Big heart beats in small church
Celebrating 100 years of God’s faithfulness in Blaine Lake
My first encounter with Blaine Lake (Sask.) Gospel Chapel as a first-year college student left a distinct impression of a place with a big heart. Bethany College’s drama team was partnering with the small congregation a 25-minute drive from Hepburn to put on a Valentine’s potluck dinner theatre for the community.
The lines I recited that night have long faded from memory, but the love and hospitality I witnessed were impossible to forget. Little did I know that cold February evening how soon I would again receive from this modest congregation. Four and half years later, they called me to serve as their pastor.
This little church with a lot of heart had its beginnings in 1906 with Mennonite missionary Herman Fast’s love for his students and their parents. Russian teacher at Petrofka school (a local grade school in the Blaine Lake area), he also led gospel services at the school and in the homes of local residents.
As the good news spread into people’s hearts and homes, the need for a place to formally gather arose. Embodying Blaine Lake hospitality, neighbours Wasyl Wasilenko and Nicholas Boulanoff donated two acres of adjacent farmland for construction of a meetinghouse. With financial help from the Mennonite Brethren Mission of Saskatchewan, and volunteer labour, the church building was completed in 1912. Wasyl Wasilenko served as the congregation’s first official pastor until he moved out of province in 1924.
Baptists and Mennonites worship side by side
The local Mennonite and Russian Baptist congregations were in the practice of holding choir practices and youth events together, and in 1924, they extended the bonds of love and formally joined as one church. Baptist 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.
Prolific Mennonite Brethren writer Katie Funk Wiebe was a part of this Mennonite Baptist church in Blaine Lake as a child. Her father played a significant leadership role in the congregation. Soon after their arrival in the community in 1932, the Funk family found a church to call their own as they formed deep and meaningful relationships with those within the Mennonite-Baptist congregation.
In the 1940s, the small country church building was moved onto three empty lots formerly occupied by a lumberyard along Railway Avenue in the town of Blaine Lake. Initially, the facility was used for the vacation Bible schools conducted in the community during the summer, as the church looked for ways to bless those in the surrounding community.
Resident shopkeeper John Koval served as the church’s pastor during the 1940s. Described by Funk Wiebe as a “gentle soul,” he was deeply rooted in the community, maintaining a harness and shoe repair store, later a general grocery store.
People of Blaine Lake continued to fill the church, necessitating an addition in the 1950s. Power and water were added for $750 in 1962 with the conference’s approval. And in 1967, so no one from any background should feel unwelcome, the church’s name was changed to Blaine Lake Gospel Chapel. Pastors who served during this time included Peter Esau, Abe Dueck, George Reimer, Irvin Penner, David Wootton, and Frank Froese.
The future of the congregation was uncertain until Gerald Epp and his wife Eleanor answered the call to serve as pastoral couple in the 1980s. Their agreement to serve the church and community for a short span would initiate a 26-year tenure culminating with Epp’s retirement in 2010.
In 2008, a third expansion and major renovation was completed, including a brand-new fellowship hall, to host the potlucks, small community group meetings, and Valentine’s Day dinner theatres for which BLGC had become famous.
Like any other church, Blaine Lake Gospel Chapel has faced ups and downs over the course of its 100 years. Though never particularly noteworthy in numbers, BLGC has excelled with heart and hands. The vitality of this church isn’t dependent on a single person, family, mission board, conference – or even a single denomination. Rather, it is sustained by the loving hands of Christ who calls, guides, leads, and loves his bride.