As a preface to this historical overview of testimony connected with gospel halls during the past 130 years in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, it is apparent that anything of lasting value must be attributed to the Lord. “This was the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psa 118:23). Equally true is that many men and women have worked hard to build and to preserve what is of God. “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain”(Psa 127:1). An accurate and full account of these years is recorded on high, unflawed by human perspective.
A Scottish couple, Mr. and Mrs. John Rae, immigrated to Canada in 1885 for the purpose of preaching the gospel. They settled near Portage, where Mr. Rae traveled from house to house with a horse and buggy, spreading the story of Jesus and His love for sinners. Some received the message and were baptized in the Assiniboine River. Among the firstfruits were a Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Crake.
Nearly two decades later in 1904, two preachers named Oliver Fish and Donald Munroe visited Portage. As a result of that visit, the Fish family moved to Portage and on August 21 of the same year, a small assembly began to meet in the now-widowed Mrs. Crake’s home. The assembly consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Fish, Mrs. Crake, and her two daughters, Annie and Elizabeth. Soon, others from outlying areas and from overseas joined the little company. Fifty years later, Mr. Fish was a very old man and I was a young boy, but two memories are worth noting. He knew all of the children in each family in the assembly, because apparently he prayed for us by name each day. He endeared himself to us by kindly giving us shiny 25-cent coins after many a meeting.
In 1906, Elizabeth Crake married William Ronald, who moved to the area after being saved in the Hamilton-Galt area of Ontario. Their descendants have had a significant impact on the Lord’s work locally and globally. Ten or more of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have served, or continue to serve, full time in the gospel worldwide. Others served locally, such as their son David Ronald, a farmer by occupation and a spiritual shepherd at heart, who provided invaluable guidance to the Lord’s people for decades. As a young believer, I personally benefitted from his words of counsel and affirmation, often given along with a helping hand. He was called home in 1997, but his words, spoken privately and publicly, still ring in my ears: “My greatest desire is that you will hear the Lord’s ‘well done’ in a coming day.”
As in many assemblies, special weeks of gospel meetings were arranged every year or two. These special times were useful for reaching out to the community, seeing our own children saved, and reviving the Lord’s people. Some series in particular were marked by special blessing from God, and are viewed as high points in our history. In 1943 Albert Joyce had meetings when at least 13 precious souls were saved and later baptized. Some of those continue to this day; others have been called home to their reward. Another memorable year was 1965, when sinners from the rough side of life heard the saving message preached by Frank Pearcey and Ed Billingham. Lives were transformed. Al Christopherson and Jack Nesbitt preached in 1988, and the Lord graciously saved at least 12 of the Christians’ children. All are living in the good of their salvation today. Two years later, in 1990, Al Christopherson returned and was accompanied by Murray Pratt. This time, a man on vacation from England, a couple from Denmark in Canada on a work visa, a young woman from Trinidad and others with differing backgrounds came to know Christ as Savior. There was a 10-night series in 2001 held in a community center with Jonathan Procopio and local brethren. Those meetings were well attended by some recent immigrants who later came into the local fellowship. Recordings were widely circulated especially among Hutterite colonies, and those have their own story of blessing.
Following are highlights of other outreaches from the assembly. As always, each work will have had times of special blessing and at other times barrenness. Thankfully, the Lord has promised to bless the presentation of His Word.
Children’s meetings held weekly usually during the winter months date back to the 1930s. Pete Smith moved to Portage in 2000, and has since then often had Treasure Seekers weeks with children. These outreaches have been fruitful in salvation and in making contact with the community.
During the 1930s and 40s, local brethren visited outlying areas on Sunday afternoons and had gospel meetings in rural one-room schools. Interest in the Pine Creek district prompted special meetings in the summers of 1931 and 1932 with Herb Harris and Robert McCracken. Fifty or 60 people were saved, 32 were baptized in the fall of 1932, and the Pine Creek assembly was formed. They now meet in nearby Austin.
A highlight in assembly testimony was reached in 1945 when James A. Ronald, Sr. became the first from Portage to be commended to the grace of God in full-time service. This commendation freed Mr. Ronald to continue doing in an extended way what he had been doing in his spare time for years; that is to visit small rural communities on the Prairies with gospel literature and to follow-up with meetings wherever he found an ear. Many others since then have answered the call from God to leave our midst for full-time service throughout the world. Still others have visited foreign mission on a short-term basis. Their example of giving their lives for Christ in this way has given the assembly a sense of joy and purpose as we seek to stand with them.
Beginning in 1965 and continuing to the present, the sisters have prepared and packed parcels for missionaries in Zambia. More recently, Portage has been a regional hub from which containers have been assembled and shipped directly to Zambia. This is done in fellowship with MSC.
In the early 2000s, Becky Kew began reaching out to aboriginal people, first in Portage, and during the past nine years mainly in nearby Sandy Bay Reserve. She teaches the gospel in the school, operates a youth drop-in center, runs a summer day camp, and otherwise ministers primarily to the youth in the community. She is now beginning to reap the fruit of years of faithful sowing.
Mexican farm workers are employed seasonally at the vegetable farms and nurseries in the Portage area. Each week, during the past 15 years while the men are here, a gospel meeting has been held for them in the Spanish language. Some have been saved. This in turn has opened new opportunities back in Mexico, especially among their family members in the Irapuato area.
The literature ministries of Seed Sowers, Via Magazine and Postal Bible Studies are all centered in Portage, and operate in fellowship with the assembly.
During the early years of this century the Lord blessed with numerical growth. By 2007, there were 150 in fellowship, plus lots of children meeting in a hall which was extremely overcrowded. After considerable prayer and questioning how to accommodate the numbers, the assembly underwent an amiable hive-off in January 2008. One third of the believers volunteered to move to the new assembly. A second building had been purchased for the new assembly, now called Fifth Avenue Gospel Hall. The original company continued to meet in what was renamed First Street Gospel Hall. The First Street congregation is expecting to move into new facilities in December 2015 and the name is to be changed to River Road Gospel Hall to reflect the new location.
Looking back we say, “Thus far has the Lord helped us” (1Sam 7:12, KJV2000). Looking ahead we ask who will step forward with God’s help to “be watchful and to strengthen the things that remain” (Rev 3:2).