The History Of Morinville

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The Indigenous

For centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Indigenous would move through the area of Morinville, following the bison herds and the seasons through the years. At first, the Blackfoot were the dominant Indigenous group, along with the Stoney.

As Europeans began to push in from the east, it would drive the Cree and the Metis towards the area, leading to interactions between the Blackfoot and those groups that, for the most part, was peaceful.

Today, Morinville sits on Treaty 6 land, and nearby is the Alexander First Nation. At the time of the treaty singing in 1877, the citizens of Alexander First Nation were promised 128 acres per citizen in a land entitlement agreement. Unfortunately, there was a shortfall of land provided by the Canadian government and most Indigenous would not get the amount of land they had been promised. In 1992, after research showed the shortfall, the Indigenous of Alexander First Nation were given 15,140 acres of land and $10 million put into a trust.

The Founding of The Community

Morinville can thank Father Morin, a missionary, for its very existence. Hence, the name of the community comes from Father Morin, who was born on March 13, 1852 in Montreal. Ordained on Aug. 10, 1884, he was always intrigued by the North-West area of Canada and jumped at the chance to begin the colonization of French-Canadians out to the west when given the opportunity.

On July 14, 1892, he would leave Montreal with 14 adults and 10 children, arriving on July 21 in Edmonton where they were taken to St. Albert and the process of founding Morinville had begun. In September of that year, another 21 adults and seven children, made the journey out to the west to settle in the new community.

The next several years were tough for the new colonists, but the number of residents to the area continued to grow. By the end of 1892, 206 people, including 79 children, had made the journey to their new home of Morinville. By 1893, with the 11th trip from the east by Father Morin, the population had increased to 308 adults and 153 children. Around the area, the Francophone population of Morinville was surrounded by the German settlers who had come around the same time. Both groups would get along extremely well and worked together on many occasions.

By 1894, the community had a small chapel, store, and a post office, as well as several other establishments that marked it as a growing centre for commerce, entertainment and more in the area.

In 1895, the first rectory was built, a simple log structure, that was later moved and joined into the second building in 1912 to form the current rectory. More on that later.

The community would slowly grow, and by 1901 the decision was made to turn the Hamlet of Morinville into the Village of Morinville. Omer Gouin would serve as the first comptroller for the community.

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Four years later, the Canadian National Railway reached Edmonton and most in Morinville knew it was only a matter of time before it reached their growing community. In 1906, that line arrived and by 1907 the train was making two trips a day into Morinville.

Also, in 1907, the first municipal election would be held, replacing the role of comptroller with a village council.

By 1909, Morinville had three hotels, three general stores, a hardware store, a grocery store, a furniture store, a bakery, two blacksmith shops, two grain elevators, two banks and much more.

In 1911, with a population of 1,165 inhabitants, Morinville made its next step becoming a town on April 11, 1911.

The town would suffer a tragedy in April of 1920 when a fire tore through the community, burning down an entire section of Main Street, the barber shop, and the pool hall, as well as the town office, the Royal Bank, and several offices. As a result, town council would establish a regular fire brigade and purchase a fire pump, which was soon upgraded after it was discovered to be inadequate for dealing with fires.

From this, Morinville would slowly grow and today boasts nearly 10,000 people in the community.

The Musee Morinville Museum

Located in the historic Notre Dame Convent, a place I will speak of later, the Morinville Museum features 5,200 square feet of renovated space that highlights the history of the community from the early years all the way up to today.

Inside the museum, you will find a variety of exhibits and displays. The east wing of the museum features a 1928 Model A Ford, while the west-wing features a mid-century barber shop and beauty salon. You can also visit the Morinville as a reflection of the Canadian spirit display, which looks at the Francophone roots of Morinville as a microcosm of Canada. There is also an exhibit that looks at the pioneer women of the community including Sarah Rondeau, the town midwife in the early 1900s, Louise Billo, who was the town administrator from 1943 to 1961, and Mary Ann Balsillie, the mayor of Morinville from 1992 to 1995.

In addition to those exhibits, you can look through the many items donated by residents that highlight the town’s past, old photos of Morinville, books, newspapers and much more.

The Canada 150 Mosaic Mural

When it came time for Canada to celebrate its 150th anniversary, many communities around Canada were assigned the task of creating a Canada 150 Mosaic Mural. Across the country, 150 communities, using 80,000 individual paintings, created these murals to celebrate Canada’s birthday. Morinville was lucky enough to be one of the communities selected and any visit to Morinville is not complete without a visit to see the mural.

Located at the Morinville Community Cultural Centre, the dozens of pictures within the mural create a mosaic that features the Roman Catholic Church of St. Jean Baptiste, which was built in 1907. I will look at that building, an important one in the community, later in the episode.

The Notre Dame Convent

One of the most prominent buildings in the community is the Notre Dame Convent, a three-storey brick building constructed in the French-Canadian convent style in 1909. It would see two additions built, in 1920 and 1930. Located next to St. Jean De Baptiste Park, it has a strong association with the early settlers who came to the area, and Les Filles de Jesus, a teaching order of nuns.

The Filles de Jesus had begun in France in 1834 and would come to Canada on Oct. 1, 1902 when Father Alphonse Jan and ten nuns reached the St. Albert Seminary. Upon reaching their location, the nuns realized they could not teach there as they could not teach English. A suggestion was made that the nuns teach in Morinville since there was a Catholic school there that was independent.  Father Either in Morinville would write them, stating quote:

“No diploma is required, it is a Catholic school, free and independent. It has been functioning for three years already with lay teachers. The trustees of this school require three sisters, two teachers, one of whom must be able to teach English.”

On Jan. 21, 1904, described as a very cold day, the four founding Sisters left St. Albert and reached Morinville. The journey was made easier thanks to the sisters sitting under well-wrapped blankets and their feet resting on red hot bricks. One sister would ask Father Either, quote “Is Morinville very big?”, to which Father Either replied, “Not as big as Paris.”

On Feb. 1, 1904, the Sisters began to teach 60 students in French and English. The class was divided into two, one for English and one for French. In 1909, Bishop Legal donated a stretch of land to the Sisters, allowing for the construction of the convent.

The convent soon developed an excellent reputation in Canada as the place that provided a solid education and where discipline was excellent. Many considered it the best school for French Canadian Albertans. The prestige of the building soon began to grow, as did the land borders. By 1920, the original 1909 building could no longer house all the students and it was expanded with a new southern portion. In 1930, a northern portion was added.

In 1972, the convent was sold to the local school district and operated as a day school until June 1977.

On Aug. 27, 1978, the building was declared as a provincial historic site.

In 2005, the building was closed due to extensive asbestos contamination and an intensive clean-up project was undertaken. On June 20, 2008, the old convent opened its doors as the Morinville Notre Dame Developments, restored to provide residential apartment units for residents.

The St. Jean Baptiste Church and Rectory

Prior to the creation of the current church, Morinville was served by a small church that had replaced a chapel built the same year that the French colonists had arrived. Eventually, as the size of the community was growing, there was a need for a new church. That church would be the St. Jean Baptiste Church and Rectory.

When Reverend Ethier arrived on May 8, 1902, he saw 120 Catholic families, 20 of which were German speaking in the area, and he saw the church that looked too modest and simple for the growing congregation. A decision was made to build a new church and Father Either went about getting permission from the Bishop of St. Albert, who wrote him stating, quote:

“This block of land, part of the church property, will be sold for the profit of the parish of Morinville. Refer the persons willing to buy the parcels of this land to Father Leduc. It is he who will conclude the deal, in the dame of the diocesan corporation. It is him that payments will be made, and he will deposit these sums of money in the bank as a building fund for the Parish of Morinville.”

Plans were drawn up by J.A. Senecal, who had been building churches across western Canada since the 1870s, as well as several convents in the Montreal area.

Work began on July 1, 1907, with construction being handled by Archie Munn, the contractor, and a Mr. Barnes, the architect. The total cost of the new church would be $13,000, or over $300,000 today. Construction was no easy task, and often financing was not always there but contributions and loans would come in from residents, helping to ease the burden. Another issue was that due to not having two lateral balconies for the choir or vestry, which resulted in the church shifting during heavy winds, with one part of the construction collapsing. Eventually, this was repaired, and the building was solidified.

After a great deal of work, the new church was finished and opened for its first mass on Jan. 1, 1908. On March 29 of that year, Bishop Emile Legal blessed the church as dedicated to St. John The Baptist. The first marriage in the new church was held on Feb. 24, 1908 between Ferdinand Steffes and Mary Stemper.

In 1912, Reverend Alexis Gauthier strove to beautify the church and he would contract a Montreal artist to paint 18 tableaux. These tableaux would represent the theological virtues and mysteries of the Rosary. The issue was that the parishioners did not like the artwork and Reverend Gauthier was forced to find another artist. He would hire another Montreal artist, Louis-Eustache Monty, who painted over the original paintings of the previous artist. The parish was happy with his work, and they are on display within the church to this day.

Four bells would be installed in November 1926 and would ring for the first time on Nov. 16, 1926 to celebrate the wedding of Edouard Meunier and Vitaline Boissonnault.

While originally constructed of wood, the church would be bricked in 1929.

In 1974, the St. Jean Baptiste Church was deemed a Provincial Historic Site.

Today, the church is one of the most ornate and elaborate Roman Catholic churches anywhere in Alberta, reflecting the late-19th century French-Canadian style.

St. Jean Baptiste Park

Originally the schoolyard of the Convent, the park was built in the 1980s for use by residents in the summer and winter. Within the park you will find a monument that displays the names of the founding families and early pioneers to the area. This was originally located at an intersection when it was built in 1941 but due to safety concerns was moved into the park in 1999.

Also, within the park you will find a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, often surrounded by flowers and shrubbery that makes for an excellent photo spot. The designers of the park also discovered that the statue was located right in the middle of the park by chance, giving a focal feature to the park in the community.

In 2000, a time capsule was buried in a watertight casket with letters, pictures and family histories included inside, as well as a computer with a monitor. It will be opened in June of 2100.

Cardiff Coal Mine

Coal mining was an incredibly important part of the early lives of many rural Alberta communities. If a community had coal nearby, they would not need to ship it in, which saved residents money during the cold winter months on the prairie.

Morinville was one such community that counted itself as lucky for having a good supply of coal in the ground. In a 1909 pamphlet published to attract new residents, it is said, quote:

“There is coal everywhere. Four miles from Morinville, two rich mines are in full operation. The coal bed varies from 20 to 25 feet. Thousands of tons are exported every week. An average of $5,000 will be paid to the laborers each fortnight. Other mines will open soon.

At the time, it was estimated that Morinville sat on a coal bed 20 to 25 feet deep, with some coal being at ground level for easy extraction.

One of the most prosperous mines in the area was the Cardiff coal mine, located at Cardiff, only 1.6 kilometres west of Morinville. Coal was first discovered there in 1895 when Edwidge Chevigny was digging a well and struck coal. A sign on the Cardiff Golf Course at Hole 7 shows where that coal was first found. Before long, Cardiff was operating eight mining operations, the biggest of which was the Cardiff Mine. The mine began operation in 1907. The coal mine was bought in 1910 for $300,000, and further coal mine construction would start in 191. Soon enough, the coal mine was producing 600 tons of coal per day, with a crew of 24 to 75 working at different intervals in the mine. At its height, the mine was the second-biggest coal mine in Canada. This proved to be a boom to the area, causing Cardiff to increase in size to 1,000 residents. It had everything from a 60-room hotel to a boarding house, and even a brothel. Workers at the time made 50 cents per day, eventually leading to a strike in 1919, followed by a second one that lasted from 1922 to 1923. Strikers stopped all traffic outside of Cardiff, and greased rails to stop coal shipments to Edmonton. There were also reports they burned down the homes of scab workers. The mine would continue to operate, through the Alberta Coal Mining Company, until 1944. By that point, it had produced 880,000 tons of coal. During its heyday, the Cardiff coal mine was a major coal centre for the province. 

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