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In Northwest BC, the Case of the Wee Wayside Chapel

The story of the Usk Pioneer Chapel includes fires, floods and a few small miracles.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 12 Jun 2024The Tyee

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on X @amandajfollett.

As you gradually descend Highway 16 through northern B.C. to the west coast, you will pass many big things.

You will enter the towering peaks of the Coast Mountains and join the mighty Skeena River on its journey to the sea. If you’re lucky, you may spot a grizzly or one of the region’s famed Kermode bears. You could even behold the world’s largest fly rod.

But if you pay attention, as you near Terrace, you might also catch a glimpse of something small. Standing stark white against the emerald-green forest, the tiny chapel sits alone, as if waiting for a pint-sized parish.

Usk Pioneer Chapel has occupied this isolated stretch of highway for more than 50 years. Those who attended its opening in June 1967 dedicated it “to stranger and sojourner.” It’s a beacon for weary travellers, a place to stretch the legs and a small but sacred space to enjoy a short respite.

“There are so many people that go to that chapel,” says Terrace resident Rolf VandeVelde, who helps with its upkeep. “As they’re driving by, they feel the need to pop in, just to have a quiet moment.”

Built as a labour of love by the Terrace Christian Reformed Church, the story of Usk’s miniature chapel extends back before its roadside dedication more than half a century ago. It includes a flood, a fire, small miracles and an outpouring of community spirit for this sanctuary along the Skeena.

An aging photo with yellow hues shows two men constructing a small building with plywood. There are conifer trees behind.
Brothers Abe and Len Vanderkwaak, both carpenters, work on the Usk Pioneer Chapel in Terrace in 1967. The chapel was built by the Terrace Christian Reformed Church to recognize Canada’s centennial and was trucked to Usk in June 1967. Photo courtesy of Usk Pioneer Chapel Facebook page.

‘Somehow that Bible stayed dry’

Today, Usk’s north shore is home to about a dozen residences, which are accessed by a ferry that operates on demand.

But it wasn’t always so sleepy.

The tiny hamlet was established in the early 1900s, 20 kilometres northeast of Terrace and across the river, as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway pushed through the Skeena Valley.

For a time, it was home to mining prospectors, sawmills, a hotel with “beer parlour” and a school, wrote Usk resident Elizabeth M. Whitlow.

Usk also had a place of worship. Marsh Memorial Church, built in the 1920s, was named for an Anglican minister who frequently travelled from Terrace to hold services.

Then, in May 1936, the Skeena River experienced flooding that could only be described as biblical.

Heavy rain followed by unseasonably warm temperatures caused the river to rise several metres in a matter of hours. Usk, sitting just upstream from where the river narrows at Kitselas Canyon, saw the worst of the flooding. The rising water forced residents from their homes and houses from their foundations. Flooding and debris snapped the ferry cable, setting the ferry adrift, and washed away the railway tracks.

When the water receded days later, residents returned to survey the damage. There was a house lodged against Marsh Memorial Church, which had held as a “pillar of strength,” wrote local author Will Robinson.

Inside the church, the floor was covered in a foot of silt and broken furniture lay strewn about. With one exception: standing upright was a small table holding a Bible, unscathed. The table had apparently bobbed upright in the flood waters, and the Bible was held aloft for days without taking on a drop of water.

“Everything else had major water damage,” VandeVelde says, “but somehow that Bible stayed dry.”

A small act of divine intervention? Something akin, perhaps, to the cross that miraculously survived the fire at Notre-Dame?

VandeVelde can’t say.

“It’s interesting, very interesting,” he hedges. “I mean, things happen for a reason, but you never know. It is a great story.”

Two black and white images. At left, two buildings are surrounded in water, which appears to reach almost to the top of the first floor. At right, several buildings are surrounded in water, with islands of trees and mountains in the background.
Marsh Memorial Church in Usk — at left, the building on the right; at right, in the centre of the image — was badly damaged when the Skeena River flooded in 1936. But it saved one dwelling from drifting downriver, and a Bible inside the church was miraculously found undamaged when the water receded. Photos courtesy of Terrace Public Library archives.

The wayside chapel

Thirty years later, as the congregation at Terrace Christian Reformed Church discussed ways to celebrate Canada’s approaching centennial, their thoughts turned to Marsh Memorial.

The highway had come through northern B.C. in the 1950s, and Usk was now cut off from the main thoroughfare by the Skeena. Like the school, which had closed five years earlier when children began busing to Terrace, the church was no longer in use and falling into disrepair.

Someone suggested moving the church across the river and placing it next to the highway, as a “wayside chapel.” But the cost was high and the building unsound.

Terrace Christian Reformed had recently rebuilt its own church and school. In October 1966, community members decided to use leftover materials to remake the original Usk church. At 12 by 20 feet, plus a small portico, the new chapel would be a one-third replica of Marsh Memorial. It was built in Terrace and trucked to Usk, where it found a home on a private plot of land.

On the back wall hung a cross and the message “Jesus said, come to me,” a reference to the biblical passage Matthew 11:28.

The sojourners came.

The chapel has accrued more than 50 years of guest books, documenting visitors from all over the world. Locals also stop in, including VandeVelde and others from Terrace Christian Reformed Church who take care of the place, mopping the floor, mowing the lawn and giving it the occasional coat of paint.

At least once a year, the chapel hosts a wedding.

But in April 2022, someone entered the chapel with less devotional aspirations. On the back wall, under the cross, they started a fire, one of dozens of church arsons across Canada at the time. The tinder-dry cross was quick to ignite and the chapel began to burn.

A charred wooden cross lies on a tile floor surrounded in black ash.
In April 2022, a local Usk resident spotted a fire at the community’s tiny chapel and immediately put it out, saving the building. Police believe the fire was deliberately set. Photo courtesy of Usk Pioneer Chapel Facebook page.

The entire thing would have gone up in smoke, VandeVelde says, had it not been for a local resident passing by on his way to work early that morning. He spotted the fire and happened to have a fire extinguisher handy. The chapel was saved, though badly damaged.

Again, the community stepped in. Donations flowed from businesses in Terrace. People offered their time and skills. VandeVelde’s brother, John, undertook the carpentry, and Patrick at Barney’s Painting chipped in the paint. Andy at A&J Roofing replaced the entire roof.

“The whole building got a facelift as a result of that fire,” VandeVelde says. “It was probably the best thing that could have happened.”

The white interior of a chapel with sloped ceiling and dark wooden benches on either side. On the back wall is a cross and the message 'Jesus said: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28.'
The 12-by-20-foot interior of the Usk Pioneer Chapel is bathed in natural light and offers small pews, where visitors are invited to rest. Photo for The Tyee by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Someone also repainted the quote on the chapel’s back wall, expanding it to better encompass the nature of the welcoming little chapel. It now reads, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

People came. They rested. Some will visit only once but remember it a lifetime.

In 1969, Hendrikje Bouma visited from Holland, writing her name in the guest book. Her granddaughter, Baukje Wierda, recently reached out from overseas asking if the entry still existed. VandeVelde managed to pull the guest book from dozens stored in boxes in Terrace and shared it with the family.

A close-up image of a book that says 'Visitors’ Register' and has entries including dates, names and addresses, all dated 1969.
More than 50 years of Usk Pioneer Chapel guest books are stored in Terrace, dating back to the late 1960s. A Dutch woman recently reached out looking for her grandmother’s entry from 1969. It was found and shared with the family. Photo courtesy of Usk Pioneer Chapel Facebook page.

Others, locals like VandeVelde, return regularly with each pass along Highway 16. “In all the years, have never driven past without stopping,” one person recently commented on Facebook.

Today, the Untouched Bible is safely housed at the church in Terrace. But its story is pinned in the entryway of Usk Pioneer Chapel, along with a photo of Marsh Memorial and a bulletin from the chapel’s dedication. Beyond the entryway, the sanctuary is flooded with natural light, and tiny, truncated pews invite visitors to sit and rest a moment.

They can visit as often, and for as long, as they like.

“The door is never locked,” VandeVelde says. “We always invite people to come and have a look.”  [Tyee]

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