Sugar Beets and Buddha in Raymond, Alberta: Celebrating Asian Heritage Month

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month has been celebrated since 1978 in the United States, coinciding with the first arrival of Japanese immigrants in 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, in part through the contribution of Chinese labourers. In Canada, Asian Heritage Month has been celebrated since the 1990s and in 2002 the Government of Canada signed an official declaration designating May as Asian Heritage Month, a time to reflect on the legacy of Canadians of Asian heritage and to celebrate their contributions to the fabric of Canadian society.

In keeping with the spirit of Asian Heritage Month, RETROactive would like to share with its readers, the history of the Raymond Buddhist Church, designated a Provincial Historic Resource by the Province of Alberta in 1984. The information is taken from the Alberta Register of Historic Places and can be accessed in its entirety at:

https://hermis.alberta.ca/ARHP/Details.aspx?DeptID=1&ObjectID=4665-0482

The Raymond Buddhist Church is a two-storey building with a rectangular plan and a steeply-pitched gable roof completed in 1903. The building is painted gray with white trim, is clad in horizontal wood siding and has a truncated tower on its West elevation. It is located at 35 Broadway Avenue South in Raymond. The structure was built as the first public school in the town. Construction was accomplished through the collaboration of several Raymond pioneer builders and carpenters and the financial support of town founder, Jesse Knight.

In 1901, with the assistance of the Canadian Northwest Irrigation Company, the Knight family established a sugar beet growing and refining operation. In August of that year, the Knight family assisted 150 Latter-day Saints in relocating to the area and the community of Raymond was founded. The area’s population grew rapidly and a substantial town site quickly emerged. In 1903, the citizens of Raymond completed construction of the community’s first schoolhouse which was also used for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worship services and community events. In 1910, the school moved to a larger building, but the original building continued to be used by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as a community gathering place. In 1929, the Latter-day Saints moved into the larger Park Avenue Chapel.

Buddhist Church, Raymond, Alberta. Historic Resources Management Branch, Alberta Culture and Tourism

The 1903 structure is the only remaining building from the period of Raymond’s founding and the last original building connected to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Raymond. It is architecturally significant as a representation of typical schoolhouse and church construction in rural Alberta during the early part of the twentieth century. Built on a simple rectangular plan, it is a spartan structure with little exterior ornamentation. In its two-storey scale, it reflected the rapid growth of the community in the first years of the twentieth century and the optimistic expectations of the years to come. The building featured four rooms for classroom instruction and was adapted for use as a religious facility and gathering place. The simple design and mixed use of the structure was typical of the kinds of public buildings erected in early 1900s Alberta.

Reverend Yutetsu Kawamura praying at shrine in Buddhist Church, Raymond, Alberta, 1976. Glenbow Museum.

The building is significant for its association with two religious communities: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Japanese Buddhists. Japanese settlers, mostly of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist faith, began arriving in the Raymond area in 1904. They were drawn by agricultural opportunities connected to the sugar beet industry that was centered at Raymond, and quickly became an integral part of the community. In 1929, they purchased the building previously used by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for use as a temple, school and meeting place. In 1932, a co-op store, called the Kobai Kumiai, was established in the building which provided staple products to generate revenue to support the temple. The store operated until the 1990s. The local Buddhist community grew dramatically after the forced evacuation of people of Japanese ancestry from coastal British Columbia during the Second World War. A large ornate Buddhist altar was donated to the Raymond sanctuary by a British Columbia-based temple in 1946. The building hosted numerous internationally respected Buddhist spiritual leaders and members of the Raymond Buddhist community assumed leadership roles within the larger provincial and national Buddhist organizations. Changing demographics saw the Buddhist community relocate their temple to Lethbridge in 2006, along with most of the interior decorations and ritual objects. Prior to the temple’s relocation, the building was the oldest continually used Buddhist sanctuary in Canada.

Altar in Buddhist Church, Raymond, Alberta. Historic Resources Management Branch, Alberta Culture and Tourism.

The continuing heritage value of the Raymond Buddhist Church building lies in its association with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Buddhist community in Alberta and for its architectural importance as a representative example of schoolhouse and church construction in rural Alberta during the early part of the twentieth century.

Written By: Peter Melnycky, Historian

Title Image: Japanese sugar beet workers, Raymond, c. 1911. Royal Alberta Museum, PH75.7.396.

Source: Alberta Culture and Tourism, Historic Resources Management Branch (File: Des. 1146)

4 comments

  1. This story in particular interests me as my Japanese family first came Canada and settled in BC. After WWII, they never returned to BC but made a life for themselves farming near Taber.

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