Waterton United Church: ‘We go forward, a grateful people’

With dedicated volunteers and visiting clergy and musicians, Waterton United Church has a unique mission in Waterton Lakes National Park. Carol Watt, Waterton’s Council Secretary and ‘Keeper of the Keys,’ writes about the church’s evolving ministry.

Waterton Lakes National Park has had a formally designated United Church since 1955. People gathered in the Lions’ Hall and then the Anglican Church to worship.  In 1960, the former South Alberta Presbytery hired newly graduated, stellar architect George Watson to design the envisioned sanctuary. Sod was turned in April of 1961, and the building was dedicated in October of that year!  Not much waiting on contractors and journeymen in those days, apparently!

It was a Mission of the United Church of Canada. Each summer, it was staffed by a Divinity student who resided in the attached suite. Finances were handled by the Presbytery. The tiny local congregation provided “keepers of the keys.” Clergy from nearby Pincher Creek or Cardston provided supervision. Eventually, retired clergy were assigned for the summers. 

Tony Snow @ Waterton United Church
Tony Snow, Indigenous Minister for Chinook Winds, provided leadership at Waterton United Church for International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, August 2021.

In 1985 a few local families organized and led Sunday School for the 18 or so young children. Several generations of Waterton children attended “Sunday” school, which at one point was an “after school on Tuesday” Sunday School until 2005.  (We have no record of previous Sundays Schools there, although there were Girl Guide records which we passed on to the group in Cardston).

In 1989, Rev. Joyce Sasse helped create a Waterton Advisory Committee.  Rev. Dr Alex Lawson was a co-lead for the summer of 1990, and in the fall, the Committee requested that he return the next year.  Presbytery gave permission, and so began a unique community involvement and church outreach through the 1990s. Alex introduced extra services with potlucks just before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Some of those Christmas potlucks held 80 in attendance…they resonated with the families and others in the community. Alex held various workshops, began a concert series and was instrumental in our winterizing the plumbing for winter rentals. There were more requests for weddings in the church as these events increased in popularity in the National Park.  

Alex retired in 2000 and Rev. Harry Taylor carried on. 

In 2002, then Alberta and Northwest Conference Regional Staff Rev. Joel Den Haan, Supervisor Rev. Yvonne Jordan and Presbytery Chair Dr. Ed Bardock advised and guided us through the process of becoming a Pastoral Charge. 

Chinook Winds Stephen Harper, Pastoral Relations Minister
Chinook Winds Region’s Pastoral Relations Minister Rev. Dr Stephen Harper was one of the Summer 2021 guest ministers.

Early in 2003 at a Pastoral Oversight Meeting, the idea of trying a summer series of guest clergy was approved. Ever since, we have been blessed with a wide variety of excellent ministers who stay for a week and preach on Sunday, from late June into September. Some now return every year. We also carry on with the off-season gatherings and concerts, happy visiting choirs and other guest musicians.  Thursday evening open A.A. meetings have been a summer regular event for more than a decade.

Alex came out of retirement to become one of our regular summer guest ministers. He led us in our 50th Anniversary Celebration in August 2011, and in 2015 we had a formal ceremony and gathering as he became our Minister Emeritus.

In 2007 years of fund-raising and grant applications resulted in our being able to build an addition to the church, complete with an accessible washroom.  In the last decade, we have added other upgrades, so that the building is in good shape.  Along with the former Conference, the late Dr Ed Bardock led these projects, liaising with the National Church, which owns the building.

Five years ago we added a special, Going Forward From Truth and Reconciliation service. This we will do every year, once or twice, as we have two excellent willing leaders for it now.

Then came 2020 and Covid-19.  Initially, we simply switched to Zoom meetings and cancelled our traditional opening service on the May Long Weekend.  But, as the spring wore on, we slowly worked out how we might be able to open in the summer…with measuring tapes and green paint tape to mark covid safe spacing, we set out 20 chairs. A formal report was prepared, finessed by Supervisor Rev. Pauline Bell, and ultimately approved by Chinook Winds Region. With masks, extra cleaning supplies and a careful record of attendees, we began meeting in person beginning in July. We knew the guest clergy could come at least and went from there! 

Attendance was small, but oh, soooo rewarding. 

At the same time, Brad Lavenne of Calgary guided us to recording our services to our open Facebook page. Despite the steep learning curve, the responses and connections achieved point to this new vital way continuing into our future. Over 300 viewers watched our virtual Christmas Candlelight service, again thanks to Brad, our IT specialist.  (Services may now be seen via the website, watertonunitedchurch.com).

We followed the rules and did not sing last summer. This last summer saw us singing happily behind our masks.  We have yet to serve food. The tradition of having the offering plate at the back of the church and simply keeping the dedication as part of the service looks also to be a part of the future. Apparently, our Methodist ancestors did this all the time!

Carol Watt, Waterton United Church
Carol Watt is Waterton United Church’s Council Secretary along with several other hats!

So very many individuals have contributed to our ministry…. the regional support which birthed the building in ’61 continues.  People just seem to love their “Waterton Sunday.” And the leaders: The guest clergy and others instrumental in leading:  there are far too many to mention individual names.  There are also the vibrant, gifted and diverse Council, and long-standing community households, (not regular attenders but definite supporters.)   We feel profound gratitude to all, and to all levels of The United Church of Canada, for guidance and support.   

In the Waterton Church, the view of Mt. Vimy through the Cathedral window is a faith-affirming gift from our late architect George Watson….and arguably a gift from beyond the Great Divide.  With Alex’s credo of “the open doors of Jesus Christ”, with prayer and with unconditional love, we go forward, a grateful people.