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Southern Alberta Japanese United Church

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Southern Japanese United Church, Easter 1953. Kathy Yamashita is standing in front of her mother (white dress) in the front row. Credit: Courtesy of Kathy Yamashita

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Southern Alberta Japanese United Church (SAJUC), Lethbridge, traces its roots to 1942 during World War II when Japanese Canadians were forced to leave their property and move to Southern Alberta. Restricted to living in rural areas and farms, they organized their Japanese United Church. They began worshiping in people’s homes, forming preaching points in Raymond, Picture Butte and Taber. Their minister travelled by bicycle until a vehicle could be secured. While the church wouldn’t have its own building until 1970, it was mobile. At one point, its ministry consisted of five preaching points with a mission also in Calgary

For nearly 80 years, SAJUC has served Southern Alberta.  The following history comes primarily from the late George Takashima, a former SAJUC minister who wrote Nishiki, Nikkei Tapestry, A History of Southern Alberta Japanese Canadians (Lethbridge and District Japanese Canadian Association, 2001, pp. 104-106).

Thank you to Dr. Kathy Yamashita for compiling the fuller history and other sources are notes below.

Early Period of Methodist Mission to the Japanese People of Alberta

The very first step towards the Japanese Mission in Alberta was taken by the late Rev. Yoshimitsu Akagawa in September of 1919.  According to his diary, he arrived in Calgary from Okanagan, British Columbia on September 14 and went to Raymond on the following day to visit some Japanese farmers.  On September 16, he continued his trip to Welling farms and Kipp Coalmines where some Japanese were working, attended a welcome party for his honor and held a Mission Night Gathering in Lethbridge. He met some young Japanese farmers who wished to convert to the Christian faith after hearing his messages. On September 17, Rev. Akagawa left Raymond for Montana.  The farmers he had met wanted to establish a Christian Church for the Japanese in Raymond and some other places. They wrote a letter to Rev. Akagawa to ask him for a Japanese pastor, but there was no reply.

After waiting for long hopeless years, they finally decided to not convert to Christianity. They chose to establish a Buddhist Temple and requested a priest from Japan in 1929. This incident gave them the impression that Christians were not trustworthy. They not only turned away from the Christian Church, but this also made them quite hostile toward Christianity.

However, Rev. Akagawa remembered his promise; in 1931 Mr. Mutsuo Honda was sent to the Coalhurst United Church for the Japanese Mission Works among the Japanese people in Raymond, Shaughnessy and Hardieville areas, to no success.

Thus, the first stage of Japanese Mission in southern Alberta ended in complete failure.

Pastor George Takashima
Pastor George Takashima wrote Nishiki, Nikkei Tapestry: A History of Southern Alberta Japanese Canadians in 2001. Much of the history below comes from George’s work. George served Southern Alberta Japanese United Church from 1993-2006. He died in 2020

From Wartime to Post-war Days: Upheaval Period - 1942-1949

In the spring of 1942, many Japanese farmers were evacuated from the West Coast into Southern Alberta.  They were engaged in hard labour, mostly in the sugar beet growing farmlands in this area.  The total population of Japanese evacuees in Southern Alberta was about 2400.  They were scattered in several places such as Coaldale, Raymond, Taber, Picture Butte and Lethbridge.  There were some Christians among them.  They had interdenominational Sunday Worship Services.

In the summer of the same year, The United Church of Canada’s Home Mission Board appointed Rev. Jun Kabayama as the pastor to these people.  Living in Raymond, Rev. Kabayama started the visitation to the Japanese evacuees and extended the mission works among them.  In 1947, the manse for Rev. Kabayama and his family was purchased in Lethbridge, which became a centre for their fellowship and mission activities.

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Rev. Jun Kabayama began serving the Japanese evacuees in the Summer of 1942, travelling between the different rural communities by bicycle. Later, parishioners would purchase a truck for their minister. They put his name on the door of the truck.— Chinook Winds Regional Council Archives, The United Church of Canada PR1975.0387/4744

About forty people standing in front of their church. Captioned "This picture was taken in front of Old Manse 11th St. S. After Baptism. 1947."
Chinook Winds Regional Council Archives, The United Church of Canada, PR1975.0387.4744

Its Golden Period - 1950-1960

In January of 1950, the first annual congregational meeting of Southern Alberta Japanese United Church was held in Lethbridge.  The membership grew rapidly.

In 1952 Rev. Kabayama was appointed to Okanagan Japanese United Church and was replaced by Rev. Yoshinosuke Yoshioka.  He carried out the mission works among the Japanese people, but suddenly passed away in 1956.  Rev. Yutaka Ogura from Winnipeg succeeded in the same year. He stayed and served until 1960 when he retired.

It was the peak of the Japanese Church.  There were 171 members, 31 non-resident members, having 5 points and 2 UCW units.

Group of people sitting in front of building. Captioned "Rev. Y. Yokshioka from 1952 to 1956. Rev + Mrs. Yoshioka 2nd and 3rd from Right. This picture was taken after mother's day service in 1956.
Chinook Winds Regional Council Archives, The United Church of Canada, PR1975.0387.4744
Christmas Eve with Rev. and Mrs. Ogura
Christmas Eve with Rev. and Mrs. Ogura

Discerning New Possibilities - 1961-1968

In 1960 Rev. Makio Norisue was appointed as the fourth minister to the Pastoral Charge.  His family joined him and arrived from Japan later in the same year.  His mission work spread in various fields by opening Sunday Schools in Lethbridge and Taber areas, starting the Nisei fellowship, helping to set up the building funds for future use and extending mission works to Edmonton and Calgary by opening the regular meetings for the Japanese people who resided in these areas.  However, he was called by Toronto Japanese United Church suddenly in 1962 to succeed the late Dr. k. Shimizu who died during the Japanese Conference in Winnipeg in the previous year.  Since this time, however, the Church membership had shown the first sign of constant decline.  More and more Issei people were dying and or moving out of southern Alberta.  The Church had to try new possibilities for their survival.

Rev. Hiraku Iwai arrived in Lethbridge with his family in May of 1963 to become the fifth minister of the Church. The church had suffered greatly as it was vacant since January in the same year after Rev. Norisue left Lethbridge.  Rev. Iwai and his family moved into the newly provided manse in the northside of the city.  He and his wife continued the Sunday School in Taber and tried to continue the previous activities.  They opened the Japanese Language Classes in Lethbridge and Taber.  He also tried to retain 5 preaching points and the regular meetings in Edmonton and Calgary.  In 1967 the congregation used the building of the First United Church occasionally for their Sunday Worship Services.  Both Churches cooperated in many ways with planning of their new Church building for mutual use, although the plan never worked.  Since 1963, Rev. Iwai started the special mission works for the new Japanese Immigrants.  In 1963, the City of Lethbridge supported the Canadian Centennial project to build a Japanese Garden in Henderson Park.  Rev. Iwai and the Church members were amongst those who participated in the construction of the garden.  In the summers of 1967 and 1968, two students from Japan, Chizu Hosotani and Yoko Kawai, conducted their religious surveys in Lethbridge and predicted the further decline of the Christian mission for the Japanese people in this area.

In 1967, the congregation occasionally used First United Church’s building for worship services. The two congregations discussed using that building for mutual use, although the plan never worked.
In 1967, the congregation occasionally used First United Church’s building for worship services. The two congregations discussed using that building for mutual use, although the plan never worked.

Post-Church Construction Period: Formation of the Community Church - 1969-1973

In 1968, Rev. Iwai was called by the Montreal United Church.  The Pastoral Charge decided to call Mr. William Harms, a Lay preacher from Kelowna.  Mr. Harms contributed to the Japanese Church tremendously in the renovation of the old Hungarian Hall in Lethbridge, which was purchased by the Church in 1968.  The members worked hard for the completion of their own church building.  In September of 1970, they had the dedication service of the Church edifice and celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the church. In November of the same year the Sixth National Conference of Japanese United Churches was held in the new building in Lethbridge.  Mr. and Mrs. Harms carried out Sunday Schools in Lethbridge and Taber.  They approached Nisei people and also Caucasian neighborhood residents.  Therefore, the membership of Caucasian children greatly increased while the Japanese children and adult members had been dropping off continuously.
 In 1968, the former Hungarian Hall in Lethbridge was purchased. After renovations, the new Church was dedicated in 1970.
In 1968, the former Hungarian Hall in Lethbridge was purchased. After renovations, the new Church was dedicated in 1970.

Development from Southern Alberta to Calgary - 1974-1978

In July of 1973, Rev. Benjamin T. Murata and his family arrived in Lethbridge.  In September of the same year a new garage for the manse was built.  Rev. Murata opened the regular monthly meetings in Raymond and Vauxhall for the Japanese people in those areas.  He tried to keep up the previous activities such as the Taber Sunday School and the regular meetings in Edmonton, etc.  In January of 1974, he started a Lethbridge Japanese Language School at the Church, a Naomi Fellowship for the widows, and the District House meetings.  From July of 1974 to February of 1975, he was engaged in the survey on the Japanese in Alberta by the support of Alberta Conference.  Out of this survey, he discovered the population flows from southern Alberta to Calgary and Edmonton areas.  Especially noticed was the Calgary area where the most dense Japanese population was seen.  It was still increasing up to 1500 from 935 in the 1971 census.  It showed the further decline of the Church membership and he realized they had to find out the way to survive.  He concluded from these facts that they had to extend the work in the Calgary area in order to continue to grow and to develop in future  He then decided to cease to extend the previous regular meeting in Edmonton and to concentrate their mission work to set up in Calgary.  In September of 1976, he started the monthly Sunday Worship Service by using Central United Church, Calgary.  In December of 1977, the members of Calgary meeting organized the Calgary Japanese United Church Mission, elected Mr. H. Konno as the Clerk of Session and “Dr. M. Iga as the Treasurer.  The membership was 10 in 1976 and it increased to 17 by the end of 1977.  Now it had 25 identifiable families under its pastoral oversight and would be further increased in the future.

English-language Worship begins - 1979-1983

 In 1978 the Home Mission Board of the United Church of Canada asked the Reverend Gordon Imai to visit the church in Lethbridge to do a survey on the feasibility of continuing the Japanese work in Southern Alberta. He visited those involved and found that not many Nisei (second generation families) were attending, and he concluded that an English service was needed to keep the church open. The following year he was asked to serve as the first Nisei minister for the Southern Alberta Japanese United Church in Lethbridge. In the four years of his ministry (1979-1983) he tried to build up the English-speaking congregation. He used to pick up children in his van to bring them to Sunday School. His energy was a blessing to the people.
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The following is from A Centennial Pilgrimage: Japanese Canadians and The United Church of  Canada (Japanese United Church Centennial Book Project, St. Laurent, Quebec, 1992 p. 42)

Rev. C. Furuya - 1983-1992

Rev. Campbell Furuya is working with a board and U.C.W. composed of Nisei and Sansei members.  Our goal is to provide pastoral care to those who need us in Southern Alberta and to continue to enjoy fellowship in Christian community.  We want to be flexible in responding to the changes within the world and in the United Church as time goes on. We are ever grateful to the many Issei pioneers whose vision and hard work laid the foundation for our church in Southern Alberta.

Our pages were put together by the work of Revered. C. Furuya, Esther Kitaguchi, Kay Otsuka, Kathy Yamashita, Lil Kishimoto and Ken Yoshioka.

The following was written by Dr. Kathy Yamashita to complete the history of the Southern Alberta Japanese United Church to the present day.

1992 - 2006

In The Southern Alberta Japanese United Church came to the attention of South Alberta Presbytery when our membership had declined and could no longer support a full-time minister. We had requested a United Church grant to maintain financial stability.  Rev Furuya retired in 1992.  The Rev. Bill Mayberry was appointed as a half time interim minister.  Bill and his wife, Millie brought energy and light with them and our congregation benefitted from their pastoral care.  At this time the worship service was held in English with translation by Ken Yoshioka, a member of the congregation. Bill Mayberry’s guidance and support held us up while we searched for a new minister.

In 1993 Pastor George Takashima  moved from Manitoba with his wife Peggy.  A retired school principal and lay minister, George had been serving a church in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.

Under George’s leadership our church membership and finances stabilized. There was a small Sunday School led by John and Bev McKinnon. Annually, the church membership continued to hold a one-day fund-raising chow mein supper and bazaar. The Ladies group would meet to make Japanese crafts and food for the sale.  The fellowship that we enjoyed in this undertaking was valuable for the warm community feeling that it created. Under George’s leadership, the church sold the manse and invested the proceeds in a long-term investment for the purpose of providing our minister with a housing allowance.

George Takashima connected our church to the community with his work in Lions International, Multicultural Community activities and the Canadian Diabetes Association to name a few groups.  He left our church in 2006 to take a position with General Council of the United Church of Canada as a staff person who facilitated Intercultural work. George and Peggy will always be remembered for their hard work ethic and graceful leadership.

Photo from Bill Mayberry's time with Southern Alberta Japanese United Church.

Photo taken during George Takashima's time with SAJUC. George is standing at the back, right-hand corner.

Congregational photo taken during George Takashima's time with SAJUC.

 Rev. Aldeen MacKay (centre)served SAJUC between 2006-2017. The congregation held a special celebration for her 40th anniversary of ordination.

2007 - 2020

We were blessed with the appointment of Rev. Aldeen McKay in 2006 who came to our half time position from Trinity United Church in Fort Macleod, Alberta. She brought strong preaching and a wry sense of humor with her. She is still a member of our church family after her retirement in 2017.

We welcomed the appointment of Eva Stanley in 2017. She and her husband Tom quickly settled in with our congregation because of their loving and humorous ways.  Eva’s leadership comes with a  refreshing gift of music, symbolism, and Celtic history. She kept us from losing the story of our origin as a community in exile, like the Bible story of the Israelites taken in slavery to Babylon, and who Jeremiah  instructed to settle and flourish in the new land.

Our church building closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic precautions in March 2020.  Eva wrote sermons and newsletters and helped us to stay in touch with each other. Compared to some of the struggles of the past, this is a small bump in our road. Eva retired in December 2020.

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The Faith & Fellowship Group celebrated Kaye Otsuka’s (at front) 100th Birthday in October 2016. Behind Kaye is Frances Janecke, Rev. Aldeen McKay and Kaye’s daughter, Neva Oishi. Kaye died in 2019, just before her 103rd birthday.
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Pastor Eva Stanley and Council Chair Sharon Tamura, November 2017 were interviewed by The Lethbridge Herald’s Dave Mabell for the congregation’s 75th anniversary. Photo: @TMartinHerald.

Present Day

In the Fall of 2021, Rev. Lois Punton joined us. We re-opened our building to in-person worship while also following COVID19 safety protocols.

God willing, we will have a long future ahead of us of being God’s people.