewan Drive. Now, the Rutherford Library stands where it ought to stand, and we rejoice in this most beautiful and important building. From the south the university farm could be seen on a clear day, but now row upon row of hospital buildings, laboratories and residences separate us. The solitariness of this first building on the campus is being relieved as the hopes of those who first planned the university are being realized year by year. And the expectation that there would be a separate theological college beside the residence is being fulfilled even now. The superstructure is up and if all is well a modern unit will be ready for occupancy by next October.

There is a saying that "the first shall be last, and the last first", and it has been so, to a certain degree, in this matter of buildings.

Our legislators have shown good judgment in making available large sums of money in these days of prosperity so that recently our growth as a university has been relatively painless. Their predecessors were wise in the selection of a site in a city which promises to make their wildest dreams seem like a prosaic tale.

To most of us the development of our city and university is taken for granted, but they did not come to their present state without the faith, labour, and dreams of many men and women. In some ways the same is true of St. Stephen's College, but this conspicuous exception must be noted that it has always been a private church college financed by the church and its friends so that its growth has been slower and more painful.

When the Methodist Church in 1903 could number 1,890 members from Didsbury to the Sturgeon and from Lavoy to Carvell's Corners, and Edmonton city could claim 163 and Strathcona 151 of these, it was moved to think in terms of a college. The first motion is a document of faith.

Judge H. C. Taylor moved "That whereas this north-western part of our Dominion is very rapidly settling up, and whereas conditions are such in many parts of these vast territories that educational advantages either do not exist at all, as in the case of isolated ranchers, or only to a limited extent in many other instances: And whereas the City of Edmonton has grown to be an important and influential centre and has every prospect of becoming, in the near future, commercially one of the most flourishing cities in Western Canada, a future assured not only by its geographical position, marking it as a railway centre in at least one if not two great transcontinental lines, but on account of the vast and fertile agricultural lands tributary to it. And whereas the Methodist Church has always recognized the value of all forms of sound education as a handmaid to religion.

"Therefore Resolved: That this District Meeting respectfully memorialize the Annual Conference to render all possible assistance by counsel and influence to initiate such a movement as may result in the establishment in the city of Edmonton, at as early a date as possible, such an Educational institution as the rapidly developing condition of our Church and Country require." [1]

This was the initiating motion which brought Alberta College into being, and it was from this school that Alberta College South, which we now know as St. Stephen's, was to spring.

Between the petition and the opening of the College no time was lost. The first principal, Dr. J. H. Riddell, has written: "On Monday morning, October 5th, 1903, in a large room over Johnstone Walker's store on Jasper Avenue, east of McDougall Street, the unnamed College began its career with no students, no staff, no buildings, no endowment: only a principal and a little group of hopeful loyal men." [2]

Before the year was out, however, there were 15 students enrolled in Arts, 35 in the business courses and 23 in music and elocution. It was from the fifteen in Arts that the first students for the theological college were to come, but before that some of them were to register in the first classes at the University of Alberta. The fact that two years of the Arts course had to be taken extramurally from McGill may have quickened the conscience and provincial pride of our legislators to hasten the founding of our university.

From these earliest days names long associated with the University of Alberta were already known in Alberta College. At the formal opening of the College on December 3, 1903, Mr. Rutherford, M.L.A., was present. Mr. C. E. Race, who Dr. Tory said was Alberta College's best gift to the university, was brought from Coburg to head the business school. Dr. H. M. Tory who had charge of McGill's extramural work visited the Alberta conference in May 29, 1905, and as the minutes have it, "Rev. Professor Tory of McGill University was introduced by Rev. G. W. Kerby and briefly addressed the Conference." [3]

So great was the growth of this institution that the rather flamboyant words of the pastoral address to the annual conference in 1908 are really sober history. It reads in part: "We commend to you the educational interests and institutions of our Church which are so essential to the foundation and building up of an efficient ministry: and among our many colleges, we are especially proud of our connectional institution at the Capital, Alberta College, which has had a splendid founding, such efficient management, such phenomenal growth, and gives promise of becoming one o f the proudest possessions of our Church, and the brightest in all the galaxy of institutional gems, which are at once the crown and glory of Methodism." [4]

When a course in theology was suggested for Alberta in 1907 the educational committee of the Methodist Church gave Alberta College the right to establish a faculty in theology as soon as the provincial university was in operation. This close connection between the university and the theological college had been intimate from the start. One set of early minutes reads: "The establishment of the Provincial University in the city of Strathcona will mark a new era in the progress of higher education in Alberta. It is the purpose of the Board to seek the closest possible affiliation with the University and to co-operate in every way with the Government to build up a thorough educational system in the Province." [5]

When the University of Alberta received its charter and land was set aside for its buildings, Alberta College was the first to avail itself of a 99 year lease on several acres of land. Principal Riddell has written as follows: "As to the location of the University of Alberta, which had not at that time been settled by legislative action, there appeared a rather hectic struggle between Calgary and Edmonton at the session of the Legislature in 1909 for the possession of this coveted distinction. During the autumn, previous to the final settlement of the location of the university, the principal of Alberta College cut his way through the woods, cleared the timber from a portion of the newly acquired site of ten acres, and after digging out the basement laid the foundation of a new building. It was afterwards freely stated that the presence o f this basement and foundation exercised considerable influence in making the decision favour Edmonton." [6]

Whether Dr. Riddell meant that he dug the basement by hand, is doubtful, but if there had been no other way he was capable of doing it. He was impatient of any delay.

When the report of the college board was made in 1911 the new building had been completed at a cost of $130,000. "One year ago we told you that we intended to put on the university grounds a building which would be a credit to Methodism. We are pleased to tell you that we believe we have succeeded in carrying out our purpose. Not only has the faculty of theology been enlarged to meet the needs of 41 candidates, but the students have the advantage of taking lectures in English, Ethics and Philosophy in the University under Dr. Broadus and Dr. MacEachran. In our arrangements we are pleased to inform the Conference that Alberta College is able to offer her students very favourable advantages." [7]

In architectural style Alberta College closely resembles St. James' Palace in London. Many have felt that Edmonton, then on the frontier, was a strange environment for a mediaeval castle especially when there was no ivy to soften its lines and no uniformed guards to draw one's eyes from its high turrets. The artistic judgment of the architect and builders may be open to question, but their faith, courage and zeal leave nothing to be desired. In the earliest days of this university, one hundred and twenty students were given residence on the campus, and a new faculty was housed.

The green cylinders which draw so much criticism are honourable scars, for during the war most of the building was a convalescent hospital. The chaste fire escapes were replaced by these spirals, and although veterans never had to use them, countless boys have climbed them only to be washed down by irate students to whose ears the clatter of little feet was anything but conducive to study.

During the last war the No. 2 Army training corps was housed in the north wing so that the college continued to make a contribution to its country. In both wars the student body was well represented in every branch of the armed services and -the honour rolls and plaques bear mute testimony to the fact that many did not return. At one period in its existence the building was in danger of passing to the university as a nurses' home. At a time when the registration in theology was low, the suggestion was made by the college board that overtures should be made to the university with this end in view. The outcome was that the south wing was separated from the rest of the building and became the nurses' home for the University hospital. At some future date some social scientist will probably wonder why so many United Church ministers married nurses between the years 1929 to 1947. This may have been one of the contributing factors.

If the relation of Alberta College South to the University of Alberta was close, it was to form another alliance even closer with Robertson College. The theological institution of the Presbyterian Church had been called into being in 1910 and was opened in 1911 in a ten roomed house on 76th Avenue. Dr. Samuel Walter Dyde and Dr. J. M. Millar were appointed with Dr. A. T. Barnard in charge of the extramural work. 1913 marked the beginning of cooperation between the faculties which lasted until church union in 1925. The more commodious facilities of Alberta College were used for lectures and the students had the advantage of a larger academic staff of extremely well qualified men.

In 1927 when the two boards were united a new name was considered and several were suggested, among them, Mount Rundle, St. Paul's, Keewatin, St. Augustine, St. Stephen's, Clement. The motion by Dr. J. M. MacEachran that St. Stephen's be the name was adopted. The Presbyterians brought with them a fund which paid the mortgage on the old building and provided a substantial reserve. There was no marriage of convenience, but of love and mutuality.

It is not the building, not the boards, nor even the faculties which are the creators and bearers of the tradition, but rather the students and alumni. St. Stephen's has graduated 230 men and women who have not only filled pulpits in Alberta and throughout the church, but have gone into other Christian work.

A superintendent of home missions, three principals and one vice-principal of Alberta and Mount Royal College and two principals of Indian Schools have served within the province. The head office of the Church has taken one as associate secretary of Christian Education and another for the same position in the department of Evangelism and Social Service. Five professors of theology are among its graduates, one of whom is the present principal of St. Stephen's. The Church's first lay leadership school at Naramata was founded by an alumnus. In still wider circles its graduates have served as members of the Alberta Legislature, two as university professors, one the secretary of the John Milton society in New York, another the secretary of the World Council of Churches.

As a residence for students of every faculty, St. Stephen's has been attractive. Scarcely anyone who has come to it has been anxious to leave for more pretentious lodgings. Its floors have squeaked, the wind has howled around its windows, the rain has run in from the towers, the plaster has spread itself on the floors, the heating system has flooded, has banged or hissed and not heated. But the meals have been good and the fellowship which comes from a small group with self-government has been better. The riot squad of the Edmonton police department and the fire department has not been called too often — for the towers have lent themselves to an adequate defence against the onslaught of other residences.

The spirit of St. Stephen's has been friendly and informal. The old custom of small tables with a new seating plan each fortnight has helped men to know every other man in residence. The intramural basketball, volleyball and badminton have kept a friendly rivalry alive, while the annual hike, sleigh rides and other social functions have developed an esprit-de-corps. The religious life has been cultivated informally in vesper services and the inevitable "bull sessions". This closely knit community has participated in the activities of the university. Of the twelve members forming the first students' council, seven were from Alberta College and there are still representatives on the council. In interfaculty enterprises a Theology team is usually listed. St. Stephen's is an active, integral part of the university.

The chapel is a lovely sanctuary. Many who have criticized the exterior have been silenced in this place of worship. The scarlet and gold reredos makes the white cloth of the communion table and its burnished cross the centre of attention. So secure a hold has this chapel on the affection of many that even as early as 8:10 each morning a group of men and women assemble for prayer. Many graduates, even some undergraduates have come here to be married, while some have returned with their children to be baptized.

Since the great depression the existence of this institution has been precarious. There were many in the East, who having little idea of the extent of our province and its particular needs, felt that better theological training could be given in a larger college. The General Council in 1950 decided that it was a time for advance, not retreat. In consequence a program for the complete renovation of the old building has been undertaken, a fourth professor has been added, and a new building is underway. The campaign to raise $202,400 has begun and the principal and board of management are forging ahead with the same faith as their forefathers, resolved that St. Stephen's College shall continue to serve the province, the university and the Church in this new time of opportunity and challenge.

  1. Minutes of Edmonton district meeting, 1903.
  2. Methodism in the Middle West-J. H. Riddell, Ryerson, p. 272.
  3. Minutes of Alberta conference of the Methodist Church, 1905, p. 59.
  4. Digest of the minutes of Alberta conference of the Methodist Church, 1908.
  5. Digest of Alberta Conference minutes of Methodist Church, 1908. Report of the board of managers of Alberta College.
  6. Riddell-op cit., pg. 274.
  7. Digest of minutes of Alberta Conference of the Methodist Church, 1911, pg. 74.
Published Winter 1951.
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