— Just off the main highway, behind the Snack Shack Eatery and the GravelBowl Lanes & Billiards, sits the Church of Christ.
A bright green John Deere tractor rumbles down a nearby street as an older couple watch closely from their front porch.
“Everyone Welcome,” says a sign outside the church’s newly renovated building.
In more than a few places in rural Canada, Churches of Christ are dying.
But in this historically French Catholic prairie town, the 100-member church is thriving.
“Here’s a church in a rural community that has figured out what it’s supposed to be doing,” said Stan Helton, former academic dean at Western Christian College in Regina, about 120 miles northeast of Gravelbourg.
In a community of 1,200 souls, more than 100 children flock each summer— by foot, bicycle and farm truck — to the church’s weeklong VacationBible School.
“You can see these kids just streaming out of each street,” said Lorna Bell, a Vacation Bible School organizer and wife of elder Gerry Bell.“I’m like, ‘Oh, God, you’re good.’”
Vacation Bible School — started 35 years ago on the Bell family farm 16 miles northwest of Gravelbourg — is just one example of the congregation’s outreach efforts.
Whether chatting with neighbors at the Co-Op grocery store or enjoying a cup of coffee at the downtown Café Paris, church members see their role as sharing the love of Christ — in real ways — with the community, minister and elder Wendell Bailey said.
Pure religion “is not something you take home with you and put on the shelf,” said Bailey, who cooks each Wednesday for 18 to 20 residents at a senior living center.
“Just talk to anyone (in the church) during the week, and they’re excited to tell you what’s happened or what they’ve been doing.”
A province nearly the size of Texas but with the population of Rhode Island, Saskatchewan is known for its wide-open spaces — celebrated in pop culture by the Canadian television sitcom “Corner Gas.”
The first Churches of Christ were established in the prairie province in the late 1800s after the West was opened up for homesteading.
But not until the 1920s did concentrated evangelistic efforts result in a scattering of small, rural congregations across southern Saskatchewan.
The Gravelbourg church traces its roots to gospel meetings held by J.C.Bailey, Wendell Bailey’s grandfather, in the 1930s. J.C. Bailey preached the meetings at the invitation of Gerry Bell’s grandmother, Eva Bell, a Christian dressmaker who had moved to Saskatchewan from Ontario.
From 1927 to 1952, J.C. Bailey was the only full-time preacher in Saskatchewan, said Shelley Jacobs, who wrote her master’s thesis on J.C. Bailey’s ministry in western Canada.
“He was a dynamic, evangelistic preacher, and he converted a lot of people,” said Jacobs, a native Canadian whose paternal grandparents were baptized by J.C. Bailey.
Decades later, J.C. Bailey’s influence — and that of other itinerant evangelists, such as H.A. Rogers, Charles Petch and Wilfred Orr — still resonates in western Canada congregations, said Jacobs, a member of theNorthwest church in Regina.
Western Christian College and High School also has played a leading role.
The dream of a Christian teacher named Lillian Torkelson, the residential high school was founded in 1945 in Radville before relocating in 1957 to Weyburn, also in Saskatchewan. The school later moved to Dauphin, Manitoba. It has been in Regina since 2003.
Many young church members left home to attend Western Christian and met their spouses, said Miriam Kerr, a member of the Moose Mountain church in Kenosee Village, about 250 miles east of Gravelbourg.
“Land wise, it’s a big area,” Kerr said of Saskatchewan. “But church-wise, everybody knows everybody,” either through Western Christian or the Gospel Herald,
a Canadian news and teaching journal, she said.
SASKATCHEWAN CHURCHES DWINDLING
A 2001 survey counted 18 Churches of Christ with a combined membership of 778 in Saskatchewan — a province with about 1 million residents, according to Geoffrey Ellis, chairman of the Canadian Churches of Christ Historical Society.
Eight years later, the number of congregations in the province has dwindled to about a dozen, church leaders say.
“Gravelbourg has sort of found a niche that works for them, but there have been numerous rural churches that have shut down in the last 20years,” said Ray McMillan, former longtime minister of the Glen Elm church in Regina.
“Some of that is younger people moving away and going to the cities,”said McMillan, who recalls going to church in a horse-drawn buggy as a boy growing up in Saskatchewan. He first visited Gravelbourg 50 years ago when he worked on the Bell family farm while on break from Western Christian.
In some cases, churches closing reflect the demise of family farms and a shift from a rural society. Often, the congregations were tiny and isolated, made up of two or three families with no hired preacher.
Members who remained typically did not leave the church but instead started driving longer distances to larger congregations in places such as Gravelbourg, Jacobs said.
“They either drive to the nearest Church of Christ or they join another group out of the need for some sort of Christian fellowship,”she said.
At the same time, some leaders said, Western Christian’s influence has waned, with only about half of its roughly 100 high school students from Church of Christ backgrounds.
In part, that’s because the church families of the 1960s and ’70s were larger, providing a bigger pool of potential students.
Moreover, young Christians today don’t necessarily feel an obligation to stay in a Church of Christ.
“The line between western Canada Churches of Christ and the evangelical world is collapsing,” said Helton, an American who recently left to become minister of the Tammany Oaks church in Mandeville, La.
Despite the challenges, the picture of western Canada churches is not all negative.
“There are some small, rural congregations that are strong and holding their own,” Jacobs said.
‘A REAL BLESSING’
About 75 miles north of the Montana state line, Gravelbourg is a typical Canadian small town — with an ice-skating rink and parents who drive their children hundreds of miles to compete in hockey matches.
The majestic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, at the center of town, testifies to the Roman Catholic Church’s powerful presence.
The south-central Saskatchewan town also boasts congregations of the United Church of Canada and the Lutheran Church.
“There are no evangelical groups at all, so consequently when people come into town who have been involved with an evangelical church, they seek us out,” Wendell Bailey said. “And that’s been a real blessing.”
For example, a Filipino family with a Pentecostal background worships with the Church of Christ.
“They find us pretty solemn,” Lorna Bell said. “But we love them, and they love us.”
LOVING THEIR NEIGHBORS
Raymond Lizee, an appliance and electronics store owner with French Catholic roots, laughs when he tells how he became friends with Wendell Bailey.
When Lizee underwent open-heart surgery in 2003, he returned home to find someone had mowed his lawn and trimmed his shrubbery. In a town where not much goes unnoticed, it didn’t take him long to identify the good Samaritan: Bailey, his next-door neighbor.
“I call him an angel — my next-door angel,” Lizee said of Bailey.
When Lizee’s wife, Martha, later required shoulder surgery, women from the Church of Christ took turns delivering meals for a week, she said.
“The Catholic Church doesn’t do that,” she said. “So I was quite impressed.”
The Lizees still attend weekly Mass and consider themselves Catholic.
But they study the Bible with Bailey and frequently visit on Sunday mornings.
“It’s unbelievable,” Raymond Lizee said of the Church of Christ. “For me, it’s a warm thing. Loving your neighbors is really there for them.”
“They practice what they preach,” added Martha Lizee.
At Christmastime, church members bake special treats for seniors and anyone in the community who lost a loved one that year.
With a project to expand and renovate its building complete, the church also plans a monthly “Moms and Tots” program to give mothers a place to share conversation and coffee while their young children play.
A youth ministry to provide teenagers with activities and a place to hang out also is in the works.
But Vacation Bible School remains the church’s largest outreach.
Alicia Stefiuk, now 29, was 8 years old when she begged her parents to let her attend the Bible school. As a result, her father, Darcy Stefiuk, and her late mother, Jackie, were baptized.
“When you walk into the other churches, it looks like a church,” Darcy Stefiuk said. “When you walk in here, it’s like home.”
• • •
LOCATION: Between Alberta to the west and Manitoba to the east, its boundaries extend from the U.S. border to the Northwest Territories.
POPULATION: 1,023,810, according to a January 2009 estimate.
CHURCHES OF CHRIST: About a dozen congregations — down from 18 in a 2001 survey. In all, Canada has about 150 Churches of Christ with 7,000 members.
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION: Western Christian College and High School in Regina serves about 100 high school students and 10 college students.
EVENTS: Western Christian’s annual lectureship draws several hundred Christians from throughout the province.
GRAVELBOURG CHURCH: The congregation began from Bible studies and meetings held in the Shamrock area and later in the Kincaid and LaFleche areas. In 1961, a facility in LaFleche was purchased. For 21 years, Morris Bailey traveled from Moose Jaw on Sundays to minister to the congregation. In 1975, a summer Bible school was started on the Bell family farm south of Shamrock. In 1980, realizing the need for new facilities and wanting to be more centralized, the small congregation unanimously voted to move to Gravelbourg. That winter, under the direction of a local contractor and with much volunteer labor, the new building was completed.