The bulk of St. Henry’s first parishioners originated in Nebraska. The predominately German farming districts around St. Helena and Mennomine were becoming very crowded in the late 1800’s, and people were casting about for a new place to go and
settle. John Schulte came back from Omaha with a fist full of pamphlets sent out by the Canadian government telling of the greatness of Alberta and of all the room and opportunities for settlers. Starting around 1901 Nebraska families began heading north to the Pincher Creek area.
In 1904 the families began meeting to organize plans for a church. Chris Speth donated 10 acres of land for the church and cemetery. Father Lacombe, O.M.I., the venerable and famed missionary, came out in both 1904 and 1905 to look at the chosen location so he could report to Bishop Emile J. Legal, O.M.I. of the Diocese of St. Albert, and get official approval. With this in hand, a committee of trustees was formed to plan and supervise the church building: John Bonertz, Gus Hochstein, Charles Age, Pat Fitzpatrick, Chris Speth and Mike Kunkel.
In addition to donations, money was raised by staging picnics on the river beside the old Yarrow School—these included a merry-go-round, bowling alley, ring boards, ball games, horse races, meals in the schoolhouse, a soft drink stand, open air dance floor, and a band
In the early winter of 1906 Chris Speth and Mike Kunkel figured out that the church building would be 30’ by 50’, and added up how many timbers would be needed; they felled the trees in a burnt-over area about 25 miles west (Wood Mountain). Frank Bogart and others trimmed them, and Fred Schrempp hauled them out to a landing where they were loaded on wagons for the long haul to “the hill”. After the logs were hewn , Chris Speth and Mike Kunkel squared them to 8” by 8” size. Fred Klunker cut and pegged the logs and assembled them for raising.
The original foundation was of rocks, since covered with cement, and was laid by Herman Heitman. A cornerstone with 1906 scratched on it was set at the southeast
corner. Fred Klunker was hired as a regular carpenter and supervisor, with Mike Kunkel as assistant. The entire community helped throughout the summer, with Fred Klunker and Mike Kunkel staying in a tent on-site all summer. Lumber was bought in carloads
from Fernie Lumber; millwork such as windows came from Cushing Mill in Calgary,
with Herman Heitman getting them down to the site. Behind the altar spot an arch was built into the wall, and here the in-between studs are 2 x 8’s, providing for possible
future enlargement of the Church.
Although the Church was very much in process that summer of 1906, it was used for periodic visits of priests who came out from Pincher Creek. Some recall breezes blowing
through freely when it had no windows. At first Mass was said in the church once a month, then this increased to twice a month. The first steady priest, Father R.P.E.
Nelz, spoke German and preached in that language. The church was blessed by Bishop Legal on May 28, 1907. Bishop Emile Legal, O.M.I., rode out from Pincher Creek in a fancy buggy with an honor guard of men on horseback carrying a flag. The church was still not finished—there was a temporary altar and the pews were planks placed on nail kegs.
In 1908 the first pews were bought, and the church exterior was painted and mostly complete. The altar was feather-painted by Louis Planger, giving it the appearance of marble though it is not made of marble.
Because the church was exposed to strong winds on the high hill, it had slipped and so
concrete was poured around the rock foundation. The cross was added atop the bell tower, and a bell was ordered from France. It was dedicated to St. Boniface, a great apostle of Germany, and was solemnly blessed by Father Albert Lacombe on Sept. 6, 1908. It was not until 1913 that the church acquired an organ, donated by Father J.A. Demers, O.M.I. In 1914 an addition was added onto the church (large living room, bedroom, small basement, and large attic) and a barn was built for the priests’ horses.
The naming of the church seems to have been settled by Father Lacombe before the blessing. People had several ideas, including “Immaculate Conception”, but Father
Lacombe insisted that it should be “St. Henry”. “He is a good German saint” was
the way he put it. The feast of St. Henry falls on July 13th. As Duke of Bavaria and Holy Roman Emperor he gained fame for building and caring for churches and earned the title “Protector of Churches”. Henry is represented by the sword of a protector and with a church in his hand. In 1913 Pierre Robbin donated the statue of St. Henry (which remains in the church), as well as figures for the Christmas crib.
Gus and Mary Hochstein donated the two angels in 1914, and the main altar in 1917. The altar is faux-finished in a pink and white marble.
Sources: The Shadow of the Cross, St. Henry’s 1907-1982, A Brief History of St. Henry’s
Parish and its Pioneers and Parishioners by Father Jim McElgun, parish priest, 1952 and 1982. This book is available for purchase at the Kootenai Brown Museum in Pincher Creek.
St. Michael’s Parish: Spiritual Leadership, Vision and Service, by Pat Moskaluk and Corine Welsch, 1985.
Photo courtesy of Sandra Schrempp.