Black History Month is a special time of reflection for my family and me as we reminisce about the time we first arrived in Alberta and the pioneering work of our father and grandfather Elmar Samuel Neil.
Elmar worked tirelessly in the northern Alberta communities of Amber Valley, Athabasca and St. Albert as a church planter and ministry pioneer with his beloved wife at his side, affectionately known as Mother Neil.
Elmar's family arrived in Edmonton on March 4, 1969. Our mother had the two younger siblings, Janet and Sharon, dressed like twins in hot pink warm wool fabric clothing with matching hats, suitable for the cold Canadian weather. My memory of what I wore that day is a little vague, but I was dressed for the weather that was about to greet me along with my mother and two brothers, David and Trevor.
We had flown eight long hours from the Heathrow International Airport in London, England, to the Edmonton International Airport, and we were all excited to finally reunite with our father, Elmar, who had left England three years before us to pave the way for our Canadian arrival.
When the plane finally landed, we all disembarked quickly and excitedly and cleared customs. When glass doors opened, there was our father – smiling from ear to ear. Everyone was joyful as we heard his familiiar voice. At long last, the family was reunited.
Dad had always pioneered the way for his family’s comfort and sustenance. He was a great husband and father – dedicated to providing for his family. He was born on Oct. 6, 1922, in the parish of St. Mary, Jamaica West Indies – the youngest of eight siblings. At the age of 21, he fell in love with our mother, Mavis Elizabeth Crawford, who became his soul mate of 50 years before his death in 1992. From that union, eight children were born.
As a carpenter and sole provider for his family, he emigrated to England in 1951 seeking a better standard of living and a new adventure. After living in England for several years, he made the courageous decision to migrate to Canada in 1966. He initially went to Toronto, Ont., but eventually chose Edmonton, considering it as the perfect place to raise his children. It was during this time he felt the call to ministry.
The call to Amber Valley
Dad had secured our first home in Edmonton – a three-bedroom town house, with an unfinished basement in the Westmount area. We lived there for a short time and made many new friends in the community.
As our mother was a stay-at-home mum, there was plenty to do with the family, but our parents always found time to be neighbourly. We were the only Caribbean family in the neighborhood, and we were told we had an accent when we spoke; sometimes, we would be shy about this. However, the friendliness of our dad made all the difference to how we felt about ourselves.
Soon we were engaged in different activities in the school, as well as in the community. We learned how to embrace and enjoy the cold winter days by learning to skate and going tobogganing; we endured the hot summer days running through the sprinkler with the other children from the neighborhood.
We attended a north side Pentecostal church for several years until our father felt the call of God in 1976 that changed our lives dramatically.
It was a regular Saturday morning. On that day, Dad usually drove Mum to the grocery store for the weekly groceries. However, this Saturday he was nowhere to be found. No one knew where he was or why he had not called home.
Several hours later dad came home to report that he had a spiritual visitation from the Lord. He was driving in his car and was told by an inner voice to keep going, straight north, past St. Albert where our oldest sister and her family lived. He continued to drive (the Holy Spirit was his GPS) until he landed in the town of Amber Valley.
When he arrived, he stopped his car at the side of the road and felt the Holy Spirit say to him, “You have not prayed.” He took a turn and dove up to an unfamiliar home of a local farmer name Booker T. Edwards, a middle-aged Afro-American farmer who was quite a gentleman. (The family friendship that was later developed lasted a lifetime).
Booker Edwards was one of the sons of the Amber Valley Oklahoma homestead family of J.D. Edwards. Booker's wife’s name was Ruby, the schoolteacher who taught several grades in the one school classroom in Amber Valley.
Together with my mother, they were outstanding hostesses on Sundays after church. Many meals were eaten in the Edwards home. My mother introduced the Edwards to her Caribbean spicy way of cooking and Ruby made delicious desserts in exchange. They had one daughter named Sharon, and together we as children enjoyed our times together exploring and learning about the Alberta farm. Many church events took place in the Amber Valley Community Hall, from 1976 to 1981.
On February 1, 1982, Dad bought a church building in the town of Athabasca with the help of church donors and named it Shiloh Pentecostal Tabernacle of Athabasca, still in operation today under new leadership.
Dad expanded his ministry by establishing a daughter work in the beautiful city of St. Albert. Services began in the St. Albert Community Center on Perron street. His daughter Marilyn and son-in-law Edward (Ted) McGreer assisted in this work by leading services on Sundays and using their home basement for midweek Bible studies until the purchase of the church building at 1 Gate Ave.
Elmar Neil died on Jan. 28, 1992, and left quite a spiritual legacy for his children. Pastor Ted and I are proud to have been a part of the church plant in St. Albert, Shiloh Pentecostal Church, under the leadership of their father. He was a visionary, a pioneer, a man with a heart for the people of the community regardless of racial ethnicity. Thank you, Dad, and may you rest in peace, gone but not forgotten. You are forever in our hearts.
May 1976: First church service in Amber Valley Community Church
Oct. 17, 1976: Church opening at Amber Valley Community Centre
Nov. 2, 1976: First visiting evangelist – Jonny King
Dec 17, 1976: First visiting congregational play (Edmonton)
March 23, 1977: Play by AV Congregation
March 10, 1977: Baptismal Service – Sharon Edwards
July 17, 1977: Baptismal service (6) – John Mahevich family
Jan. 1, 1978: First Service – Lord’s Supper and foot washing
Feb. 24, 1978: Play – Prodigal son – Give me Thy Dreams Building Program
March 17, 1978: First church business meeting
April 9, 1978: First contract rental fee ($15)
April 4, 1978: Com Centre refused to renew old contract
June 30, 1978: Bro. & Sis Canter and family visit the old church
August to Sept. 3, 1978: Elder Baughman Campaign
Oct. 15, 1978: Baptismal Service – Mrs. Elnora Ford, Edmonton
Nov. 5, 1978: Film 'Christmas for Christ' (collection Dec. 17)
Nov. 5, 1978: Kilometres for Christ
Nov. 19, 1978: Received Bro & Sis Neil and Carol Fellowship Dinner
May 6, 1979: Romeo and wife came back to church services
Aug. 12, 1979: Booker and Ruby's 25th anniversary at church
Sept. 2, 1979: Robert Barnett, family and guest church services
Sept. 3,1979: Picnic at Bro. Simon’s Home (Hylo, Alta.)
Aug. 13 to Sept. 20, 1980: Revival service began in Romeo Edwards by Bro. Hill
Aug. 27, 1980: Baptismal Service – Hazel Leigh, Barbara Dene
Aug. 29, 1980: Baptismal Service – Ian Jackson, Mary Harrison
Aug. 31, 1980: Wedding – Ian Jackson and Barbara Dene
Dec. 4, 1980: Baptismal Service – Joyce Dene
Dec. 27, 1980: Baptismal Service – Percy, Preston and Charmaine Leigh
May 24, 1981: Baptismal Service – Hazel Naumann, Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Naumann, Anne Dene, Stewart Robinson
July 19, 1981: Started having services in Calling Lake
Aug. 3, 1981: Camp meeting time
Aug. 7, 1981: Madge Dene was baptized at the Covenant Bay camp meeting and filled with the Holy Ghost.
Sept. 20, 1981: Sheaves for Christ money submitted
Sept. 18, 1981: Lord’s Supper
Feb. 1, 1982: Possession of the church building Athabasca
May 28, 1982: Opening Service with Bro. Boyd & Bro. Barnett
May 29 to June 4, 1982: Revival Services Pastor J Boyd
Aug. 16 to 20, 1982: Camp Meeting Saskastewan
October 1982: Started making Huggies – candy bears
Feb. 4, 1983: First Anniversary service with Bro. Reynolds Senior and Junior; Bro Mena and Bro. Goddards
Feb. 6 to 11, 1983: Revival Service with Bro. Goddard