British Columbia

Meet the woman who designed one of Surrey's most recognizable buildings

On the last Friday of every month, dozens of people visit the heart of Surrey’s Whalley neighbourhood for a perogy supper.

Bessie Bonar used a photograph as a guide to design the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Mary in 1950

Bessie Bonar, 95, holds a picture of the church she designed that was taken shortly before it opened in 1955 (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

On the last Friday of every month, dozens of people visit the heart of Surrey's Whalley neighbourhood for a perogy supper.

The food is prepared by members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Mary, which is one of the oldest and most spectacular buildings in the neighbourhood.

Bessie Bonar, 95, is a fixture at the event and she also attends church every Sunday.

"It's part of my heart," Bonar said.

"I've been going for 70 years, so I know all the beginnings and how hard we worked."

Surrey's Ukrainian population feels a close connection to the church, which has stood at the corner of 135A Street and 108 Avenue since 1955, but Bonar's attachment to it is stronger than most.

Bonar, after all, was the one who designed it and her father was in charge of construction.

The church was designed in 1950 and construction was completed in 1955. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Untrained eye

In 1950, Whalley's Ukrainian community rallied together to raise enough money to buy some land and build a church on it.

Bonar left school in Grade 8 and had no formal architectural training, but she had an eye for detail.

She found a picture of a church and used it as a guide to design the building that would become a Surrey landmark.

"They wanted to build a church and they asked for a blueprint, so I drew it on a piece of paper," she said.

"I said, we had no blueprints, we just built it."

Bonar and her husband lived in three different houses in Surrey after the church was built.

She designed all three of them.

"If I had been born later, I would have gone maybe to school for architecture but I was born too early," she said.

"There was no chance for college then."

Becky Takyi prepares a plate for a customer at Taste of Africa restaurant in Surrey (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Taste of Africa

As Bonar and her friends roll perogy dough at the church, another delicacy is prepared just down the street.

Becky Takyi is dishing up a generous helping of her specialty — honey jerk chicken with jollof rice and plantains — as her husband Isaac takes a phone order behind the counter.

The couple, originally from Ghana, opened the restaurant more than a decade ago.

"Working together makes the marriage work better because we fight and, at the same time, we get along," Becky laughed.

"At the end of the day, who are you going to fight with? You're going home together, so you have to be happy together, right?"

Isaac Kofi Takyi takes an order at his restaurant in the heart of Whalley (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Diverse clientele

The Takyis chose their location because they wanted their restaurant to be accessible to traffic coming into Surrey from the Pattullo or Port Mann Bridge.

Accessibility drew them to the neighbourhood but it's Whalley's diversity that keeps them there.

"It's concentrated with different types of ethnic people and it makes it more broad based for us," Isaac said.

"People from all different cultures come here now."

The church is located at the corner of 135A Street and 108 Avenue in Surrey (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

'The Strip'

St. Mary's Church is on the corner of 135A Street and 108 Avenue, which is part of the city's so-called strip, and Taste of Africa is just around the corner.

Until last year, about 170 people lived on the street in tents and hundreds more would often hang out in the area during the day.

The tents are now gone and the majority of the people who lived in them have either moved into modular housing or nearby shelters.

Isaac Takyi says customers used to tell him they were scared to come to the restaurant but he hasn't heard any concerns lately.

"Five years ago, people were scared," he said.

"Of late, they realize that there's nothing to be scared of. The last four years, it's been very good."

Surrey — Why We Live Here is a week-long series looking at the people and neighbourhoods that make up B.C.'s second largest city. 

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