Discovering Ralph Connor

In July of 2009, I went for a hike in our nearby Rockies. It was on Grotto Mountain, an expansive mountain that fills the landscape east of the mountain town of Canmore, Alberta, one of my favorite towns in Alberta.

Here is a photo I took from the trail on Grotto Mountain, looking south….

….and another looking west at a group of peaks called The Three Sisters:

After hiking I went into Canmore and took some pictures of the town, including this one:

… and I loved it so much, I used it for my Gravatar!

Okay, that’s all to set up the fact that I love the area around Canmore.

While on another hike this past summer, I’d met someone who recommended a tour of the Canmore Mines, so I thought I’d get some information about it, to plan a visit.

Well, one online rabbit-trail led to another, and soon I was on a webpage and map of Historic Sites in Canmore. Good! More things to see when I go there the next time!  Included was this note:

Ralph Connor United Church, a little farther down 8th Street, was built in 1890 and is now a Provincial Historic Site. The church is named for its first reverend, Charles Gordon, who used the pen name Ralph Connor for the 35 books he authored.

Hmm, never heard of him.

Did it say he wrote books?!

With the description, I was surprised to see a photograph almost identical to my photo of the mountains behind the church:

Wow, that’s “my church”, now I’m interested! So who is this obscure author Ralph Connor, and what kind of novels did he write?

It turns out that from 1890 to 1893 he served as a missionary in the Northwest Territories (including what is now Alberta, which didn’t become a province until 1905) before moving to Manitoba.

Okay, now I’m really interested. Here is more detail of Rev. Charles Gordon’s fascinating background in a section from an excellent archived article in Maclean’s magazine November 15,1953:

He was Canada’s most prolific bestseller at the turn of the 19th century!  So why haven’t I heard of him before?

Probably because a preacher-author in the early 1900s writing about hard-drinking lumbermen in Canada being moved to prayer couldn’t have much of a following.

Wrong.  The same Maclean’s article says:

“From Calcutta to New York… five million copies… Canada’s all-time best-selling novelist” ?!  And in the United States police were called out to control crowds attending lectures he gave… President Woodrow Wilson admired his books and Henry Ford, as Connor’s luncheon host, sent a servant to his library to get a pile of them for the author to autograph.

That was then, in about 1900.

Yet, even now, he is included in the Canadian Encyclopedia’s article about best selling English books in Canada. I have found his novels in hardcover at a local bookstore, available at my library, and at Amazon and other booksellers online, including gutenberg.org.

This October 15, 1959 article and photo in the Glengarry Ont newspaper honors Ralph Connor, as well as this very moving account written in 2016 about the Reverend Charles Gordon as a Chaplain in World War I.

In 1921 a silent movie was made of his book Sky Pilot , starring Colleen Moore (who was a popular silent movie star).

I’m currently reading his book Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks , which is written about the Canmore area. It only took me a few sentences to understand why his books have been so popular–excellent writing, brilliant dialogue and inspiring, gripping plots!

Today I went back to my original 2009 photo and zoomed in on the sign in front of the church.  Sure enough, there it is, “Ralph Connor”. I had never noticed the sign, I was only looking at how beautiful it was to have the mountains in the background of the church steeple.

Now I look forward to visiting the church on my next drive to Canmore, knowing the history of Reverend Charles Gordon who built the first church in that town (which is still going strong after 125 years!), and through the lifelike “sermons” in his novels, became famous as author Ralph Connor.

Am I the only one who hadn’t heard of Ralph Connor? Have you read any of his books? If so, let me know what your favorites are! If not, I hope you have a look at one of his novels and let me know what you think!

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