Newton’s Lilacs: Edmonton’s Hermitage, 1876-1900

In a remote corner of north east Edmonton, bounded by Clareview Road and 129th Avenue, is a small unmarked parcel of land commanding a dramatic view of the North Saskatchewan River valley. Only faint ground depressions and a small interpretive marker betray the fact that this is the location of Canon William Newton’s Hermitage and the birthplace of the Anglican Church in what would become the Province of Alberta.

“The Hermitage” by Ella May Walker, City of Edmonton Archives, EAA-1-27.

William Newton was born in 1828 at Halstead, Essex, England into a family of weavers. Having obtained an education through the help of wealthy benefactors, he trained for the Unitarian Church, served as a Congregationalist minister and published two books of sermons. In 1870 he immigrated to Canada and was ordained into the Anglican Church by Bishop A.N. Bethune of Toronto. He spent four years at Rosseau and Howard Township in Ontario before being accepted by Bishop John McLean of Saskatchewan as a missionary with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at Fort Edmonton.

Leaving behind his wife, Sarah Ann Jeggo, and nine boys in Ontario, Rev. Newton arrived as the first Anglican missionary at Edmonton in 1875 and took up quarters in a house rented from Chief Factor Trader Richard Hardisty. The upper floor of the house was fitted out and served as a chapel until Newton was forced to vacate the property at short notice. Unable to afford accommodations at Edmonton in 1876, Newton settled on the North Saskatchewan River, some 10 km east across from Clover Bar.

The area in which Newton took up residence contains over a dozen prehistoric sites. Material remains dating from thousands of years ago indicate that Indigenous peoples gathered in the area to hunt and process provisions. During the summer of 1876 he cleared his land and was erecting a small log house which he named the “Hermitage” during the onset of winter.

[The Hermitage] would in most countries be considered a pleasant locality. Around it are hills and valleys, trees and water. From it for twenty years missionary journeys have been made to settlements, and Indian tents, over a space of two hundred miles, and it has been the centre of all the work which one solitary missionary has been able to accomplish.” -William Newton Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada

Rev. Robert Connell who had occasion to visit Newton later in the development of the Hermitage recalled that the cluster of buildings there “was almost a little village.” A cook house contained a home-made bed with a full bookshelf overhead. Upstairs was a dining room, its walls and ceiling papered with illustrated pages from religious journals. Outside of the building was a bell imported from England. Adjoining was a cabin for accommodating visitors from the countryside as well as a second cabin that served as a rudimentary chapel. It contained a small Holy Table decked with red cloth in front of a wall similarly adorned. The largest building was a two-storey house encircled by some of “the finest lilacs” Connell had ever seen, beyond which lay a green lawn and gay flower beds, “for the Canon was an enthusiastic gardener.” The ground floor housed Newton’s “remarkable” library while the second floor included bedrooms where special guests “looked out across the river’s wooded valley to the fertile lands towards Clover Bar.”

Canon William Newton from “Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada,” 1897.

For a short period Newton embarked on itinerant missionary journeys to visit Anglicans at the Victoria and Lobstick Settlements as well as First Nation communities at Whitefish Lake and Saddle Lake, but this role was removed in favour of focusing on the immediate Edmonton area. Newton was involved with the establishment of the All Saints congregation which later became the Cathedral of the Edmonton Diocese as well as the Christ Church cemetery and parish at Poplar Lake, north of Edmonton.

In 1886 Newton’s sister Eliza joined him at the Hermitage. A trained medical nurse who had practiced in several London hospitals, she established the first rudimentary medical treatment facility in the Edmonton area. In 1899, Newton announced his retirement and sold the Hermitage the following year. In the spring of 1901 he delivered his farewell sermon at All Saints Church and departed for Victoria, British Columbia. Having lost his first wife that same year, Newton remarried at Victoria in 1903 and had a tenth son with his new wife. Upon his death in 1910 the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton funded the installment of a memorial plaque on his grave in the church yard of St. Luke’s, Cedar Hill.

Unveiling of the Hermitage Cairn and Plaque, 1951. Rt. Rev. G.C. Hubback, Bishop of Burma, Walter Everard Edmonds of the City of Edmonton Archives and Landmarks Committee, et al. attending. City of Edmonton Archives EA-10-2401.

In Edmonton, Newton’s role in local history is commemorated through the large river valley park named after his Hermitage, the Canon Ridge, Hermitage and Newton neighborhoods, the Edmonton Public School Board’s Newton School, Newton Park, as well as the Newton Community League and associated Hall, Club House and Rink. A historic cairn and plaque were unveiled by the City of Edmonton Archives and Landmarks Committee at the Hermitage in 1951 and later replaced with a simple interpretive marker.

The most striking reminders of Newton’s time at the Hermitage are the brilliant stands of lavender and white lilacs which continue to bloom every spring, marking in a most fragrant way his place in Edmonton’s historic landscape.

Newton’s lilacs at the Hermitage, 2017. Supplied by author.

POSTSCRIPT:

The Hermitage site is adjacent to the City of Edmonton’s Hermitage Park off leash Dog Park.

Freea and Kutia, “Guardians of the Hermitage.” Rest in Peace Cherished Friends. Supplied by author.

Written By: Peter Melnycky, Historian

SOURCES

Aubrey, Merrily et al. Naming Edmonton from Ada to Zoie, Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2005.

Connell, Robert. “Forty Years Ago: Recollections of Canon William Newton,” Church Messenger, Diocese of Edmonton, Vol. IV, No. 65, September, 1935.

Flewell, Victoria S. http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/f/l/e/Victoria-S-Flewell/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-0019.html

Newton, William. Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada, London: Elliot Stock, 1897.

Peake, Frank A. “The Beginning of the Diocese of Edmonton, 1875-1913”, A dissertation submitted to the School of Graduate Studies in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, University of Alberta, Faculty of Arts, 1952.

Peake, Frank A. “William Newton” http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/william-newton/

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