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Historic Hazelmere church enters a new phase of life

Volunteer contributions have kept the historic South Surrey building lively for 117 years
Hazelmere United Church as it appeared c.1950. Surrey Archives photo

It was an occasion for sadness – but also some happy reminiscing – when pioneer-era Hazelmere United Church closed its doors to its congregation for the last time.

The final event for the current congregation was ‘a celebration of life’ for the church, at 16 Avenue and 184 Street, on June 4.

And preparations for it were bringing back a flood of memories for those planning to attend, church council treasurer Jo-Anne Rattray told Peace Arch News the day before the event.

Built in 1905, and registered as a heritage building, federally, provincially and municipally, it has survived almost 120 years.

But a dwindling number of regular attendees – reduced even more by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – effectively spelled the end for the historic building as a place of worship for the United Church of Canada, Jo-Anne explained.

“A number of our volunteers and congregation members have passed away,” she said. “Others have had to leave their homes and move into seniors’ facilities.”

The good news, she said, is that the Hazelmere church will continue to serve as the home of a faith community.

The building and property, which includes the adjacent church hall – actually the historic original Hall’s Prairie School building, moved to the site in 1949 – was recently purchased by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which plans to hold regular services there on Saturdays.

The last formal event in the church – a closing service of “thanksgiving, remembrances and letting go,” had been conducted earlier, on May 15, by Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld

It’s safe to say that the church – which had already been on the brink of closure in 2002, when the regular congregation had fallen to just four members – had been given a new lease of life over the past 20 years.

That was due largely to a latter-day wave of supporters from the White Rock, South Surrey and Langley areas who had been determined not to let the charming, historic landmark it fall into disrepair.

Jo-Anne and her husband Ken were among the newcomers who reinvigorated the church by regularly attending services and organizing fundraising events to pay for the restoration and improvement of the buildings.

Jo-Anne recalled their interest was piqued by reading an article in the PAN in June of 2002 about the church’s impending demise.

“We had driven past the church many times, and I used to say to Ken, ‘that’s such a lovely church – we ought to look inside there,” she said. “As soon as I read the article, I said to Ken, ‘can we go?’

“We went that Sunday and met such lovely people that it seemed natural for us to get involved.”

Typical of some of the older congregation members who interacted with the new generation was Doug Reeve, former Surrey city clerk, who contributed funds to upgrade the building’s electric system – mindful of a promise he had made to his late mother to always attend and look after the church.

The late Lee Yoblonski took charge of the kitchen in the church hall, and also contributed her fabric art skills for crafts events and banners, some of which still hang in the church.

Learning of a family that had come to Vancouver from the former Yugoslavia, skilled in restoring old churches in Europe, the new church council was able to secure their services in 2005 to install new stained glass windows, sponsored by volunteers in memory of loved ones, to mark the centennial of the church.

Fundraising helped not only restore the church but benefit groups in the community, including A Rocha, the Come Share Society, Peace Arch Hospice Society, the South Surrey Food Bank, South Surrey Women’s Place and the United Church’s Misssion and Service Fund

The piano-playing Jo-Anne and saxophone-playing Ken not only contributed their skills for services, but created a band The Hazeltones, and were in the forefront of organizing various musical events that became a backbone of the new era in the church’s history.

Between 2002 and 2016 these events – including a Fall dinner and the popular, and the always sold-out ‘Carols in the Country’, along with Christmas craft sales and garage sales – helped create a new awareness in the community, and pride in the little church and its heritage charm.

The musical emphasis of recent years began with advice from Doris Ferrie, another senior member of the church community, Ken said.

“She told me, ‘if you do a sing-along, people will show up,” he recalled. “She was right – we must have had hundreds of people come through the church over the last 20 years.”

In keeping with the musical theme, the celebration of life featured not only The Hazeltones, but also The Willoughby Ridge Bluegrass Band and the Hazelmere Heritage Fiddlers, who regularly rehearsed at the hall.

Coffee and tea and celebration cake was also served during the event in the hall – which also featured albums of memorabilia of the church, soon to be on permanent display in the Heritage Hall at Cloverdale United church.

Catherine Craig, a five-year member of the congregation, collected together much of the historical background of the church for the event, which she generously shared with PAN.

Interestingly the foundation of the church has a strong White Rock connection, as one of the founding fathers of the White Rock community, Henry T. Thrift, originally owned the land on which it was built.

Then known as the corner of North Bluff Road and Hall’s Prairie Road, the site was at the centre of what was a bustling pioneer community, partly due to a proliferation lumber mills and the opening of the New Westminster Southern Railway – at that time the only rail route south to the U.S. – and its Hazelmere Station, in the 1890s.

Thrift, who owned one of the mills, donated the property on condition that it would be a union church open to all denominations, and through 1904 many of the young women of the community rode on bicycles canvassing for donations to help build the church.

First minister was a Methodist, Rev. Wilkinson, who divided his time between Hazelmere and eight other churches.

When the Great Northern Railway opened its waterfront route, the focus of the cross-border lumber trade shifted to White Rock, and H.T Thrift sold his mill and moved there.

By 1912 the church became known as the Hazelmere Methodist Church and became part of the White Rock parish, served by its minister, Rev. Balderson.

Ultimately it became part of the Presbyterian Church, but with the union of the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist Churches in 1925, it became the Hazelmere United Church.

While much of the area had been logged off, the farming community continued to thrive, and during the Depression years many from outside the community attended free bean suppers at the church.

The church has always benefited from loyal long-time community members, it seems.

John Clark served as organist from 1914 to the late 1940s (as well as secretary treasurer of the church council) and the Martin sisters, who operated the original Hazelmere store across North Bluff Road, cleaned the church and kept the grounds in order from the late 1920s until the end of 1944.

And In 1948, Surrey school teacher and Hazelmere United congregation member Betty Huff, knowing the pressing need for a church hall, bought the former original Hall’s Prairie School building from Surrey School District for $200 – it was moved onto the site the following year at a cost of $1,000.

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