How We Came to Be
The present day Millwoods Moravian Church is located in the southeast area of the community of Millwoods, a modern suburban area of Edmonton. It is located in a residential setting not far from shopping centers. The church building is of contemporary design with a very pleasing sanctuary. Nothing about the building or the location tells anything about its origin in a farming community at the same site, where it began in 1895. Much has changed in the interval.
When the railway from Calgary to Edmonton was completed in 1891, the Edmonton area became a focal point for agricultural development. The Government of Canada had inaugurated a campaign to settle the west which reached a crescendo in the early 1890s. The future of Canada depended on bringing in people mainly from Europe, to establish farms, increase agricultural output and build up the country’s economy. The wave of settlement which took place at that time gave rise to the transformation of Edmonton from being dependent on the fur trade to supplying and serving the needs of emerging agriculture and related manufacturing and processing industries.
Among the settlers who flowed into the Edmonton area in the spring and early summer of 1894 were three groups of Germans from Russia. In total they numbered about 300 people. Their quest was to acquire suitable productive land where they could work hard to prosper and provide for their families. Moreover they sought religious freedom, so they could establish a Moravian Church. They had previous acquaintance with the Moravian Church in the old country, but religious repression in Russia had denied them permission to worship as they pleased.
After their arrival in Edmonton, their first task was to examine the tract of land which had been set aside for a Moravian Colony at Spring Creek, north east of Edmonton, where Bruderheim is today. Homestead quarter sections of land were available at Spring Creek for $10 with a requirement to make improvements within in a specified period of time.
Those in the group who lacked financial resources filed on homesteads at Spring Creek and became established there. Others who had some funds, were able to purchase land in south east Edmonton for $3.25 per acre, with a down payment of $52 and terms over 10 years for the balance. Besides being closer to Edmonton, this land was not as heavily timbered as the land at Spring Creek, and thus easier to clear for farming.
Thus the Germans from Russia who had Moravian roots got started at two locations, one at the Spring Creek location which would become known as “Bruderheim” and the other close to Edmonton which would become known as “Bruderfeld”, ( present day Millwoods).
These settlers left their villages in Russia in the Province of Volhynia, (now in the Ukraine around Shitomer) after being advised by their representative that land was available for them near Edmonton , Alberta. Canada. Andreas Lilge and his wife and 10 children had left Volhynia in 1892 to search for a suitable place for their friends and relatives. The Lilges had to borrow money to finance to their passage to North America.
Andreas Lilge was a well educated school teacher and lay pastor who aspired to become a Moravian minister. He made contact with Moravian Church officials in Bethlehem Pa. and discussed with them the aspirations he had to foster immigration from Russia to set up farms and establish a Moravian Church at a location yet to be determined. Lilge spent his first year teaching school in Wisconsin. There he learned of land being available in western Canada for settlement.
During the summer of 1893 Lilge devoted himself to his project. His early enquiries in Winnipeg lead to the acquisition of a railway pass as an immigration agent for his group. He then traveled to Ottawa and to Edmonton, where he accomplished his purpose . A tract of land was reserved for “the Moravians” and concessions were granted to those families in need of travel assistance.
One of Lilges’ first tasks after the arrival of the settlers in the Edmonton area was to formally organize a Moravian congregation at Bruderheim on May 6, 1895 and another at Bruderfeld (Millwoods) on June 27, 1895. The appropriate documents were then mailed to Bethlehem. Pa with a request that the Moravian Church send out a pastor to establish the churches in Alberta.
The Moravian Church officials acted with dispatch. They commissioned the Rev. Morris Leibert to visit Edmonton and prepare a report on the prospects for new church development. His visit took place in November of 1895. Leibert’s conclusions were very clearly set out in a long and descriptive report, which was very optimistic about the prospects for new Moravian churches based on very rapid agricultural development potential in north central Alberta. In fact the Leibert Report was so thorough and optimistic that the Railway published it and used it for promotional purposes.
The result was the Moravian Church did in fact accede to the request of the settlers and send a pastor to Edmonton to start the two new churches. To fund this work a special request for financial aid was sent out to the Moravian Churches in the USA. The settlers had little or no resources other than their volunteer labour to contribute.
The prompt action taken by the Moravian Church was an answer to the prayers of the settlers. This was clearly reflected in a letter which Andreas Lilge sent to Bethlehem in which he said in part, “Who of us would years ago have thought and believed that our faithful and merciful God would grant such a gracious and wonderful answer to our prayers from relief and deliverance from Russian bondage and tyranny.”
Clement Hoyler, a 23 year old pastor, with three years experience, arrived at the Strathcona train station on February 3, 1896. His task, as a homeland minister, was to set up new churches and parsonages at Millwoods, ( Bruderfeld ) and Bruderheim. Lilge would serve as Hoyler’s assistant at Bruderheim.
Hoyler was admirably suited to his task. He loved the people and the people loved him. The challenges of the frontier stimulated him. He was undaunted by the rigors of the weather and travel. Besides, he was a gifted pastor. He helped the people in every conceivable way; with their dealings with acquiring land, setting up schools, carrying out correspondence for them, and giving music lessons to their children.
As gifted musician Hoyler accompanied those first services, which were held in homes and in barns, on his portable organ, which called his “harmonium”. Or he led the singing with his violin or flute. He led choirs and bands. The prayer life of his parishioners was of great concern to him. The very essence of the longings of the settlers for a Moravian expression of their faith and practice were realized under Hoyler’s loving care and service. What in effect happened was the style of worship which is in evidence to this day was being shaped by Hoyler’s leadership.
Today we still see the expressions of faith and practice which were deeply planted into the community of believers in the present Millwood Moravian Church. There is evidence of Christ centered Christian living. Prayer is important in the private lives of the people and in corporate worship. Musical expression in congregational hymnody and choir and in instrumental groups is evident. Christian fellowship remains a key ingredient of every gathering. Support for the world wide Moravian global mission work programme remains strong as does support for local causes.
Our forefathers laid a firm foundation. They found religious freedom in Canada and they exercised it. We are the benefactors. May we follow in their footsteps with faithfulness and dedication to the cause of Christ.
~ Submitted by William (Bill) G. Breese