CHURCH HISTORY by Dorothy Cheyne:

In April, 1951, the men employed by Alcan began to cut trees, clear the land and build the smelter site, what is now a landmark of Kitimat. While there were mostly men hard at work those days, a carefully selected group of women were also there helping to shape a new stage of Kitimat Valley history. Caring for both the men and the women was a fine young minister, Revered McColl of the Thomas Crosby IV. (see image). Gary McGregor writes in White Ensine, Black Pit, “Reverend McColl had found his calling in 1945, when as a 21-year-old gunnery officer aboard the corvette HMCS Lachute, he was asked to give Easter sunday service. The sea was ‘calm as a millpond,’ Ray McColl remembered, as ‘humbled and exhilarated’, he gave his first sermon to the sixty of the crew. ‘Most of them had gone to Sunday school. ‘They knew the hymns.” His calling found, the big, affable McColl spent four years after thewar on the missionary boat Thomas Crosby. In villages along B.C.’s northern coast, his stentorian sermons boomed like the guns of his old warship.”


The Thomas Crosby IV Mission Boat

Reverend McColl’s turn of duty was nearing its completion and a new minister, Ross Connal, was appointed to oversee both the Village of Kitamaat and the new townsite of Kitimat. Such was the beginning of First United in Kitimat.The minister, Ross Connal, held our first official church service in November, 1951. Men and women alike crowded together in the temporary dining room set up across from the old hospital (at Hospital Beach) to listen to the word of God and to sing. Preaching in a dining hall had its challenges and Rev. Connal often competed with the noise of posts and pans in the kitchen while meals were being prepared. Soon more women and children began moving to the new town and a school was built at the Smeltersite. The school was a more favourable site for services in that it was quiet and had a piano. On the Thanksgiving Sunday of 1952, the first Sunday School classes were held, under the capable hands and eyes of the women, and occasionally one or two liberated men.On a proud day in November, 1953, two years after that first worship service, our congregation was officially constituted as First United by Reverend L. G. Sieber of First United, Prince Rupert. The first elders were P. W. Allman and W. H. Sparks. The stewards were A. K. Archibald, J. D. Forward, P. W. Hallman, J. T. Madill, W. S. Mosher, W. S. Scott, and W. H. Sparks. Three months later the women formed the Women’s Auxiliary with Peg Stevens as the first president.Rev. Connal’s 1954 Message tells us that a manse was built and furnished and that the Sunday School class grew from 8 students and 2 teachers to 61 students and 9 teachers and officers. This was quite an accomplishment as there were only about 700 families in Kitimat at the time.

With the opening of Nechako school, services were moved into town. Slowly, but surely, the men, the women, and the minister, Ross Connal, began to dream about a more suitable sanctuary. After years of planning – mostly by the minister and the men, and years of fundraising – mostly by the women, construction of our present sanctuary began in May, 1956. Mr. Forward laid our cornerstone on November 25, 1956, and on May 16, 1957 First United Church was dedicated to the Lord, with the Rt. Reverend James S. Thomson, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, conducting the service. There was much joyful celebration by the men, women, and children.

The first baby to be baptized in our church was Shane McCool, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jim McCool. The Reverend W. P. Bunt, who was the Superintendent of Home Missions for British Columbia at that time, baptized Shane.

Music is an important part of our worship services, and in January, 1956, a few of the men and a number of the women began our Senior Choir with Margaret Wilkinson as their director, and Helen Parsley as accompanist. Joining the choir in those days was a selective process as there was a waiting list. The choir was always a talented group of singers who would have been the envy of any large city church.

A Junior Choir was started under the leadership of Miss Leone Hannah.

Over the years there has been a long list of dedicated choir directors and accompanists. None have served with more dedication than our current accompanist, Gert Crockart, who has been our organist since 1972.

In the fall of 1957, Sunday school opened in our own building with Mrs. Beatrice Forward as superintendent. The Sunday School children wished to provide something for the new church sanctuary, so they raised funds and purchased the baptismal font.

In 1957, Ross Connal left our congregation, and Rev. Dr. R. G. Davidson came to serve for one year.

The first wedding in our church was that of Roy and Dorothy Jones. It was held on December 14th, 1957, a wonderful day for a grand couple.

The Reverend Allan Dixon took over from Dr. Davidson and served our church between 1959 and 1964. Under his guidance four women, Mrs. Orr, Mrs. Evans, Mrs. Hanna, and Mrs. Ripley, became the first female elders of our church family on January 29, 1961.

In May, 1962 the Women’s Auxiliary was reorganized, and became the United Church Women (UCW). While many other congregations have lost their UCW, the UCW in our church are still going strong thanks to the hard work, and real dedication of its members.

The church pews were installed in 1964, and under the direction of Miles Bode, coloured fibreglass was installed on the inside of the front windows to simulate stained glass.

In 1964, Mrs. Pearl McKernan received her Life Membership pin from Reverend Allan Dixon. Other ladies to receive this honour were: Linda McNeil, Val Munroe, and Isobel Ripley.

The Reverend Malcolm Galbraith took over the shepherding of Kitimat First United between 1964 and 1967.

Reverend James MacNeil was our minister from 1967 to 1971. Under his able direction our men cleared more land, and built the present manse on Whittlesey Street.

1972 saw another new minister, Don Hume, guiding our congregation. The need for Christian ministry at Kitamaat Village arose about his time, and Presbytery decreed that Don, also could serve the Village, with 7/8 of his time to be spent on town ministry and 1/8 on Village ministry. This was very difficult for both churches and Reverend Hume!

Our next minister, Tony Gifford, left his imprint on First United, even though he was our minister for only one year. Tony began what is now Coffee with a Difference – a group that still meets. Back in Tony’s day (1976) the group was affectionately called Tony’s Harem. This young minister had a major impact on the sanctuary of First United as well. Following the latest of liturgical fashion, the Reverend Tony had our pews bolted down angled fashion.

However, the minister on Tony’s heels was the much-loved Theo Roberts. Being one of certain age and wisdom, Theo saw the deep theological significance of Tony’s deed, and had all the pews rearranged into straight rows. Under Theo’s eye, the Stewards decided it was time to re-roof our sanctuary. So, some of our men soon found themselves perched up with the crows and seagulls hammering roofing nails, and hoping the ropes and harnesses would hold. The women supervised from below, and kept the coffee and sandwiches ever ready.

In 1984, following the retirement of Theo Roberts, First United welcomed a husband and wife team, the Reverends Betty-Lynn and Robert Schwab, as their next ministers.

In 1986, the Stewards were once again busy and lead the way for the redevelopment of the front of our church, making an easy entry for wheelchairs, and creating a new secretary’s office.

By 1987 the Sunday School classes were bursting at the seams. The youth of Kitimat First United (otherwise known as YUCK – Youth of United Church Kitimat) numbered some 40 members strong. Nine of these youth traveled to Ottawa with Kids for Kairos. (The name KAIROS, refers to moment of transformation through faith.Kairos is an ecumenical organization focusing on social justice.) It was one of the largest congregational delegations to go to Kairos ’87. It was to their credit that they earned their way with only a little help from the church family.

Since this history was written we have gained another wonderful minister, Reverend John Van Omme, who has led us since the departure of the Schwabs. We’ve put another roof on the church, but this time the congregation, now maybe a bit older and less agile, remained on the ground while real roofers pounded the nails. All is well with Kitimat First United and God blesses us with fellowship and good will.


PERSONAL HISTORY by Evelyn Harris:

I came to Kitimat in April, 1956 for a year – I’m still here. I lived at “Whitehall”, the women’s residence at Smeltersite, and worked for Alcan in those days.

I met my husband shortly after and John and I were married in First United in December, 1958. Our two children were born here (Linda in 1960, one of the first babies born in the old Beach hospital, and Leland in 1963, one of the first babies born in what was then the “new” hospital). Both hospitals are history now.

Unfortunately, John died of cancer on Christmas Eve, 1964. I had to go back to work shortly after. I got a good position with Alcan and worked there until my retirement in 1985.

After I retired I was asked to take on the duties of Secretary to Prince Rupert Presbytery. The church owned and operated the Mission Vessel “Thomas Crosby 5”.

There were two presbytery meetings a year, held in a different location each time, so I had a wonderful opportunity to visit and meet people in villages from Hazelton to Prince Rupert, and down the coast to Vancouver Island, as well as Naramata. An unforgettable travel experience and I thank the United Church for that. I was the worker gathering and recording information from delegates, taking minutes at meetings, then typing and distributing all this information after. The Crosby was sold shortly after my last trip and the service was discontinued. Any records, minutes, etc. I had, I sent to the United Church Archives in Vancouver (UBC).

My daughter Linda is now on the faculty of the University of California (Food Science), and Leland is an employee of Alcan. Linda is still single; he is married with two children, Quinlan and Kaleigh.