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Bad Heart Straw Church

Teepee Creek, Near

Other Names:

Statement of Significance

Description of Historic Place
The Bad Heart Straw Church is a simple L-shaped building situated roughly 50 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie on a hilltop overlooking the Bad Heart River. The building features gable roofs, a central steeple, and a bank of windows in the gable end above the main entrance. The exterior is clad in rough stucco and the sides of the church are notably windowless.

Heritage Value
The heritage value of Bad Heart Straw Church lies in its status as a pioneering Alberta example of the use of straw as a construction material.

From its formation in the 1920s until the mid-1950s, the community of Bad Heart was without a local church. Surrounded by marginal farmland and cut off from the more heavily settled areas of the Grande Prairie, Bad Heart remained during these decades a small settlement with few amenities. Local residents who wished to attend a church service were compelled to travel to the Teepee Creek district. Father Francis Dales, a Redemptorist priest stationed over 50 kilometres away at Sexsmith, was determined to change that for Bad Heart's Roman Catholic community. A vigorous and highly creative man, Fr. Dales was an experienced architect and beloved pastor. He recognized that the people of Bad Heart possessed only modest resources and seized upon straw bale construction as a practical, economical way to construct a church. First a cement slab was laid down. Salvaged pipes with points welded on the tops were inserted into the slab at three foot intervals. The bales of straw were then pressed down onto the pipes and crowned with metal plates. To simplify the church's design and ensure the stability of the walls and the truss roof, no window openings were included on the sides of the building. Fr. Dales found ways to economize on all aspects of the church's construction. All labour was entirely voluntary. Much of the fabric of the church was or salvaged or donated: smashed 7-Up bottles were added to the exterior stucco to provide texture and colour and many of the fixtures and furnishings came from area churches. The Bad Heart Straw Church was completed in 1954 and stands as a remarkable example of ingenuity and civic spirit. It is also a pioneering example of straw bale construction in the province and possibly the only church so constructed in all of Canada.

Source: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch (File: Des. 2156)


Character-Defining Elements
The character-defining elements of Bad Heart Straw Church include such features as:
- location of the church on a hilltop overlooking the Bad Heart River;
- the L-shaped plan and the gable roof design;
- straw bale construction, including thick walls comprised of straw bales bound with wire and stacked on salvaged pipes;
- elements integral to straw bale design, including cement slab floor, truss roof and windowless side walls, as well as bank of windows in the gable end to allow in natural light;
- elements of the church that express its economical construction, including shards of 7-Up bottles in stucco and fixtures and furnishings salvaged from other churches.


Location



Street Address:
Community: Teepee Creek, Near
Boundaries: Portion of NE 7-75-2-W6
Contributing Resources: Buildings: 1

ATS Legal Description:
Mer Rge Twp Sec LSD
6
2
75
7
9 (ptn.)

PBL Legal Description (Cadastral Reference):
Plan Block Lot Parcel

Latitude/Longitude:
Latitude Longitude CDT Datum Type
55.485131 -118.285492 Secondary source NAD83

UTM Reference:
Northing Easting Zone CDT Datum Type

Recognition

Recognition Authority: Province of Alberta
Designation Status: Provincial Historic Resource
Date of Designation: 2009/03/11

Historical Information

Built: 1954 to 1954
Significant Date(s) N/A
Theme(s) Expressing Intellectual and Cultural Life : Architecture and Design
Historic Function(s): Religion, Ritual and Funeral : Religious Facility or Place of Worship
Current Function(s): Religion, Ritual and Funeral : Religious Facility or Place of Worship
Architect:
Builder:
Context: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

In the aftermath of World War One, the Dominion government established the Soldiers Settlement Board, which was to serve two purposes. First, it was a mechanism whereby the government could reward men who had physically defended their country in time of need; second, it could provide an outlet for an unemployment problem that was rapidly building up. The Board identified tracts of land in arable districts which had not hitherto been taken up by homesteaders, and proceeded to have portions of them set aside for the soldiers. One region where considerable land was reserved was the Peace River Country, the central grasslands of which had been settled much earlier. One of the districts of this region where soldiers were encouraged to settle was a small stretch of parkland off the Bad Heart River, which flows through the Burnt Hills into the Smoky. Here, in TPs74 & 75 R2 W6, several veterans took advantage of the government offer and applied for land in 1919, including the highly decorated but soon to be notorious George Frederick "Nobby" Clark.

The war veterans were soon joined by other settlers, and, gradually, the community to be known as Bad Heart evolved. A school district was incorporated in 1928, and a store and post office was built the following year. Bad Heart was, however, somewhat cut off from the more heavily settled areas of the Grande Prairie, and conditions were far from ideal for farming. A number of foreclosures occurred, but the community did hang together, as cattle, hogs and poultry were raised to offset the costs of dry land farming. Being remote however, amenities were few, and it wasn't until the late 1950's that electrical power and telephone services were extended there.

Until the mid-1950's, the Bad Heart district was without a church, with local residents attending Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches in the Teepee Creek district to the southwest. At the time, one of the most energetic Roman Catholic priests in the region was resident at Sexsmith, over 50km away. This was the Redemptorist Father Francis Dales, who, as a trained architect, had just designed a new $70,000 church in Sexsmith. He had also constructed, and would design and construct other public buildings, the work being either volunteer or by young teenagers at a small wage. To complete his projects, Father Dales often salvaged lumber from demolished buildings. Scrap metal from demolished vehicles and farm equipment was also recovered and sold. Other fundraisers of varying kinds were also undertaken.

As his parish included Bad Heart, Father Dales decided, in the early 1950's, that it was time for a church of the right persuasion to be built there. For the district at this time, the major problem was financing, for all Roman Catholic churches relied strongly on local support, and the people of Bad Heart were hardly in a position to fund a new church structure, being relatively few in numbers and anything but wealthy. Work bees and salvaged lumber would not be enough. Father Dales, however, had learned that, in eastern Canada, certain farmers had built cattle sheds out of straw bales, the oil from the rye or flax serving as a preservative. He therefore submitted a design to the Vicar Apostolic of the Archdiocese of Grouard, Bishop Henri Routhier, who approved the plan, and, apparently, personally advanced $500 towards its fulfillment.

In the summer of 1954, work began on the soon to be famous flax straw church at Bad Heart. Before long, word spread of the unique venture, which was completed in about six weeks. Eventually, even the Toronto Star Weekly did a story on the church and its builder. All work, of course, was volunteer, while fixtures and furnishings were salvaged from other churches in the region. The pews, for example, were taken from the old Roman Catholic church in Sexsmith. According to the Grassland News:

The church is L-shaped and made of baled straw! It is 22-feet wide, 35-feet long and 9-feet
high. The boot of the L is a 10 x 10 foot extension. The ceiling is pitched approximately 45
and took 376 bales to build the church.
Laced with steel straps and reinforced with steel rods, the bales were pyramided into walls,
20 inches thick on a concrete base. The shingled truss roof was then anchored to the baled
straw walls.
The church's interior was finished with plaster and plyboard with a wood floor laid on top
of a concrete base. The outside was finished with stucco. In all, it took 10 people 6 weeks to
build the church.



HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE

The historical significance of the straw church in Bad Heart lies foremost in its representation of the ability of people in remote rural areas of the province to find ways of adapting what they have into useful purposes. The building is also important in being directly associated with Father Francis Dales, the ebullient architecture priest who designed and built many structures in the region and elsewhere, including several churches, St. Mary's Roman Catholic School in Sexsmith, and the Anglican Speke Hall in Grande Prairie.

Additional Information

Object Number: 4665-1346
Designation File: DES 2156
Related Listing(s):
Heritage Survey File: HS 72663
Website Link:
Data Source: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch, Old St. Stephen's College, 8820 - 112 Street, Edmonton, AB T6G 2P8 (File: Des. 2156)
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