Abbotsford Sikh Temple

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Abbotsford Sikh Temple built 1911

Abbotsford’s 1911 Gurdwara: A National Historic site

The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is a Canadian National Historic site and possibly the oldest standing Sikh Gurdwara in North America. It was built in 1911 and is the oldest surviving example of the temples which formed the religious, social and political centre of pioneer Canadian Sikh communities. Architecturally, it is an adaptation of traditional Sikh forms to Canadian conditions which nevertheless embodies the fundamental beliefs of Sikhs and their early experience as immigrants in Canada.

Abbotsford is a city found in the Fraser Valley region of British Columbia, western Canada. A 10-minute drive from the Washington, U.S.A. border, Abbotsford has an altitude of 54 m (177 ft) and an incredible view of Mount Baker. It is surrounded by the beauty and serenity of mountain country and sits on the south bank of the Fraser River. Its proximity to Greater Vancouver, which is 68 km (42 mi) away, makes it an excellent holiday destination. Making up about 20 per cent of the population today, Indo-Canadians were some of Abbotsford's early pioneers, first arriving around 1902 from Northern India. Most of the Indo-Canadian pioneers were young Sikh men who had to leave their families behind in India so they could earn money abroad to support them. The Abbotsford Lumber Company hired these men, who made a significant contribution to the economic, social, cultural and political well being of the community.

The Trethewey family bought the assets of Cook, Craig, and Johnstone in Abbotsford in 1902. Their Abbotsford Lumber Company employed European, Japanese, Chinese and Indian workers. A company town laid out from the mills along Mill Lake Road was soon built. The company donated lumber to the young pioneer Sikh men to build a gurdwara (a Sikh temple). The men carried the lumber over one kilometre (three-quarters of a mile) on their backs from Mill Lake, where the lumber company sits, to what is now South Fraser Way, where the temple still stands.

The western town styled storefront, , with a false front parapet, of the temple reflected the desire of the men to integrate in their new home. As was traditional, the temple was placed on a high piece of ground, overlooking the community. The Gurdwara was recognized as a National Historic Site on July 31, 2002. Although it wasn’t the first Gurdwara to be built in B.C., the Vancouver Temple was built in 1908, it is the oldest standing Gurdwara in Canada, perhaps North America

Description of Historic Place

Abbotsford Sikh Temple photo 1977

The false front parapet of the temple was an adaptation of the brownstones of American cities and their wooden 'Victorian' counterparts. The heavy snow loads of many western towns would cave in the flat roofs of such buildings. So at least from the front the stores of a frontier town could remind American and Canadian setlers who missed the big cities of their former homes. The Sikh temple fit right in with the Sikhs adding the special touches that reminded them of their homes half way around the world. (By the way you might notice that the syle called victorian with its love of paisley and ornamentation is little more than the style of India.)

The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is a one and one-half storey, wood-frame vernacular structure set on a full raised basement. Except for the front parapet, an upper balcony runs along the remaing sides of the building. There is a prominent poured concrete stairway leading to the main central entrance on the upper level. It is located on a prominent knoll on South Fraser Way in the centre of Abbotsford, between the early settlements of Clearbrook and downtown Abbotsford. The Sikh Temple has been designated as a National Historic Site, including the original Temple building with its additions, the present 'Nishan Sahib' (flag pole) and the bases of earlier flag poles, including the remnants of the base of the original 'Nishan Sahib'.

Heritage Value

The Abbotsford Sikh Temple ('Gurdwara') is a valuable symbol of the early roots of the Sikh community and the larger Indo-Canadian community in this region of Canada. The builders of this temple were part of the initial wave of immigration from India, before a restrictive immigration policy was implemented, making further immigration virtually impossible for the next fifty years. The Sikh population was centred in Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island, and consisted mainly of male sojourners, whose families remained in India. Locally, most of the Sikhs worked for the Abbotsford Lumber Company, once B.C.'s third largest forestry employer. The use of local materials to construct the Temple was significant, representing the Sikh connection to the lumber industry and to the Abbotsford Lumber Company, which donated the lumber for the temple, demonstrating the mutual interdependence of large, isolated industrial plants and their local workforce.

The Abbotsford Sikh Temple is the only Gurdwara from the pioneer phase of Sikh immigration to Canada that has survived, and is the oldest surviving Sikh Temple in North America. Construction started on the Temple in 1910 and was completed by 1912. Built of wood-frame construction, the false front parapet, simple rectangular floor plan and front gabled roof are typical of vernacular commercial buildings of the period. This was a pragmatic adaptation of Sikh traditions using a common frontier style, which expressed the men's limited financial resources and their desire to integrate with the community. The building is typical of early purpose-built Canadian Sikh temples, containing all the elements of a traditional Gurdwara, including the prayer hall on the upper level and a communal kitchen and dining area at ground level. The utilitarian interior, with tongue-and-groove wooden walls and regular fenestration, became common features of early Canadian temples. The location at the crest of a hill on busy South Fraser Way contributes to the Sikh Temple's landmark status.

The Temple was the centre of Abbotsford's Sikh community, serving both religious and social needs and acting as the reception centre for new immigrants. It was enlarged to the rear in 1932 to extend the prayer hall and a second addition was built in the late 1960s, changes which reflect the growth of the Sikh community, particularly once wives and children were allowed to immigrate. A new, much larger Temple was constructed across the road in 1983, but the original Temple was retained as a symbol of the struggles and achievements of the Sikh pioneers.

Character-Defining Elements

Key elements that define the heritage character of the Sikh Temple include its: - original location on a prominent knoll on South Fraser Way - institutional, vernacular form, scale and massing as expressed by its one and one-half-storey height, full raised basement, simple rectangular floor plan, and informal additions to the rear - exterior architectural details such as its: false front parapet; front gable roof with generous porch roof, supported by steel posts; wraparound upper verandah running along three sides; a prominent central, poured concrete stairway leading to the main entrance on the upper level; five separate staircases to access the upper level - wood-frame construction, with horizontal wooden drop siding, and door and window mouldings of dimensional lumber - masonry elements such as board-formed concrete foundations and brick chimneys - exterior details of the two rear additions, the first with a dropped roofline and the second with a slightly sloped roof - regular fenestration, with double-hung 1-over-1 wooden-sash windows - spatial configuration of the interior, such as the main central entrance opening directly into the upper-storey prayer hall, with a community kitchen and dining hall on the lower level - interior details in the prayer hall including: narrow tongue-and-groove wooden panelling; picture rails; raised floor; wooden arches and ornate canopy defining the altar; and early pendant light fixture - the present 'Nishan Sahib' (flag pole) and the bases of earlier flag poles, including the remnants of the base of the original 'Nishan Sahib'.

Source: City of Abbotsford

In the news

Volunteers rebuild 96-year-old national historic site

Oldest Sikh temple reopens Ian Austin, The Province Published: Monday, April 02, 2007

South Fraser Way was transformed into a sea of saris yesterday.

The busy Abbotsford thoroughfare was shut for seven hours as thousands of Sikhs gathered for the ceremonial reopening of the oldest standing Sikh temple in North America.

Premier Gordon Campbell cut the ribbon as the 96-year-old Gur Sikh Heritage Temple received a steady stream of visitors all day long. Visitors yesterday celebrate the reopening of Abbotsford's Gur Sikh Heritage Temple, the oldest such structure still standing in North America. Visitors yesterday celebrate the reopening of Abbotsford's Gur Sikh Heritage Temple, the oldest such structure still standing in North America.

"The Abbotsford temple, or gurdwara, is the oldest standing Sikh temple in North America and is a testament to the incredible resiliency and vitality of early Sikh pioneers," said Campbell.

"This temple stands as a symbol of the enduring contribution of the Sikh community to B.C."

The modest temple has been refurbished. It now features fountains and two large sculptures of Sikhs on horseback, representing the two original immigrants from the Punjab region of India.

Campbell and other politicians gave speeches, with former federal heritage minister Sheila Copps getting off one of the better lines.

"I'm taking this opportunity to announce my re-entry into federal politics," smiled Copps, before quickly adding: "Oh, it's April Fool's Day."

The temple, which was named a national historic site in 2002, was deliberately built on a hill with a commanding view of Abbotsford.

Ironically, as the celebrating Sikhs left, many walked by a sign announcing the proposed construction of four 24-storey towers directly across the street.

Campbell announced a $25,000 grant to the temple and mingled with the celebrants. A celebratory postcard handed out to the crowd included a photo of Campbell decked out in an Indian-style embroidered jacket.

A number of visitors sported white turbans emblazoned with the Liberal-inspired slogan, "The Best Place on Earth."

"This will be a place where we pray, where we recite, where we have great fellowship," said Campbell.

B.C. Liberal MLA Mike de Jong amused the crowd with a gentle jab at Abbotsford's long-serving Mayor George Ferguson: "Ninety-six years ago, Wilfrid Laurier was prime minister and George Ferguson was entering his second term as mayor."

The original temple was built with donated wood that was hauled by hand over more than a kilometre to the building site. The refurbishing was accomplished through years of volunteer labour under the co-ordination of the Khalsa Diwan Society of Abbotsford, along with a $500,000 grant from Copps and the federal Heritage Ministry she then oversaw.

Contact information

Address: 33094 South Fraser Way Abbotsford BC Canada V2S 2A9 Telephone 1 604 850-7338

External links