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An Historical Sketch of the Diocese of Saskatchewan of the Anglican Church of Canada

By W. F. Payton, Archdeacon Emeritus

Prince Albert: The Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan, 1974.

Chapter 10. Archdeacon John A. Mackay--Archdeacon George McKay

The history of Western Canada is liberally sprinkled with Scottish names. The fur traders and the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company were predominantly Scottish, and the Red River Settlement was founded by Scottish settlers under Lord Selkirk. Similarly, the history of the church finds some of its most noble representatives to have come from Scotland, or been the descendants of those who had come out earlier. In the case of Bishop Machray of Rupert's Land, and Bishop McLean of Saskatchewan, we have an instance of men who came out from Scotland under their own initiative. Both these Bishops were originally Presbyterian and became Anglican from choice. Among other leaders of the church in the West Scottish representatives became leaders of the Anglican Church, by virtue of the fact that until the coming of the Reverend John Black the only church available was that of the Church of England.

With the death of Bishop McLean, the Diocese of Saskatchewan had as its senior administrators and dignitaries two Archdeacons, both of whom rejoiced in the name of McKay. The senior Archdeacon was the Venerable John Alexander Mackay who was Archdeacon of Saskatchewan, and the Venerable George McKay was Archdeacon of Alberta. Since both of these men were outstanding, each in his own way, it seems appropriate at this time to relate some of the facts concerning them.

John Mackay was born in 1838, the son of a Hudson's Bay Company factor, who appears to have been in charge of the post at Moose Factory at the time of John's birth. Varying somewhat from the more usual pattern, John Mackay was early influenced by the Wesleyan Methodist Mission. He is reported to have been baptized by a missionary of that church, and when he was about 17 years old went to Fort George to assist the Reverend E. A. Watkins, an Anglican minister. The Reverend John Horden was also a factor in his life and Mackay went in 1857 to Moose Factory to take training as catechist under Horden. By I860 the senior Mackay had retired and went to live at the Red River Settlement, where he was joined by his son John who then began to read for ordination under the guidance of Bishop Anderson. He was ordained deacon at St. Paul's Church on May 29, 1861 and as a priest the following year at St. John's Cathedral, Winnipeg. After he had spent a year at St. Andrew's Parish, he then went to the mission at The Pas in 1862.

In 1864 he married Margaret, the daughter of William and Helen Drever. Mr. Drever had come out from one of the Orkney Islands to the Red River in 1821, and his wife had come some time later from Aberdeen. William Drever was employed originally by the Hudson's Bay Company, and then later went into business for himself, and became one of the most respected citizens of the community. In December 1868 another daughter married the Reverend W. C. Pinkham, later to become the second Bishop of Saskatchewan, and closely associated with John MacKay.

Mackay took his bride to Stanley Mission where he had been appointed in the meantime, and Mrs. Mackay has recorded that they travelled by York boat from Red River. The journey took the greater part of two months, and the conditions under which Mrs. Mackay had to live were such as to cause her considerable amazement. She records that there was no money [35/36] in circulation, so the Easter offerings which were given to the Clergyman consisted of moccasins, beaver tails, deer or moose skins, robes, bales of dried meat, all brought up to the communion rails on the offering plates. There was no doctor or dentist nearer than Winnipeg, and no other white family within approximately 100 miles or more.

Under these circumstances, Mackay began to show something of his ability, for he made the Stanley Mission almost self-supporting with 15 acres of land under cultivation where he grew his own wheat, had a good garden and also cattle. Here also Mackay began to use a small printing press on which he produced translations of the scripture and parts of the services. In later years he became the most able Cree scholar in Canada, and produced many books as well as translations of the scriptures, and was the author of a Cree dictionary which is today a classic work of its kind.

After the arrival of Bishop McLean, he accompanied him in the Fall of 1876 on a tour of the newly created Diocese of Saskatchewan, and on New Year's Day in 1877 together they conducted the first Anglican service ever held in Battleford.

Later that year on September 6th Mackay returned to Battleford to undertake missionary work for the district. This was the year that Battleford was chosen as the capital of the North West Territories. In all probability this was due largely to the fact that it lay centrally in the North between the increasing population between Prince Albert and Edmonton. It had been established in 1874 when surveyors for the telegraph line established their headquarters on the Battle River near its junction with the North Saskatchewan.

Mrs. Mackay related that the party set out in September by ox train from Winnipeg. There were two covered wagons with horses but the whole train had to go at the pace set by the oxen which drew the Red River carts containing provisions and other goods. It took two months to make the trip, following the cart trails made by the plain hunters, crossing the rivers in skin boats and other contrivances while the horses and oxen, sometimes with difficulty, had to swim across since there were no bridges. The mission house stood alone on the plain North of the Battle River and close to the high bank of the little stream. The logs were hewn with axes and all necessary boards were whipsawn by Mr. Mackay and his servant, the roof being thatched with straw and the walls mudded, but the family had to move in before the mud was dry as winter set in and owing to the damp walls, Mrs. Mackay had a severe attack of neuralgia to which she was always afterwards subject.

Mr. Mackay was made Archdeacon of Saskatchewan in 1884, and as has been related, became the Cree tutor and professor at Emmanuel College upon its foundation in 1879- After the rebellion of 1885 Archdeacon Mackay acted as Indian agent at Battleford for a short time, because of the great confidence of the Indians in his judgement and wisdom. On the organization in 1887 of the Indian Boarding School in connection with Emmanuel College, he became its principal and also continued to teach the Divinity classes.

There is hardly a mission or parish in Indian work which does not still profit from the leadership provided by Archdeacon Mackay. He constantly toured the diocese, caring for the clergy engaged in Indian work and taking care of the interests of the Indians themselves. He was responsible for the building of a boarding school at The Pas and also of the Indian boarding school at Lac La Ronge. When the school at La Ronge burned down in 1920 he returned there to rebuild it.

The present location of the townsite of La Ronge owes its situation to Archdeacon Mackay, who in planning for the building of the first La Ronge school bought a saw mill with a government grant and set it up on [37/38] the present townsite of La Ronge, which was at that time some distance from the reservation. Here with access to lumber and employment the Indians gradually moved from the reservation to the site of the school that was being built. His death took place on November 28, 1923 and the funeral was held from St. George's Church, Battleford before being forwarded to St. Mary's cemetery, Prince Albert for burial. At the funeral service the sermon was preached by the Reverend Edward Ahenakew who spoke as follows: "The name of Archdeacon Mackay will be placed in history beside those who once shone as stars in the Church, Bishop Bompas, McKay of Uganda, David Livingstone and many others. He has placed the Cree Bible in the hands of the Indians, also the Prayer Book, the Hymn Book and others. He gave us all these. He gave us himself, he gave us his life. By day and by night, in Winter and in Summer, in the forest of the North and the more open spaces of the South, he travelled from one reservation to another guiding and encouraging his men, preaching Jesus Christ the Crucified to the Crees and incidentally co-operating with the Indian department in the work of education. Saskatchewan is dotted with evidences of the great effectiveness of his service for his Lord among the Indian men. These are a monument to his work. The church has lost one of her most interesting and useful sons, the pioneer West one of it's stabilizing elements, the Church one of her most faithful and Christ-like servants, and the Indians their truest earthly friend, champion and counsellor. His days were many, days full of wheat not of chaff. We mourn for his death but our mourning is softened by a greater joy, because his work has been finished." His name is revered throughout the Church, and his life and work commemorated on May 29th in the calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada, the anniversary of his ordination in Winnipeg.

The ministry of George McKay was more diversified and covered a wider range of territory than that of his cousin John Alexander Mackay, but was characterized by the same Christian devotion and ceaseless activity until his death on December 12, 1949, at the age of 95.

He was born on May 25th, 1854 at Fort Ellice in the Touchwood Hills of Southern Saskatchewan. Fort Ellice was one of the important posts of the Hudson's Bay Company in the West, and his father William McKay was Chief Factor in charge. His adventures began early in life, his playmates being Cree, Ojibway and Assiniboine Indian boys. At the age of eight during his first buffalo hunt, which had lasted for 40 days, without warning the party of which he was a member was taken prisoner by a large band of Sioux Indians.

On his first day at the Church Boarding School which he attended he received 10 lashes with a cat-o-nine-tails on each hand, and for good measure was sentenced to lose his supper, because he had taken a ride on a calf which was grazing in the school meadow. Riding buffalo calves had been a part of his daily program while he was at home! He attended St. John's College after completing his elementary education and although he had his heart set on a military career his mother's firm determination that one of her eight sons should receive Holy Orders was finally realized in him.

After proving himself in Prince Albert for a short time, Bishop McLean sent him to England to the college that he himself had attended, Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge and on June 22nd, 1878 Bishop McLean ordained him Deacon in St. Saviour's Church in London. He participated actively in the sports program at the university including cricket, tennis and boating in which he rowed for his own college and helped pull their boat to victory on the Cam River. Travelling during his vacation to Paris, the field of Waterloo, Wales and Stonehenge he spoke frequently in after years of his delight in [38/39] being able to visit places where history had been made. An outstanding event of his college life was in his estimation, "being present in the Senate House when Charles Darwin received an honorary degree from the university for his well-known book on "The Origin of Species."

After his ordination in 1848 he proceeded to Canada via the United States to undertake a work which the Bishop had appointed him to among the Peigan Indians, whose reserve was in the ranching country close to the international border of the United States. When he reached Fort Benton, Montana he discovered a frontier town that was the head of navigation and had a camp of soldiers. Some of the rougher characters in the town decided that this green Englishman who had arrived to go to Fort McLeod might be saved the wearisome travel by freight wagon by being offered a saddle horse. George McKay accepted the offer and after the freight outfit pulled out asked for the horse. With a trained eye he took in every detail of the horse, streaked with nervous sweat, as it was led out of the corral. Meekly he approached the bronco; even though he was hampered by his clerical garb, a long black broadcloth coat that buttoned right up to his chin and reached about 4 inches below his knees, he mounted. The men had been holding the horse with knowing grins and released him. The big black bronco plunged wildly, making furious blind dashes backward and forward, stopping dead in the hope of dislodging his rider, twirling around suddenly until it seemed impossible that he could keep his feet. Then he started rearing straight up, his fore legs beating the air, higher and higher, and then down to commence again without a moment's breathing space. The green parson sat like a rock, and every effort made to unseat him was unsuccessful. The horse quickly changing his course of action, made a mad dash forward in a wild effort to escape. Very soon McKay, on his madly galloping bronco, disappeared over the hills. As he had promised, he rode the outlaw bronco Satan to Fort Macleod. It took him 58 days to make the trip from Bismark, North Dakota to Fort Macleod, Alberta.

In 1885 he acted as scout and interpreter and served as Chaplain to a company of the North-west Mounted Police. One of his closest friends among the force was Lieutenant Francis Dickens, son of the English author Charles Dickens. Following the rebellion George McKay returned to Emmanuel College to act as instructor in Latin, Greek and higher mathematics, acting also as incumbent of St. Alban's Church. In 1885 he accompanied Bishop McLean as his Chaplain on a visit to the Cumberland district, and while on that journey was appointed an Archdeacon, having previously been made a Canon of the Diocese.

At the Synod of the Diocese of Saskatchewan in 1894, Bishop Pinkham in his charge to the Synod reported that Archdeacon George McKay had felt obliged, owing to failing health, to resign the incumbency of St. Alban's, Prince Albert; he went to the Diocese of New Westminster, where he is now, the Bishop said, enjoying excellent health. The Bishop's remarks about his health were well-founded, for when Archdeacon McKay made his last visit to Canada in 1948, it was this writer's privilege to drive him to St. Mary's to visit the scene of his earliest labours. Upon seeing the Church, his first remark was "Who put those clapboards over those fine old logs!" At that time he was still active and his mind quick and alert as ever. He was accompanied by his brother Angus McKay who also had a most distinguished career as a churchman, a guide and scout in 1885, and was the Factor at many of the most important posts of the Hudson's Bay. He is still remembered with affection by many of the older citizens of Prince Albert and district.

In 1897, while seeking a return to health, Archdeacon McKay went [39/40] to the Klondike in the midst of the famous Gold Rush. People of all ages and descriptions were converging on the tent city at Lake Bennett, old men, college students, honest men, thieves, gamblers and murderers. Hundreds of new arrivals reached there every day, many ill, exhausted and dying. Into this stream of human life that flowed through the gold fields Archdeacon McKay plied with vigour his divine vocation as a fisher of men. He attracted the attention of Bishop Bompas who tried vainly to keep him in Alaska and place him in charge of the mission at Rampart House.

From the far North Archdeacon McKay went next to the United States where he took up missionary work, first of all in South Dakota where he was known as a builder of churches. Following that he accepted a position in the Diocese of Wyoming and again busied himself with intensive building programs, in addition to the deeply spiritual ministry which always characterized his life. He retired from St. Luke's Church, Buffalo, Wyoming in 1927 and returned with his wife to South Dakota where they built a home and also a camp in the Black Hills. His wife died in November 1947 and two years later this man passed to his well earned rest, leaving behind the legacy of a well spent life and a name that he honoured by his every act.

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