Postwar Congregation

Pulling together, the community struggles to adapt to a new reality

Over the years, the Vancouver Japanese United Church moved from First United Church to the Columbia Street Mission (1959), Renfrew United Church (1962) and St. Luke’s United Church (1972-1973).

Japanese Canadians gradually began returning to the west coast after restrictions were lifted in March 1949. Where they had once enjoyed a lively community and fellowship, they found a vacuum. They had to rebuild from nothing in a society once hostile to their presence.

Rev. McWilliams (“Rev. Mac”) retired in 1956. The Board of Home Missions decided to recruit a new minister from Japan. Tadashi (“Tad”) Mitsui, a recent graduate of Tokyo Union Theological Seminary, arrived with his wife in September 1957 to serve as pastor for the Vancouver Japanese-speaking congregation. After some courses at Union College in Vancouver, he was ordained as a United Church minister in 1958. As Rev. Mitsui recalls, most of the members of the postwar congregation had not been members of the pre-war congregation; very few had even known Rev. Kosaburo Shimizu.

Excerpt from Onward magazine (February 2, 1958), introducing Rev. Tad Mitsui

For a time, the English-speaking portion of the congregation had spiritual leadership from students at Union College, including Fred Anderson, Bill Van Druten, Don Lewis, Dorne Cornish, Art Mundy and Glen Baker. When this arrangement with the college ended, Rev. Mitsui’s work expanded to look after both the Japanese- and English-speaking groups. As a new Canadian, preaching and speaking in English was a struggle — “a near death experience!” as he described it. “People were basically very kind and understanding. My overwhelming memory is kindness.”

The Nisei who came to Vancouver following the war formed a social group, the Vancouver Nisei Fellowship Group. They initially gathered at First United Church and the old Powell Street Gym. Gordon Imai, a UBC student, helped lead the group:

“Rev. Mac and the few Japanese decided to try and get the old Powell St. Japanese United Church back for the Japanese. …We finally got permission to use the ladies’ parlour which we had cleared out and painted, and the Issei had their worship services and we could gather for fellowship, but the building was run down and the furnace was broken and would not work. We could only use it in the summer. We cleaned and washed the gym floor and played volleyball a few times.”[35]

Jean Kamimura, then a young adult who had returned to Vancouver for a job, describes the special fellowship she experienced:

Jean Kamimura

“With many of us not having family living here, it was a wonderful time of gathering and making new friends. We mixed social activities with Church faith, social conscience, etc. The bonding has lasted to this day—only a few of us left now… The contribution of the many student ministers made our transition back so much easier… We have not forgotten them.”[36]

The Vancouver Nisei Fellowship Group continued at an active pace through the 1950s, holding big dances, sports tournaments, rallies, and huge, catered Christmas dinners. There was also a sense of “quiet dedication.” Members of the group frequently visited the Essondale Mental Hospital in Coquitlam and would bring Japanese food for the Japanese Canadian patients there. Older members of the Japanese-speaking congregation, Mrs. Inouye and Mrs. Tagashira, would accompany the group and spend an afternoon at the hospital. By 1961, the Fellowship Group was dwindling as members began getting married and starting families, so it disbanded.

“That sense of comradeship, of belonging… colour or skins don’t quite match, perhaps, but the colour of our hearts did, and that thing, I tell you, it lights fires that don’t go out and they burn still in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Fraser Valley. They’ve never gone out—they won’t.”

Rev. W.R. McWilliams, 1970

Meanwhile, the congregation had moved from First United Church to Columbia Street Church (formerly Fairview). Grace Namba, a WMS worker who had served in Greenwood during the war, came to assist in the ministry with children and young families. Rev. Tad Mitsui led the Japanese-speaking Sunday school in the afternoons, while Grace led the English-speaking Sunday school.

Grace Namba also began a “baby band” (pre-school group), which served as childcare and also inadvertently helped recruit new members for the Japanese-speaking church—many of whom were newly immigrated young mothers and fathers from Japan (second-wave Issei). In fact, it was the growing Sunday school that prompted the congregation to look for larger quarters, which they found at Renfrew United Church in 1962.

Grace Namba, 1978

In its annual report for 1960, the congregation provided some insight into its perspective on its mission and outlook:

“But we must recognize the fact that Christianity is still a foreign religion into which only the very courageous people could convert. So we still need segregated church activities for the Japanese people by which we can give the special attention to each individual and also we can have the unique programms [sic] in the church, although the complete integration of all Canadians of all different decendants [sic] in the church is our final goal.”[37]

Rev. Tad Mitsui was able to take a leave of absence for one year (1963-1964), during which time he completed a second master’s degree at Union College. The Rev. Sang Chul Lee (later to be Moderator of the United Church) provided the leadership for that period.

The congregation gathers to bid farewell to Rev. Tad Mitsui and his family, May 26,1968
[35] Gordon Imai, “Recollections of the Vancouver JUC English speaking congregation,” Kyogikai Newsletter, Autumn 2009, 4.  Held in PMRC Archives, Archives Reference collection, Vancouver Japanese United Church (vol. 4), box 2155.

[36] Jean Kamimura, email to Regional Archivist, PMRC Archives, December 4, 2019.

[37] Tadashi Mitsui, “Japanese Work at Columbia Street United Church, 1960,” PMRC Archives, Archives Reference collection, Vancouver Japanese United Church (vol. 1), box 2155.

Profile: Rev. Hedwig Bartling and the Vancouver Nisei Fellowship Group

“Bartie”…a beloved and passionate advocate for Japanese Canadians

Hedwig Bartling (“Bartie”) was a beloved clergyperson who provided friendship and guidance to the Vancouver Nisei Fellowship Group in the years after the war. As a young child, she emigrated with her family from Germany to Canada just a year before the First World War. She knew hardship and discrimination firsthand. Bartie attended public school and university in Saskatchewan before enrolling at the United Church Training School in Toronto. She became a deaconess, working with the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS).

Vancouver Nisei Fellowship Group, Oct. 1953; Hedy Bartling is seated at front

During the Second World War, the WMS sent her to Lethbridge to work among the Nisei who had recently been uprooted from the west coast. There she drove around the countryside where their families were farming and she organized camps, sporting events, dances and other social events. She soon became their fierce ally. According to her obituary, as published in the Nikkei journal The Bulletin:

“The Nisei by upbringing were reticent to speak; she cajoled them to discuss and argue, to think for themselves, to have the self-confidence to continue their studies and to be heard in the community.”[38]

In 1951, the WMS sent Bartie to Steveston (in Richmond, BC) where she worked with the returning Japanese Canadian community. There she opened a kindergarten and helped set up the “integrated” congregation with Rev. Francis Runnalls. “In those early years,” recounts Lillian Kadota, “Rev. Hedy Bartling… wanted to help the young single Nisei to start a group in Vancouver. With help from a few young Niseis, about 50 attended the first dance social in 1951, held in the St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church gym. A second dance attracted 90 people.”[39] In addition to meeting at First United Church, the Fellowship Group often met at the home of Bartie’s mother in Dunbar Heights. She formed a strong bond with the group. “She was a life saver!” says Jean Kamimura.

During the Second World War, the WMS sent Bartie to Lethbridge to work among the Nisei who had just recently been uprooted from the west coast. There, she drove around the countryside where their families were farming and she organized camps, sporting events, dances and other social events. She soon became their fierce ally.

In her 50s, Bartie pursued her theological degree at Union College at a time when most theologs were young men in their 20s. She graduated and was ordained by BC Conference in 1963, continuing to work in Greater Vancouver congregations until her death at 86.

In 1980, thanks in part to the Nisei she befriended, Bartie was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Lethbridge for her work within the Japanese Canadian community. When Bartie died in 1993, former Nisei Fellowship members set up a bursary at the Vancouver School of Theology in her name, and several donors testified to what a moving force she was in their lives.[40]

Vancouver Nisei Fellowship Reunion, May 2005… a testament to deep and lasting bonds forged in difficult times.
[38] Mickey Tanaka, “Rev. Dr. Bartling Remembered for Tireless Service to Nisei,” The Bulletin (May 1993) : 8.

[39] Lillian Kadota, “Revised draft of the history of the Japanese Canadian United Church in Vancouver after returning in 1949 (after internment),” Sept. 7, 1991, PMRC Archives, Vancouver Japanese United Church fonds, box 2579, file 14.

[40] Much of the information on Hedwig Bartling was gleaned from her biographical file, “Bartling, Hedwig Dorothea H.,” PMRC Archives, Archives Reference collection, box 2081.

A formal English-speaking congregation takes root

Both language and world view made the second generation feel culturally distinct from their elders. The Rev. Val Anderson, on faculty at Union College, became interested in helping establish a separate congregation for the Nisei, and volunteered his time to take services in English. The attendance grew, and when Rev. Mitsui left the congregation in 1968, the church called Rev. Tak Komiyama to Vancouver Japanese United Church. Rev. Komiyama was asked to proceed with establishing a formal English-speaking congregation. Tragically, he died only six weeks after he began his work.

Rev. Kenneth Moy, 2019

“Grace Namba was a deaconess. She was a typical deaconess that really loved the church and she loved the congregation, the group, and she really worked hard to keep everyone together.”

Rev. Kenneth Moy,
first minister of the English-speaking congregation,

Rev. Anderson then met with Rev. Kenneth Moy, who was serving the Hammond-Pitt Meadows pastoral charge, and convinced him to lead the English-speaking congregation part-time. From 1969, after an inaugural ceremony, Rev. Moy and Grace Namba worked together to coach the new congregation on the polity of the church.

Recognition of English Speaking Congregation with Rev. Kenneth Moy, Rev. Ben Murata, and Rev. Val Anderson, Feb. 22, 1970

But socializing was a big part of its life, and Rev. Moy remembers how the boundaries between socializing and church work were often blurred. He recalls that Grace Namba was known affectionately as “Mother Hen” for her devotion and her careful watch over church activities, never shy to remind members of the proper church procedures.

Dinner honouring Grace Namba, 1970. Rev. Kenneth Moy on left.

Most members of the new English-speaking congregation were in their 30s and 40s, many with young children. Chizu Uchida (pianist), Mary and Tosh Seki (treasurer and presbytery representatives), Margaret Eto (board secretary), Keiko Goto, and Lillian and Charles Kadota were among the core group of devoted members. Within three years, they left Renfrew and began renting from St. Luke’s United on Victoria Drive (1972). They were followed by the Japanese-speaking congregation in 1973.

Tosh Seki, Mary Seki, [unidentified woman], Grace Namba, and Keiko Goto
The two congregations flourish

One of the fond memories of both Japanese-speaking and English-speaking congregations is the Cherry Blossom Bazaar. It was a joint event and a chance for Nisei and Issei to work together and share some fun. Jean Kamimura remembers that Margaret Minato headed up the Japanese-speaking volunteers. The Miyashita family was in charge of supervising the men in making the fresh udon noodles—“Such a large batch,” notes Jean, “that volunteer menfolk stomped the dough with their stocking feet… Oops, the dough was in a plastic bag!”[41] The Japanese-speaking congregation members supervised the maki and inari sushi making.Lots of baking, dry goods and decorative cherry blossoms filled the church hall.

Cherry Blossom Bazaar, 1995

Becky Maruno, who grew up in the postwar congregation, remembers Chizu Uchida cutting out pieces of paper, dyed pink, and replicating cherry blossoms. It was painstaking work, but a very popular item for sale at the bazaar.

Becky’s parents, Reginald Hideo and Frances Miyashita, were married by Rev. W.R. McWilliams (“Rev. Mac”) in 1952. The couple was an unusual example of a strong commitment to both congregations of the pastoral charge. Reginald was very involved with the Japanese-speaking congregation and Frances was an active member of the English-speaking congregation for many decades.

“Church life was quite important for my family. We go a long ways with the United Church, just because they helped us when we were in need. My family believes in keeping up with the people who supported us when we needed it.”

Dorothy Yamamoto, interned with her family at Greenwood, reflects on the United Church’s efforts to help those interned, including providing schooling at internment sites.

Dorothy Yamamoto, another long-time member, recounts, “Church life was quite important for my family… We go a long ways with the United Church, just because they helped us when we were in need.” She remembers being in the internment camp at Greenwood, and when the government wouldn’t provide public school, the church was there to ensure they got an education. “My family believes in keeping up with the people who supported us when we needed it.”

Friends prepare food for the bazaar, April 1999

Joan Fairs remembers coming to the English-speaking congregation in 1969. Her parents had been part of the diaspora from the west coast; they had met and married in Montreal and participated in the life of the Japanese congregation there. Joan’s father, Hideo (Gene) Nishimura, was one of the hundreds of innocent Japanese Canadian citizens who were sent to the prisoner of war camp at Angler, Ontario — in his case simply for being outdoors after curfew. Joan’s mother, Yaeko Nikimura (née Uno), was raised in Vancouver, a member of a loyal Canadian family who ran a successful grocery store in the Fairview neighbourhood and attended the Fairview Mission. Yaeko’s brother, Yuki, was first baseman for the famous Asahi All-Stars. During the war, the Uno family was interned at Lemon Creek.

Joan’s story, like many, is an example of “coming home” to the west coast. She and husband Clive were married and raised their children in the former English-speaking congregation. Joan carries on as a strong supporter of the continuing Vancouver Japanese United Church, serving on its board.

Farewell to the Imai family, 1979; both congregations were at their postwar peak in numbers

During the 1980s, a campaign emerged from the Japanese Canadian community across the country, seeking redress for the injustices of wartime internment and sale of property. The National Association of Japanese Canadians negotiated with the federal government for five years until both parties reached an agreement. On September 22, 1988, the two parties signed the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement. The Canadian government admitted it had acted wrongfully and promised never to let the same thing happen again. The government also offered symbolic compensation. Two women from the Vancouver Japanese United Church who were actively involved in the campaign were Jean Kamimura and Lillian Kadota; both these women had lived through the internment and had been part of the postwar Nisei Fellowship and English-speaking congregation.

Through the 1980s, the membership of the English-speaking congregation declined. In his report “Remaining Faithful” (1989), research consultant Brian Teixeira noted that there was a growing number of aging women in the congregation and a lack of males and youth. Although a significant number of Nisei members highly valued their English-speaking Japanese identity, the future viability of the congregation was questionable.[42]

Joint board of the Japanese- and English-speaking congregations, 1982

By 2011, the struggle to remain viable was real. A pastoral relations report indicates that there were only 20 to 25 in attendance on any given Sunday, and that there was no longer any Sunday school or family activities. What seemed to be keeping the remaining members together was their strong connection through a common Japanese Canadian experience, including the losses through internment and unjust treatment, and their “powerful story of coming home.”[43]

[41] Jean Kamimura, email to the Regional Archivist, PMRC Archives, December 4, 2019.

[42] A Congregational Review, 1989-90,” PMRC Archives, Vancouver Japanese United Church fonds, box 2414, file 18.

[43] Louise Smith, Wendy Bily, and Charles McLarty, “Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery Pastoral Oversight Committee,” 2011, Vancouver Japanese United Church fonds, box 2414, file 5.

Postwar clergy



Rev. W.R. McWilliams (1949-1956)
Rev. Tadashi Mitsui (1957-1968) and Grace Namba, deaconess (1963-1978) Grace Namba, deaconess (1963-1978)
Rev. Takashi Komiyama (Aug.-Sept. 1968) Rev. Kenneth Moy (1969-1971)
Rev. Ben Murata (1969-1973) Rev. Gordon Imai (1971-1979)
Rev. Makio Norisue (1973-1979)
Rev. Campbell Furuya (1979-1982) Rev. Bill Harms (1979-1984)
Rev. David Murata (1984-1986) Harue Ochiai (lay supply, 1984-1985)
Rev. Stephen Hara (1987-1988) Rev. Ichiro Noshiro (1985-1989)
Rev. Ichiro Noshiro (1989) Rev. Don MacDonald (1989-1990)
Rev. Tom Fetter (1990-1991)
Rev. Makoto Hiramatsu (1992-1999) Rev. Lillian Soga (1991-1995)
Rev. Jun Mashimo (2000-2002) Rev. Bob Baird (1995-2004)
Rev. Yukio Yamasaki (2003) Rev. Bill Dyer (2004-2005)
Rev. Rose-Hannah Gaskin (2005-2006)
Rev. Maki Fushii (2004-2008) Rev. Maki Fushii (2006-2008)
Rev. Yoko Kihara (2011) Rev. Daniel Kirkegaard (2008-2011)
Rev. Yutaka Zama (2012-2017) Rev. Judith Stark (2011-2017)
Rev. Daebin Im (2018- )