Nation’s oldest Icelandic church turns 130

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BALDUR — A few kilometres down a winding gravel road, overlooking rolling country hills, sits the oldest-standing Icelandic church in Canada.

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This article was published 17/08/2019 (1099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

BALDUR — A few kilometres down a winding gravel road, overlooking rolling country hills, sits the oldest-standing Icelandic church in Canada.

On Sunday, the small congregation will be throwing a big party to celebrate Grund Frelsis Lutheran Church’s 130th anniversary.

Ellen Rawlings, 99, will likely be there.

Ellen Rawlings, 99, stands front and centre with a small group of congregation members in front of Grund Frelsis Lutheran Church, the oldest-standing Icelandic church in Canada. (Bud Robertson/The Brandon Sun)

After all, she grew up attending services in this small, white church about five kilometres north of Baldur.

She and her husband, Reginald, who is turning 100 next month, were the first couple married in the church 76 years ago. Back then, most people were married at home.

Many of her relatives are buried in the cemetery a short distance away.

The church steeple rises into a bright sky. (Bud Robertson/The Brandon Sun)

“I’ve been coming since I was six years old,” declared Rawlings, who has given talks to bus tours about the history of the church. “My mom played the organ for 45 years, and my dad was chairman of the board for the same length of time.”

She, herself, sang in the church choir, and she remembers attending socials in the hall that is no longer used.

“All our social life was either at the church or at the hall.”

The organ in the background is from 1911. (Bud Robertson/The Brandon Sun)

Many of the pioneers who left their homeland in search of a better life arrived in Canada as early as 1872 and had broken land in Wisconsin, Ontario and even Nova Scotia, according to a 1982 historical publication from the Manitoba Department of Cultural Affairs and Historical Resources.

In 1880, Sigurdur Christopherson filed the first homestead entry in the Iceland settlement of Argyle, calling his new farm “Grund,” which means grassy plain.

He and four other settlers and their families left Gimli in the spring of 1881.

A view looking down the aisle in Grund Frelsis Lutheran church. (Bud Robertson/The Brandon Sun)

Five oxen pulled their sleds, and the pioneers travelled more than 300 kilometres across snow and ice, mostly on foot, to reach their new home 16 days later.

By the winter of 1881-82, there were eight families in the settlement.

By the next year, there were 17 families who would eventually need someplace to worship.

A gravestone marks the passing of a congregation member in the graveyard a short distance from the church, visible in the background. (Bud Robertson/The Brandon Sun)

Grund Frelsis church was built in 1889.

Outside of some cosmetic touchups and small structural repairs, little has changed since the Icelandic pioneers travelled from afar to settle in the Argyle district and build a place of worship, said church member Don Gudnason.

Even the church organ dates to 1911.

Maintaining the 130-year-old church is no easy task, Gudnason admitted.

“It’s an ongoing battle trying to keep it up,” he said, adding provincial funding only covers half the cost of running the church. The rest comes in the form of donations and rentals for weddings and the like.

At one time, the church overflowed with parishioners, said Gudnason, who was baptized here.

Today, only about 30 congregation members remain.

Their situation is no different from many other churches, he said, where times are changing and congregations are shrinking as people stop going to pray and worship.

Church services at Grund Frelsis are held between May and September. In the winter, the congregation heads to either Carberry or Baldur.

A big bash is planned for Sunday’s celebration to coincide with their annual Pack the Pews event, held each August.

Beginning at 1:30 p.m., there will be worship services and special music, along with coffee and Icelandic treats following the requisite group photo.

Ethnic costumes are encouraged.

Church member Sherry Ramage said everyone is welcome to attend, including the Consulate General of Iceland and his wife, who will be coming out from Winnipeg.

» brobertson@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @BudRobertson4

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