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Future of historic Alberta churches destroyed by arson in doubt

Community group to meet to determine next step in restoring historic St. Aidan's Church; Historical Society says Pioneer Memorial Church unlikely to be rebuilt

BARRHEAD - The future of two historic Barrhead-area churches that were the victim of arson remains in question.

Late in the evening on Dec. 7, St. Aidan's Church in Glenreagh and the St. Mary Abbots Anglican, better known as the Pioneer Memorial Church, were set on fire by a suspected arsonist.

The Pioneer Memorial Church, near the Hamlet of Thunder Lake, was destroyed; St. Aidan's Church, while suffering extensive damage, is believed to be repairable.

However, the St. Aidan's/Glenreagh/Bloomsbury Community Church group is hopeful they will be able to restore the church to its former condition.

On Tuesday, Dec.19, at the Glenreagh Community Hall, at 7 p.m., the group maintaining the property will hold a public meeting in which they hope to devise a plan to restore the church.

But no matter what plan they come up with, they admit they have their work cut out for them.

Scott Strawson, one of several Strawson family members, including his mother Edith, brother Darren, and sister-in-law Baukje, who are involved in the project, visited the site the morning after the fire.

He noted that although a good portion of the damage to the building, at first inspection, is cosmetic, there was structural damage to one of the walls and damage to the attic, roof and ceiling.

"There is a lot of smoke damage to the items inside, such as the pews, the alter, and the organ, and then there is the water damage," Scott said. "Learning what we can salvage will take a lot of work, time and effort."

He added that the group has talked to a local contractor but said it is easier to come up with definitive estimates once they have a more specific idea of what they might want to do with the building.

Darren says he still gets angry when he thinks about how a person deliberately decided to attempt to destroy the church.

"It is a part of my family," he said, adding his grandfather was one of the people who helped construct the church in 1912. "It is also where I was married." 

Darren added that he got married on New Year's Day in 2010.

"The day before, it was blistering cold, something in the minus 30s, but the day we were married, it had warmed up considerably. "I was looking at our pictures the other day. It was a beautiful winter day; everything was picture-perfect, with the church a fresh snowfall. We are definitely going to restore it. You can't have something that means so much to so many and has so much history and memories attached and not do something."

Regrettably, Strawson said the organization did not have insurance, which is why his wife, Bailkje Strawson, has started a GoFundMe fundraising campaign. To donate to the campaign to, type Glenreagh-Bloomsbury-Church under the search option.

As of Dec. 15, the campaign raised $2,220.

As for the Pioneer Memorial Church, Anna Churchill, vice-president of Barrhead and District Historical Society, said it is unlikely the church will be rebuilt.

"Unfortunately, we really don't have the money available," she said, adding that the historical society has been the ward of the property for as long as she has been a member. 

RCMP Cpl. Filipe Vicente, also one of the police officers who responded to the fires, said the investigations are ongoing.

"I can't comment much about it except to say that both of the case files are still open and that they are still under investigation," he said.

According to the Barrhead and District Historical Society, St. Mary Abbots Anglican was constructed in 1912 by Rev. William L. S. Dallas and the Paddle River community. St. Aidan's was erected a year later, in 1913.

Barrhead Regional Fire Service chief Gary Hove said both fires were man-made, with St. Aidan's originating on the front porch and the one at Pioneer Memorial Church coming from inside the building.

Police believe the fires are most likely connected due to the proximity and the timing.

Police are asking anyone with information about who started these fires to contact the Barrhead RCMP Detachment at 780-674-780-674-4848 or 780-674-2696. For those who wish to remain anonymous, contact Crime Stoppers by phone at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS), by Internet at or by SMS (check your local Crime Stoppers for instructions).

Barry Kerton,                                                                                          

Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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