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Christianity Arrives in the Yukon

by Delores Smith

      Prior to the gold rush, the Catholic (1860) and Anglican Churches (1861) had established missions and outposts throughout the North, following the routes of the fur traders along the major waterways.

      William Carpenter Bompas began his ministry for the Anglican Church in the north as the Bishop of the Diocese of Athabasca in 1865. He forsook the esthetic life of education in England to minister in the wilderness with his wife, Selina. By 1891, their work had resulted in the appointment of William Bompas as the first Bishop of Selkirk, the district which encompassed the Yukon. His refusal to accept the rapidly-deteriorating conditions of the First Nations people of the Yukon as white prospectors moved in, would eventually result in the arrival of the North-West Mounted Police in the Territory. The discovery of gold in the Fortymile Creek area in 1886 had brought in a stampede of prospectors whose lifestyles did not mesh well with that of the First Nations people of the area. The following summer, the Church Missionary Society sent deacon J. W. Ellington to open Buxton Mission at the mouth of the Fortymile, and services for the Native people were held over a wide area until 1890. Ellington was not up to the strain of missionary life, however, and in 1890 he was removed. Buxton Mission was abandoned for two years until the arrival of Bishop and Mrs. Bompas in 1892. Bompas' pleas to the Canadian Government for help in establishing law and order to the wide open mining town were successful, and in 1894 the North-West Mounted Police arrived and set up their first post in the Yukon.

      The burden of administrative duties for the whole Yukon prompted a move to a more central location, Caribou Crossing. Here he set up the mission school and farms. He also urged that the name of the town be changed to Carcross to avoid a mix-up in his mail going to the many other places in the Yukon with caribou as part of the names. Bishop Bompas died in 1906 at the age of 72 and is buried in Carcross.

      Father William Judge, a Jesuit Missionary from Baltimore who had been working at Nulato on the lower Yukon River in Alaska since 1890. Well written and articulate, he ministered throughout the Forty Mile country as the need arose. As more and more miners stampeded for gold he could often be seen among the weary travelers, pulling a loaded toboggan with the help of one dog. He appeared old and feeble beyond his 45 years, but his face shone with good cheer for his fellow man as he gave out what medicines he had in his possession.

      He saw the strike in the Klondike as provenance, and applied for three acres of land in the north end of the newly surveyed town of Dawson, on which he planned to build a church and hospital. By June of 1897, he had secured the help of nine laborers to build the hospital. His training in architecture as a youth provided the expertise as he worked alongside the tradesmen during the day while ministering to the sick at night. Even before the hospital was completed a year later, the rooms were filled with the sick, dying and destitute, and he was able to obtain the services of several nuns from the Sisters of St. Ann in Montreal.

      Dawson City boasted of having electricity, grand hotels, telephones and moving pictures, but unfortunately, it did not provide for proper sewage and water facilities. Typhoid fever, scurvy from lack of fresh vegetables, malnutrition and pneumonia were all resulted from these conditions. His tireless care of the sick led to Father Judge becoming known as the Saint of Dawson. He would sleep on a small bunk in the hallway so a sick person could have his bed. He would tramp the hills for wild medicines and make his own concoction for plaster casts to mend broken limbs. The frail priest with the seemingly boundless energy became the conscience of Dawson; his generosity and charity affected everyone. When news of his financial hardship became well known, the town turned out to host a gala fund-raiser that brought in a much needed $35,000.00.

      Father Judge's relentless pursuit of tending to the sick and poor finally took its toll in January of 1899 when he contracted pneumonia. He seemed aware of his eminent death and counseled his many friends to not grieve for him. He is quoted as saying, "...you have found your reward in what you sought (gold), let me go to mine...". One week later, on January 16th, with the thermometer at fifty below, this friend to all died.

The Salvation Army

      In May of 1898, Commander Eva Booth, Commissioner in Canada of the Salvation Army and daughter of its founder, General William Booth, sent a party of nine soldiers, seven men and two women, to establish an Army Mission in the Klondike gold fields. Starting in Toronto, they traveled to Vancouver, then boarded the Steamer S.S. Tees, which took them to Skagway. They climbed the Chilkoot Pass while it was still deep in snow. Included in their outfit were two folding canoes for the river journey, but before the group could use the canoes, they had to cross the rotting ice of Lake Bennett. It took them three weeks to travel from Skagway to Dawson. Ensign Frank Morris, in charge of the party, wrote in his diary of saving the life of a man they found clinging to rocks in the swift waters of the Thirty Mile section of the Yukon River. This man turned out to be a Presbyterian Minister also on his way to Dawson City who later gave a talk on how he was saved by the Salvation Army, much to everyone's amusement.

The Presbyterian Church

      John Pringle, the oldest of three brothers, volunteered as a missionary to the miners in 1897. He was a part of the stampede over the Glenora trail, from Wrangell, Alaska to Atlin. Faith Fenton, a news reporter accompanying the Yukon Field Force on the same route, described him as fearless, outspoken and honest. His great size, shared by his brothers,(6'2", 200 pounds) and physical stamina endured him to all who came in contact with him. He was known as the "hobo" preacher for the way he dressed and the way he was willing to give anyone the shirt off of his back.

      He was instrumental in building the first hospital in Atlin in 1900. He also served in the Great War, where he lost a son in battle. Appointed to the Yukon General Assembly in 1908, he was quoted as saying, "I shall meddle in Politics as long as the Devil meddles in Politics." The middle brother, George, followed in his footsteps as a minister for the Presbyterian Church, being ordained in St. Andrews Church in Dawson City in 1901. A prolific writer, he dedicated his first book, Adventure in Service, to John in a small poem.

No one could tell me
what my Soul might be.
I sought for God
and he eluded me.
I sought my Brother,
and I found all three.

      George and John together would build numerous churches out on the creeks around Dawson, constantly on the move by dog team to administer to the lonely miners. Both would mingle freely with the miners wherever they were found, even in the bars, regaling everyone with stories of their exploits, all the while quietly passing on the word of God. George stayed on in the Klondike long after John was transferred south. He performed the wedding ceremony of Klondike Kate in the manse, and conducted the funeral of Robert Henderson in 1937. The Pringles both lived long and useful lives, filled with adventure and good humor. John died in 1932 and George in 1949.

''Near End' (Bennett Church, 1901), by Sabine Adams
"Near End"
(Bennett Church, 1901),
acrylic on glass
by Selina Adams
      Reverends Andrew Grant and A.J. Sinclair arrived in Skagway in 1898, just in time to bury Soapy Smith and Frank Reid. Reverend Dickey had established a church and hospital there the previous year, but had then turned it over to the American Episcopal Church, as the town was in US territory. Grant and Sinclair went on to Lake Bennett, where they erected a church from the scraps of whipsawed spruce slabs and lumber left over from the boat building activities of the stampeders on their way to the Klondike. Stained glass, hand blown, and donated by a church in Victoria, B.C. was cut to manageable dimensions and carefully packed over the Chilkoot trail. These were fitted into the church windows in solid squares, as there was no one skilled in the art of glass cutting in town.

      By the time the Church was completed in 1901, the town of Bennett had outlived its usefulness at the head of navigation to the Yukon River. The WhitePass Railway had been completed all the way to the new jumping off place at Whitehorse. There never was a service conducted inside the building even though it was used as a shelter for the weary or ill. For the next fifty years, as the houses and businesses of Bennett were torn down or moved to other locations, the Church stood in all its glory on the shores of the Lake, alone in the wilderness, a stop of interest for train travelers or hikers.

      During the Second World War, the huge influx of soldiers to the Whitehorse area for the construction of the Alaska Highway overwhelmed the small community. The military authorities, to provide religious services, built two churches side by side near the airport. One was for the Protestant denominations and the other for the Catholics. A news story in the Whitehorse Star dated March 3, 1950 describes the efforts of a group of American military men who removed the antique glass windows from the abandoned church in Bennett, and installed them in time for the opening ceremonies of the two Whitehorse churches. Today, the Protestant church is the Bethany Pentecostal Tabernacle, and the Catholic church is the home of Caron Diamond Drilling. The windows, upon close inspection, show the tell-tale bubbles of antique hand blown glass.

References & Further Reading:

  • Michael Gates, Gold at Fortymile Creek: Early Days in the Yukon (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1994)
  • Walter R. Hamilton, The Yukon Story (Vancouver, BC: Mitchell, 1964)
  • Sister Margaret Cantwell, North to Share: The Sisters of St. Ann in Alaska and the Yukon Territory (Victoria, BC: Sisters of St. Ann, 1992)

©1998-2023 by Delores Smith and Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the authors.