Today we’ll be looking at Hillhurst United Church, a charming heritage building with amazing stained glass, wonderful woodwork, an impressive vintage pipe-organ, and a vibrant spirit. Just over a hundred years old and clearly well loved and cared for, it’s located is in an equally dynamic community of which it shares a name, across the river from downtown Calgary. Join us as we explore it inside and out and then touch briefly on its history.
This post will also include a trademark BIGDoer then and now.
A big shout out to the staff at Hillhurst United for allowing us in. They’ve have real jobs to do, but still took the time to entertain our request. As historians we’re so used to having doors slammed in our faces, phone silence and an overall feeling of being unwanted or at best a nuisance. They were nothing but accommodating and enthusiastic and for us that sure was refreshing.
First, the then and now: the old photo sent in my our good friends at the Calgary Library (they keep us supplied!) and comes from the very extensive Alison Jackson Collection. In the 1950s-1970s she shot most of Calgary’s historic buildings. That one was captured in 1965.
Our shot, of course, is from a month or so ago. Notice how little differs between the eras! Goodness, this one of the least changed then and nows we’ve ever captured. Only a few vintage cars seen in the old image (punch buggy!) hint it was taken some time ago. The colour difference of the brick seen in the original, might be attributed to the age of the photo. Colour shift is not unusual over time in old prints or slides.
Most of our “then” images are sent in by our readers. If you have an old photo like this that you’d like us to give the BIGDoer.com “then and now” treatment, please message us. Much as was done in this article, we’ll visit the location seen, shoot a similar photo and then write about it all here for your enjoyment. Be sure it’s your photo, in the public domain or one with free-usage.
As is always the case, our now image was lined up in-camera using nothing more than our skill and wits. No Photoshop, no post production funny stuff. Just us. We’ve done so many times, we’re getting pretty good. Still, it’s takes a lot of concentration.
Hillhurst United Church was constructed in 1912/1913. The final cost was just over twenty five thousand dollars, which included some four thousand for that amazing pipe organ. It took many, many decades to pay down the mortgage, something I’m sure we can all relate to. The building is not overly complex in form, perhaps even a bit reserved, but is still very pleasing to the eye. The Tudor-style exposed beams on the flanking towers are an interesting touch.
The majority of the space in the church is taken up by the Sanctuary, the seating (wood, all original) is laid out diagonally with the pulpit being located in the southeast corner. To its left is that pipe-organ (great skill must be needed to play it) and space for the choir. Photos from the 1920s show the interior looking much as it does today. A large overflow room occupies much of the south end of the building with a partial second level above that is that is home to offices, sitting areas and a library. Dark woodwork is seen throughout. Vintage radiators still provide heat.
Hillhurst United was originally built as a Presbyterian Church (using the same Hillhurst name) and replaced an earlier smaller facility in the general area. In the mid-1920s, the Presbyterian faith, not just here but all across the country, amalgamated with that of the Methodists, forming the United Church of Canada. In the process they became the largest Protestant Group within our borders (today: roughly half a million active members). The Methodists had their own church nearby, called St Paul’s, prior to this coming together.
Since day one the church has been witness to countless services, weddings, funerals and all manner of events. How many people have passed through the doors? Can’t imagine it.
Over the years, lots of groups and organizations, some church run some not, have operated out of the building. Our own Connie is tied to the place and in her youth belonged to one called “Canadian Girls in Training”, a Girl Guides type organization run by the United Church. See also attended services with her family here.
The Hillhurst congregation did their part during World War Two aligning with the Red Cross and helping raise money and solicit donations for them. In times of crisis a church is most needed and has the power to rally the people in support of a cause. That is where they shine.
A daycare today runs out of the Church basement which helps bring in needed income. As does hall rentals and the like. A church is not about the money (well, some of those corporate mega-churches are), but it’s still needed to function.
The stained-glass is one particularly spectacular element within the building. Dazzling to the eye, it fills the entire space with a soft glow, various biblical characters depicted on it, looking out over the Sanctuary. It’s hard not be taken aback with all that beauty.
At one time, a manse (sometimes called a parsonage), living quarters for the minister supplied by the church, was located not terribly far away. This was a common setup in the old days.
In the mid-1960s a new addition was built on the west side. In it are more offices, meeting rooms, a big kitchen and an auditorium. Architecturally, well…that era (our opinion) was not a high-point in building design. Everything was so square and plain and utilitarian, quite a contrast to the lovely church beside it.
The church is not terribly far from the Bow River, which flooded spectacularly in 2013, but which lucky sparred the building. The water got close however.
Membership at Hillhurst United is strong and reading of its history, that seemed the trend always. This sure speaks volumes of those who did and do the work here and their progressive and all-welcoming nature – they let this “never make a saint of me” guy in. Point: do it good and they will come. Perhaps a wee part of that sucess can be attributed to the building itself. I like to think so. While its old, the feeling is hardly stodgy, inside or out, as is often is with old structures like this, and reflects a youthful air that sort of belies it’s true age. It just feels comfortable. How could the staff and parishioners not love this fine old building?
The neighbourhood of Hillhurst was founded in just over a century ago. It’s a nice alive kinda’ place, with many fine old houses and trees lined streets. The church stands is on a quiet back road within the community.
Visit them online…
Hillhurst United Church
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: April, 2016.
Location: Calgary, AB.
Article references: Hillhurst United Church records, Clint Marble.