The History of Whitehorse United Church

This is a brief history of the Whitehorse United Church, including information compiled by Merton Friesen on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Church (1978), notes from Doreene Wahl (1996) and incorporating the early history which was compiled by Mr. D.E. McAllister. The more recent material has been taken from minute books of various groups, church records, and conversations with church members.

In the Beginning…

At the time the United Church of Canada came into being in 1925, there was no Methodist or Presbyterian Church in the City of Whitehorse, although there had been a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. J.J. Wright, in the area as early as 1900. He went on to Dawson City, the original capital of the Yukon, as its population exceeded that of Whitehorse.

In 1926, Rev. Findlay, who had overseen the Presbyterian Church in Dawson for 5 years, came to Whitehorse, and the United Church came into being. At that time, it was called St. Andrew's United Church and was located on Main Street, just off Second Avenue approximately where Mac's News is now.

In 1928 the church closed due to its financial situation. The minister at that time, Rev. McIntosh, proceeded to Dawson City until 1932 when that church was also closed for financial reasons. For those who do not have any gray in their hair, this was the time of "The Depression" and the church was not alone in its financial difficulties. However, it seems it took longer for the church to recover because the United Church in Whitehorse did not function again until 1954, and that is where this story begins.

The Restart

The population of Whitehorse had increased considerably by 1954 due to the construction of the Alaska Highway, a product of the Second World War. Ore was now being shipped from Mayo to Whitehorse for distribution to other points, and two military bases had been established in the area. The Army settled in the Takhini area, and the Airforce was in the present Airport and the Hillcrest area. The civilian airport and the Department of Transport were located on the opposite side of the runway, just at the top of the cliff behind the church building.

Through the efforts of the Simpson family, together with those of Padre Ezekiel Martin, then the Chaplain at the R.C.A.F. Station, the church offices in Toronto were persuaded that the time had arrived for the re-opening of the church here. Ads were placed in the paper and United Church people gathered for services in the old Capitol Theatre at the corner of 3rd and Main Street. Padre Martin served as minister but was available only when services did not conflict with his military duties. The congregation numbered about 12.

The Board of Stewards and the Women's Association were formed by May 1954. During that summer a student minister, Mr. William Annis arrived. Services were now being held in the Elks Hall which at that time was situated on the lot now occupied by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce at the comer of Second and Main. Some of our present members can remember worshipping in that building with the bar and Saturday night empties piled at the back. Sunday School classes were held in member's homes.

The congregation was officially constituted September 12, 1954, by Rev. Dr. W.P. Bunt, then Superintendent of Missions for B.C. and the Yukon. We were included in the Vancouver Presbytery of the British Columbia Conference. We were considered a Mission charge as it was necessary for us to obtain financial assistance from the Church Offices in Toronto.

Mr. Annis had to return to his studies, and we were without a minister until February 1955, when Rev. Art Chapple was appointed to this field. Art, in his 20's, arrived in the Yukon winter's cold to be our first full-time minister. A room on the 2nd floor of the Boyle home was both his home and his office. There were no apartment blocks or suites in town.


Building the Building

We were still without a church building, services had moved to the Masonic Hall, which is presently a vacant lot on First Avenue. The next move was to the I.O.D.E. Hall which is now the parking lot behind Hougen's. The need for our own building had long since been realized and the Board of Stewards had set up a Finance Committee, and Herb Wahl served as one of the chairmen of that committee.

First a site had to be chosen. Early members of the congregation will recall this posed some difficulty, as the then Commissioner of the Yukon Territory was not enthusiastic about the whole idea. An architect Arthur Erickson from Vancouver designed the building, Mr. Sid Higgens was the contractor, and materials were purchased. A mere handful of people undertook to build a building for a completely unknown future. The population was very transient, and who knew what the future of Whitehorse would be - it could become like Dawson, almost a ghost town, or perhaps it would end up the size of Vancouver. Also, this building was constructed when getting freight into this area was something else again. Supplies were always arriving "on the next boat" and even the Lord didn't know when that was. Of course, sometimes this worked in reverse. The Women's Association ordered 100 chairs at $6.00 each and they arrived before there was a building in which to put them! Fortunately, one member of the congregation worked for Customs and was able to store the chairs in the warehouse.

The reports of the Finance Committee are absolutely fantastic. Where did the money come from? It came in - in bits and pieces - and of course is still coming in. There were times when there wasn't a single cent in the coffer and absolutely no immediate apparent source of income, yet construction continued.

Work began on the site at Main and 6th, July 1957 and had progressed sufficiently by February 1958 for the congregation to hold services in the building. There is an item in the Session Minutes which states the first service or Worship was held in the new building early in February. The contract for the heating was not let until the end of February. However, the furnace had blown up in the I.O.D.E. Hall and the congregation decided they might as well freeze in their own building. The lower hall was completed first and the services were held down there.

Many talents have passed through the doors of this building. We have been fortunate to have so many willing hands. The basic shell of our building was contracted out, but everything else came from the congregation. The early talents were manual and money. The Women's Association which became the United Church Women held teas, bazaars, bread making contests, rummage sales and catered to dinners. They purchased the piano, tables, chairs and most of the materials for the Sunday school. They also provided the funds for the cupboards in the kitchen and purchased the stove, dishes and cutlery.

Laminated cedar beams, designated for the R.C.A.F. chapel in Whitehorse had been shortened by White Pass Railway. Not of value to the R.C.A.F. plan, already underway, the beams were offered to Whitehorse United Church.  Our plans were re-designed to accommodate these beams.

The men of course were doing their bit, in addition to providing a great deal of muscle power. The A.O.T.S. was established in 1955 and for several years put on a community minstrel show. The community was not as sophisticated as it is now, and the minstrel show involved everyone and was a "really big show". The A.O.T.S. started the annual Christmas Carol Festival in 1958 and it used to be a two-evening performance, a packed house both nights. It was taped by C.B.C. and excerpts were played over the radio throughout the Christmas season. The A.O.T.S. also sold nuts, and any lilac bushes you see about the town are probably the result of another of their projects. With their funds the men provided the organ, assisted in buying the choir gowns, furnished the minister's study, (the furniture was handmade), and they also did the landscaping around the church. Unfortunately, the A.O.T.S. was a victim of the changing times and is no longer active.

The Dedication Service was held on October 12th, 1958, with Rev. N.D. McInnes, Chairman of the Vancouver Presbytery, officiating. Rev. R.N. Henderson, Supt. of Missions for B.C.; and Rev. C.D. Powell, Supt. of Missions for Alberta and the N.W.T., were also present.

In 1959, property was purchased in Riverdale (Donjek Rd) and the manse was built, with funds supplied by the Women's Association. They also provided considerable funds to complete the Narthex. One feature, the stone fireplace in the narthex was greatly used in the first two decades. It’s warmth and glow added to congregational functions in the winter and to the small congregations of summer services.

The Committee of Stewards have been a busy group, trying to make the income meet the expenses. Since our Church and Manse were both fairly new and built with borrowed money it has been hard to keep up the schedule of payments on principal and interest. At the time of our building venture the Home Mission Board loaned us the sum of $15,000. The Metropolitan Council of Vancouver Presbytery loaned the sum of $10,000, which was later taken over by the Board of Home Missions; and in addition to this the sum of $10,000 was borrowed from the Bank of Montreal. A grant of $15,000 was received from the Board of Home Missions for the Church Building and $3,000 for the manse. Additional money in the amount of $4,500 was received as a loan from the Home Mission Board and a loan of $11,090 was secured from the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Rev. A.J.A. Chapple resigned and in May 1959 a call was sent to Rev. Francis T. Lovelock of Fullerton, Ontario, to be our minister.

Rev. Lovelock only served as minister for about a year (1959-1960).  In July 1960 a Rev. William Kitto from the Maritimes was the supply minister.  They had wanted a Yukon holiday so stayed in the Manse and led the worship services.

Congregational Life in the Sixties

A call was then made to Rev. Harold P. Marston who was our minister for 10 years (1960 – 1970) along with his wife Dorothy.

Around 1960 Whitehorse United Church moved from the Vancouver Presbytery of B.C. Conference to the Peace River Presbytery of Alberta Conference. This placed us with churches of similar life and problems.

An active group at the time was the Y.P.U. – Young People’s Union. This group assisted in the growth of our church, they provided the money and the muscle power to paint the nursery room and they constructed the life size creche which appears outside our church each Christmas.

The Sunday School functioned in the early days. Classes were held in the Len Millar home, across from the Masonic Hall, in the Simpson and Lester homes on Wheeler Street and in the Bill Taylor home, now the Yukon Chamber of Mines building. Margaret Healy was one of the early Sunday School Superintendents. Our present congregation is impressed when they hear the Sunday school attendance is near 100; there have been years when it was closer to 150. There were classes in every nook and cranny in the building including the tiny room directly at the back of the lower hall. Jim McMahon and the Jr. boys met there.

We have always had a choir and can usually boast the largest church choir in the city.

The Board of Elders was not formed until November 9, 1958, and the first meeting was held December 3, 1958. Chris Jensen was at that meeting and continued to serve on the Session until his death in March 1977. Dave Gairns was also a member of that first Session. The Session did not conduct regular meetings until September 1960. At that time there were five elders, and at the meeting of April 27, 1959, it was suggested that the session be increased to one elder per every 10 family units and there were then 220 family units and it was felt it would increase to 350 by fall.

The communion plates were purchased in 1959 with an anonymous donation, and the communion trays and glasses were purchased by the Session in 1963. The baptismal font was constructed and donated by Sid Higgens in December 1962. The communion table and chairs were built locally, and the communion table is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Edith Simpson. The large Bible on the communion table is a gift from Jack and Martha Irvine. The pedestal stand was presented by members of the congregation in memory of Chris Jensen.

Youth groups have always been active in our church, Tyros, Scouts, Cubs, Explorers, C.G.I.T., Messengers and more recently a Youth Group for Teens. In the '50's, C.G.I.T. was interdenominational, and met in the Presbyterian Church. The first C.G.I.T. camp was held at Marsh Lake in 1955, and Doreene Wahl was the Director of that camp. In the '60's the United Church Women sponsored a teen group known as the Padded Cell.

A summer vacation school functioned very successfully in the church under of direction of Myrtle Raymond.

Over time we have had several visits by Church Officials. In addition to the persons who came for the dedication, mentioned above, we have had several visits from the Superintendent of Home Missions, Rev. Dr. C.D. Powell. The Right Rev. George Dorey, then Moderator, visited us in 1955 and the Right Rev. Dr. J.R. Mutchmor, Moderator, in 1963. Peace River Presbytery held their Fall Session here in September 1963 when some of the delegates travelled over 1200 miles to attend the meeting. Dr. Mutchmor wrote an account of his visit which appeared in "The Observer" in the January 1964 issue. Presidents of Alberta Conference, Rev. C.F. Johnston and Rev. Dr. C.A.S. Elliott, both visited the congregation during their terms of office.

The congregation enjoyed Dorothy's talent on the organ and with her violin and celebrated with Harold when he received his Honorary Doctorate for his work with Alberta Conference. They also celebrated when Harold's Pee Wee Hockey team finally made the finals. The congregation turned out en masse for the game. We also wept with Dorothy and Harold in the drowning of their 21-year-old son while working on a Yukon summer job.

We went through years of discussion re the Union of the Anglican and United Churches which in the end only produced the Red Hymn Book. There was a new Sunday school curriculum by P.G. White.

The Annual General Meetings had a special flavour in this decade. A.G.M.'s were dinner meetings. The Anglican and United hosted each other's A.G.M.'s so all members could attend his/her own meeting.


Braeburn Camp

Several local churches had been holding their own youth camps at different sites. An idea was devised to unite all these small camps and hopefully create one good camp. And so, in 1968 the Braeburn Lake Christian Youth Camp came into being. Five local churches participated in the formation of this camp, which is located approximately 54 miles northeast, on the Dawson-Mayo road. The camp committee consisted of two lay members and the clergy from the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches. A couple of the buildings came from the Anglican camp, the stove was hauled in from the Catholic camp, and many of the dishes and kitchen utensils came from the United Church camp. New buildings were constructed, again with
volunteer labour, and the members of our congregation played a large part in making that camp the success that it is.

Although some of the groups in the church have disappeared, new groups have been born to take their place. In 1974, the Men's Breakfast Club came into being. This group is working on improvements on the building. They have replaced the outer doors and have also assisted with new carpeting in the Narthex and in the sanctuary. They primarily raise money for Braeburn camp now.

Congregational Life in the Seventies and Eighties

Rev. Don Lewis arrived in July 1970 along with his wife Isobel and children Joanne, Jim and Glen.

With many new members and a well-established church, a big decision was made to get off the support from the Mission Field which had supported the congregation to this point.  The money would be well used helping other struggling United Church congregations.

Don and the congregation supported an ecumenical church in Faro. There were Men's, Women's and Youth retreats held at the various camps.

In 1975 and 1976 we had summer student ministers, which lead to the establishment of a Pastoral Assistant or Assistant Minister in our church.

Church Government changed to the Committee system under Stewards and Session.

In 1978 a 20th Anniversary was held with various fun programs for the congregation.

Services were taped for out-of- Whitehorse members. Peace River Presbytery met in Whitehorse.

Floor coverings were replaced - a Men's Breakfast project. The front entrance was torn down and rebuilt by volunteer labour. The main reason was that a casket could not be taken out the front door. There were improvements and new buildings at Braeburn Lake Christian Camp. An elevator installed for accessibility and a pipe organ was installed.

A new manse was purchased in Porter Creek.

In 1983, there was a 25th Anniversary of building where past members and community were invited. Eleven people came from "outside" including one 89-year-old and one 90-year-old. The guest speaker was Reverend Art Chappel.

We celebrated with the Lewis's: Don's Honorary Doctorate from St. Stephen's College, Alberta Conference. Don's 25 years in the ministry. Isobel named an Award Winner at International Women's Day.  In 1992 there was a weekend celebration of Don's and Isobel's Christian Ministry and their retirement to Alberta.

The Fire

As Rev Don Lewis had a long-term ministry with Whitehorse (22 years), an Interim minister was appointed to help the congregation set priorities and look to the future for a new call.  From August 92 - July 93, Rev. Jack Carbert and wife Deanne from Ontario were appointed.

The church burned after morning service on August 30th, 1992. Fortunately, no lives were lost but the building was destroyed.

Other churches jumped in to help – the Baptist church offered space and the Anglican church offered a regular 9:30 am service on Sundays.  A small Sunday school was carried on through the years at the Anglican church.

The congregation decided to rebuild on the old basement which was not damaged. Architect Barbara Anderson of Form to Function Limited. Work began in the summer of 1993. The sanctuary was reoriented and planned to be “in the round” from the minister, the congregation and the choir loft making a circle.  There is a memory that a rainbow appeared within the smoke of the fire which led to the rainbow windows are the front of the new sanctuary.  The acoustics of the building were designed to maximize the power of music, prayer and praise.

Special presentations have always been an important part of the church. Early in 1978, Edo Nyland had presented a carving of the United Church Crest, there was a United Church crest hooked rug by the church women, and Don Lewis’ artistic wall hangings were part of this legacy.  Unfortunately, they were all lost in the fire.

Edo again is presenting a carving, this time of a gold panner on his knees at the edge of a creek. The carving carries the Bible verse, "Faith - More Precious Than Gold".


Congregational Life Continues into the Nineties

In August 1993, Rev Robert Oliphant was called and arrived with his partner Marco Fiola from Ontario.

He and the congregation were very busy with the rebuilding of the church and on March 26th and 27th the church was opened and dedicated.  The previous Christmas Eve services had been held at the Yukon Arts Centre.

During this time there was training for committees etc. as the form of governance had changed to a Council and Committee structure.

There were many music workshop weekends, inclusive language was promoted, there was a Barbershop choir, church picnics at Braeburn Camp and regular support of the Soup Kitchen held at the Roman Catholic church.

The Moderator Rt. Rev. Stan McKay visited the congregation.

Rev. Oliphant left the congregation in August 1999.


To Be Continued Soon...