In the very early settlement in and around the tiny Village of Ponoka, countless new families from all nationalities and walks of life would work very hard to establish their homesteads, to clear the rugged but fertile land and to begin an exciting new life on the prairies. As well as vigorously pursuing their livelihoods and businesses, they would also be challenged to provide schools for their children, community halls for their social activities, and churches in which to worship.
Between 1900-1902, a steady influx of Welsh immigrants began arriving in this area from their homeland as well as throughout the United States. They began to form a settlement eight to 12 miles east of Ponoka, which would be eventually be called Wood River, and quickly grew to a very active population of 125 by 1910. In those very early days, the first worship services and Sunday school classes were held in the partially finished barn and home of Mr. William James and later at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. E.K. Bullock. As the district population and families grew rapidly the Magic School was built in 1903, which also played host to the church services, in Welsh in the afternoon and in English in the evenings. The Reverend D. L. Hughes officiated at all marriages, baptisms, and funerals; Reverend Bradley was the first English preacher, and a young Welsh immigrant Mr. T.E. Jeffrey’s would take over the dual services in 1905.
In 1914, to satisfy the need for much larger facilities, the first Wood River Welsh Church was built and would become affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Canada, serving a large congregation in the area for many years. An initial milestone for the district came in 1916 when work was begun on the construction of the Zion Church on land donated by Mr. W. M. James, which would also include the adjacent Magic Cemetery. The wonderful new church included a tall steeple and Gothic windows, courtesy of district pioneers Mrs. H.F. Davies and Mr. Thomas Hughes, the latter who was a great singer and would establish a long standing tradition of encouraging musical talent in the congregation and around the districts. The Reverend Mr. Jeffrey remained as the minister of the Zion Church until 1921, when he moved to Calgary and was followed by Gwynfe Jones and Reverend O.J. Davies. Then later, because of his deep devotion to the church, Jeffreys would return and serve the Zion Church until his retirement in 1938 with the kind assistance of Wood River Church Minister Mr. Davies.
From 1936 to 1945, an energetic group of ministers would faithfully serve all the needs of both the Zion and Wood River Churches, including the experiment of the first student minister Mr. Robert Miller in 1938, who, in turn, was followed by another student, Mr. John Sorochon, who was later ordained. Reverend George Young would serve the Zion Church every other Sunday from 1936-1940, after which his successor Reverend Davidge provided this service until 1945. It was at this time that upon application, the Zion Church would become the Zion Mission Field, to which a young man, Mr. Doug Lapp, who was barely 18 years of age, was sent as the student minister. Under his enthusiastic and dedicated leadership, the whole community was rejuvenated and a thriving Sunday school was established. The Reverend R.S. Christie, who was the successor to the Reverend Davidge in Ponoka, served regularly at Zion during the winter months, as did his successor Reverend W. E. Burgess, and were followed by Dr. Gerald Rogers, Reverend S. Irving, and Reverend R.M. Moriarity.
During 1953, a balcony was added to the church, which was dedicated in the summer by Reverend Burgess, assisted by Mr. Oakley Dyer, the student minister. Major undertakings and challenges began at the Zion Church in 1964, which would result in a great deal of dedication, hard work, faith, and fellowship from the congregation over the next 50 years, which will be told with photos in a later Ponoka News Reflections feature.