Southern Alberta Japanese United Church
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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 some 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. In the above 1953 photo, Kathy is standing in front of her mother (white dress) in the front row.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Post-Church Construction Period: Formation of the Community Church - 1969-1973
Development from Southern Alberta to Calgary - 1974-1978
English-language Worship begins - 1979-1983
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.
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 taken during George Takashima's time with SAJUC. George is standing at the back, right-hand corner.
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.
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.