The following is a brief written history of our congregation. I owe many thanks to Conrad Stoeze at the Center for Mennonite Brethren (MB) Studies for providing me with the historical documents that formed a large part of what I was able to write. I did my best to accurately recount the history of our church. That being said, I recognize that it is hard to accurately capture the whole one hundred year history of a congregation in a few short pages. I apologize to those individuals who names were inadvertently left out. Throughout a hundred years there have been countless contributors to the life of our church. Whether named or not, their contributions continue to play a significant role both in the history of our church, and in its present congregational life.
Former Pastor Kevin A. Koop
Our church’s history begins a number of years prior to the completion of a church building in 1912. In 1906, Mennonite missionary, Herman Fast came to Petrofka school to teach the Russian language, and at the same time he conducted gospel services in the school and in homes. Ellen Reusser, Herman Fast’s granddaughter, had this to say in a 1953 Essay about the missionary heart of her Grandpa. “The greatest part of Herman Fast’s life in Canada was spent working among the Doukhobors and other Russians as a missionary… he not only believed but lived his ‘peace principles’ and loved to witness for his Master in common everyday living. At one time, needing a sum of money, he went to the bank. When the banker asked him whether he had any debts, he replied; “Yes, one big debt, that of love and service to my fellow man.”
As the good news grew and spread in people’s hearts and homes, the need for a place to gather formally arose. Neighbours Wasyl Wasilenko and Nicholas Boulanoff, donated two acres of adjacent farmland for construction of a meeting house in what was known then as the Harmonia district. With financial help from the Mennonite Brethren Mission of Saskatchewan, and volunteer labour, the church building was completed in 1912. The church was officially named, “The Mennonite Brethren Church at Petrofka.” Wasyl Wasilenko served as the congregation’s first official pastor until he moved out of province in 1924.
The local Mennonite and Russian Baptist congregations were in the practice of holding choir practices and youth events together. When some of the Mennonite and Baptist youth got married to one another, as inevitably happens amongst youth who spend significant amounts of time together, some quarrels occurred as to which church would get newlyweds. Alexander Nazaroff, suggested that the two churches join, and in 1924 the groups of believers formally did so. Russian minister, George Buzowetsky served as pastor, and Paul Makaroff, representing the Mennonite church, served as deacon. Along with several laymen, the two took turns preaching, and the church formally adopted the name, “Baptist Mennonite Union Church of Blaine Lake.”
The congregational life of the Mennonite Baptist church was a rich one. Many events took place within this group of faithful Christians. These events included some revival meetings which featured MB speakers from across the river. During this time Reverend Nestor Nesdoly served as the pastor at the Baptist MB congregation.
During the 1930s, local shoe and harness repair shop owner John Koval served within the Blaine Lake congregation. It was also during this time that the family of Katie Funk Wiebe, noted Mennonite theologian and historian, moved to the Blaine Lake area. During the winter months, when travel to the country Baptist church was difficult, the Koval family, the family of John Nesdoly, and the parents of Katie Funk Wiebe held church services in their homes. The children attended the United Church Sunday School, while their parents gathered for church in their private residences. In a 2006 essay, Funk Weibe recalls some of her early childhood memories of church. “On Sunday morning Dad dusted the snow off the benches stacked next to the house and carried them in. Mother covered them with blankets to ward off the chill”
A local lumber yard which was located behind the Funk residence burned down and as a result three lots remained vacant along the road next to the railroad tracks that ran through Blaine Lake. The lots belonged to the Reliant lumber company. At the insistence of Katie’s father, the lots were purchased by the Western Children’s Mission for the price of $25 a lot. These lots were provided at a low cost because they were purchased for the use of a church. During the 1930s, Western Children’s Mission would send dozens of workers to the Blaine Lake area to conduct Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) for the community’s children.
In the 1940s, Katie’s father wanted to move the MB church from the country to the three lots to further facilitate the growth of the gospel message through the work of the VBS in the summer. The church building was pulled into town from its previous country home. Prior to arriving within the town limits, the church building spent one winter on a side road, as Funk Wiebe put it “sort of like the Ark of Covenant in the Old Testament.” After that winter on the side of the road, the church was established at its current home on Railway Avenue. The original church building, built in the country in 1912, and moved to town in the 1940s, now serves as the stage for the current church sanctuary.
From 1944-1946 John Koval, now the owner of the local general store, provided leadership within in the church. Services were conducted in the Russian language and the church began to grow. As a result the need for a bigger building arose. It was decided that an addition was to be added to the church sanctuary, and it was completed in the mid 1950s. At the same time the church decided it would be prudent to construct a residence to house the pastor of the church and their family and a manse was built as well.
During the 1950s services were in both Russian and English, however a language transition took place towards the end of the decade. In 1959 the Russian speaking people of the congregation met separately, while services in church where conducted in English.
From the 1950s through the 1970s a number of pastors and their families served faithfully amongst the congregation. This included Pastor Peter Esau and family from 1954 – 1959. Pastor Abe Dueck and family, from 1959-1964. Pastor Abe would oversee the addition of power and water to the church in 1962. An expense of $750 was be spent to install these utilities to service the church. Pastor George Reimer and family served from 1964-1968. Pastor George would oversee the changing of the church’s name to its current “Blaine Lake Gospel Chapel” in 1967. The driving force behind the name change was so as not to exclude the participation of anyone from any other denomination from the life of the Church. In 1967, the church was also formally accepted in the Saskatchewan Mennonite Brethren Conference, with a total membership of 11 individuals.
Pastor Irvin Penner and family served the congregation from 1968-1972. Pastor David Wootton and family serviced from 1973-1977. Upon the conclusion of the Wootton’s ministry, the church remained without a pastor for a number of years. Bill Bolan served as the moderator of the church, and was tasked with finding guest speakers for the church on Sunday mornings. The congregation was blessed by the preaching ministry of a number of local speakers.
In 1982 Pastor Frank Froese agreed to help the Blaine Lake congregation by serving, along with his wife, as the pastor of the church. Frank and Bertha Froese drove out from their home in Hepburn twice a week for fourteen months, to conduct Sunday services and Wednesday evening bible studies. In 1983 Bill and Agatha Kardash assisted in finding guest speakers for the congregation as well. While speaking about this time in the church’s history at the celebration of the congregation’s 80th Anniversary, Mary Lamers would remark, “The Lord did not leave us without spiritual nourishment, His faithfulness was always with us.”
In the face of some uncertainty as to the future of the congregation, Gerald Epp, with his wife Eleanor, and their family, agreed to move into Blaine Lake and serve as the church’s pastor. The church was very excited for the Epp’s ministry. While initially agreeing to serve for a short period of time, the Epps would minister in Blaine Lake for a span of twenty-six years.
The period during the late 1980s was marked by significant growth as a number of baptisms took place, with church attendance receiving a good boost. There were a number of children in the congregation at this time, VBS and children’s ministries grew out of the need to encourage the faith of the children.
The Epps were welcomed warmly by the people of the Blaine Lake congregation. Many within the church welcomed the Epp family with open arms as the Epps received invitations into homes to share a meal. Though it took a great deal of time, the Epps eventually played a significant role in the broader community of Blaine Lake. A number of people in the community embraced the Epps as their pastoral couple, inviting Gerry to pray at community events.
The whole Epp family actively participated in the life of the church and broader community throughout their time in Blaine Lake. Eleanor became a dearly beloved Piano Instructor, and a friend to many within their town. At various points, each member of the Epp family was involved with the church, including ministry to children, youth, and with the worship on Sunday mornings.
A few years after the Epps arrival, Arnold & Helena Stobbe moved to Blaine Lake from Borden. Arnold and Helena were looking to move to a community where they might be involved in bringing the gospel message to their neighbors. It didn’t take long for Arnold to get involved in the church and community. Arnold would eventually serve as the church’s moderator for a period of about fifteen years, until Arnold and Helena moved to Saskatoon in 2005.
Arnold served as Gerry’s “right hand man” through the 1990s. Church life went along, marked by the regular routines of a rural congregation. Though going through some ups and downs, the church continued to be a place where many experienced growth in Christ, both by long time Christians, and those experiencing the good news of the gospel for the very first time.
Some modest growth was experienced through the first decade of the new millennium. The church began thinking about how to address some of the needs within their church and community from a facility standpoint.
After much prayer and some vigorous fundraising, a church building expansion project was embarked upon in 2006. In 2009 the building expansion was completed, with the help of a number of volunteers from both within the church and community, and outside of the community as well. The expansion featured a new kitchen that helped facilitate the many occasions wherein the church gathered to fellowship with one another around a meal. The expansion also featured accessible washrooms on the main floor.
Upon their retirement in 2010, Gerry and Eleanor moved to Manitoba, which was a difficult transition for the Epps and many within the congregation as deep and meaningful relationships had been established during the Epps tenure. During the end of Gerry’s ministry, the church began a lengthy search for a new pastor for their congregation. Two months after the Epps left, Pastor Kevin Koop and his wife Emily accepted the call to serve as the church’s pastoral couple.
Kevin and Emily led the church from 2010 to 2015 when they and their son Colton moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta to ministry in another church. Rick Schellenberg accepted the invitation to serve the church beginning in January 2016 and he and Gwen continue to be blessed by the people of the church and community.
This brief historical survey highlights some of the stories behind what happens within the life of our church today. There remains a strong heart to introduce those in our community to the life that is found in relationship with Jesus. There remains many collaborative solutions to the challenges we face as a church body as we recognize that ownership of our church is held by many outside of our church and community who find a place for this congregation in their heart. There remains a strong emphasis on fellowship as we recognize that being the church means more than just gathering for an hour worship service. There remains a strong sense that all that we do is sustained by Christ who leads us.
Our history serves as a poignant reminder that the vitality of this church is not dependent on a single person, family, mission board, conference – or even a single denomination. Rather we continue in the recognition that we are sustained by the loving hands of Christ who calls, guides, leads, and loves His gathered people.