This location is about as remote as it gets. We’re in Western Saskatchewan, here specifically part of “Census Division #8” (imaginative name), a broad expanse of prairie, a place that never was home to that many people. Picture gently rolling fields of grain that go on forever, a dusty road that sees little traffic, broad open skies and wispy clouds, and the occasional farm here and there far off in the distance. There you have it.
Except at one lonely crossroad, one that looks much like every other in the vast Township grid system that covers the province, a little building is seen. This is Zion Lutheran Church, close to falling down, near gone, soon to be no more, a sad pathetic jumble of rotted wood that was once a glorious temple to God. It stands there, forlorn, among tall grasses bending in the breeze, its only visitors, the odd passer-by. Otherwise silence rules here. At times it’s overpowering.
The church dates from 1919-1920, the cemetery being established some years prior. This was concurrent with the region being opened up for general settlement. People here had roots in German speaking parts of Russia and came in from the old country directly or by way of the Dakotas in the United States. Services were held in the mother tongue. Grave markers reflect that and none appear to show any English lettering.
Zion Lutheran relied on a “travelling pastor” to officiate. A fellow like this would oversee the goings-on at several small country churches, bouncing between them as needed. Services here were once every second week while the weather was good, but come the depths of winter the place was completely closed. Sunday school took place before regular services. The building also saw its share of weddings, funerals, Christmas services and stuff like that.
The building it pretty typical in form and looks much like every other small country church out there (regardless of denomination). It’s long and rectangular with a small entry room. It’s not clear if there was a steeple or bell tower – didn’t see one in any old photos we found. Humble in form there’s a row of arch windows that once held stained glass. Interestingly the back wall is canted in form and not simply squared away as would be expected. Nice touch. The front door faces directly east. Facilities are “out back”. It’s a two-seater.
Early in Zion’s history a rift took place between members of the congregation. Starting as a disagreement, the tensions built and soon on a breakaway group left, going on to built their own church, Evangelical United, just west down the road (no longer there). I think they were close enough to be within sight of each other. Did a little pre-service fist shaking go on every Sunday morn? In the direction of that “other” church?
Zion remained in use until 1950 when declining membership forced its closure. It was kept up for a time then simply abandoned.
Time has taken its toll, the weather too. Those tough Saskatchewan winters are murder! Pigeons sure make a mess. And the collective of bad guys we call vandals, pickers and souvenir takers, they’ve made sure every last thing inside (organ, altar, pews) was swiped and any glass broken. Open to the elements for so long, it’s failing at an accelerated rate and it won’t be long before it completely collapses (photos from the 1980s show it looking fairly solid). Rumours suggest it might get bulldozed even before it falls. Either way, there’s little time left. We’ll be sad when its gone.
The cemetery, on the north side of the building, has some twenty plus interments. Most lack any markers. The first person buried on the grounds was in 1912, the most recent, 1950. Most are from the early days however. Far too many were young children or even babies…sadly we see this a lot in pioneer cemeteries where just being born was sometimes a death sentence. All the headstones look to be in German. Some are so faded or worn however that they’re hard to read. Many common family names show up in the records. Many farmers in the area today are related to those same folks buried here.
An old wood cross that once stood on the grounds leans against the front entry of the church. A modern metal sign replaced it and looks out to the road. No traffic here, so few see it.
The Lutheran Church in Canada goes back hundreds and hundreds of years although it was not often seen in the west until the early 1900s, and even then only in certain localized areas. Brought over by settlers who came in from Germany or places with a heavy German influence. Today it’s practised by some couple hundred thousands folks across the country, in three distinct sub-groups…in size, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Lutheran Church–Canada and Canadian Association of Lutheran Congregations.
The name Zion refers to the city of Jerusalem, of course, an important religious centre. Many Lutheran churches use this name it seems.
Zion Lutheran has this charm and a quiet dignity that belies its decrepit state. The old building all leaning and falling in, that rugged cross, the gravestones in back, the sun setting behind, it couldn’t be a better subject photographically. It’d be hard to take a bad picture here. Heck, a monkey couldn’t take a bad picture here. In the end however pics are secondary…we came for the history. Hope it’s been a good read.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: October, 2016.
Location: Division No. 8, SK.
Article references (and thanks): Local History Books, Elmer Bertsch, Elva Bertsch (both posthumously), Jason Sailer.
Please show the church and cemetery grounds respect if you visit.