New Westminster Sikh temple celebrates 100-year anniversary

The Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar is one of the oldest Sikh temples in Canada and its members are celebrating its centennial anniversary by reflecting on its history and its importance to the local Sikh community.

The Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar is one of the oldest temples in Canada

Members of the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar prepare one of the many communal meals served in the temple over the last 100 years. (Enzo Zannata/CBC News)

A centennial is being marked in New Westminster this weekend.

The Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar is one of the oldest Sikh temples in the country and its members are celebrating the milestone anniversary by reflecting on its historic significance to the local Sikh community.

The temple was actually founded more than 100 years ago when a pioneering Sikh named Bhai Bishan Singh bought a house next door to where the building is now.

Singh paid $250 for the house, which served as a place of worship until the congregation grew too large. In 1919, Singh bought the neighbouring lot at 347 Wood Street and the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar was born.

One hundred years later, membership is at 5,000 people and for some of those members, the gurdwara has been an integral part of their life for decades.

Watch CBC reporter Belle Puri's story here:

One of the oldest Sikh temples in all of Canada happens to be in New Westminster Belle Puri looks at the remarkable and sometimes complicated history of the gurdwara, from its simple start in a tiny house to today's membership of 5,000 people. 4:20

A walk down memory lane

Sukhi Sandhu, nee Bhullar, spent her childhood going to the temple with her parents and siblings.

She remembers it as a place that always felt inclusive and where, Sandhu and her sisters, immigrants in the 1960s and 70s, felt like they belonged.

"It was a safe place to be where we felt a lot of joy and peace and compassion growing up," said Sandhu.

For Sandhu, the temple was a sanctuary filled with friends and family, where she remembers playing tag as communal meals were cooked in the temple kitchen.

Kirin Malli also has fond memories of going to temple, until suddenly, in the mid-1980s, her family just stopped.

Members of the congregation on the steps of Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar in 1931. (Submitted/Museum of New Westminster )

Turbulent times

The 1980s was a turbulent time as the fight for an independent Sikh state in India spilled into British Columbia. Amid heated debates and bursts of violence at the temple, there was also tension among members over who should be in charge of the temple. Descendents of the pioneers who actually founded the gurdwara say they were alienated.

Malli's father served at the temple until that division.

For Malli, the 100-year mark is bittersweet because she recalls the 'warm fuzzy' feeling she had when she would visit as a child, but then also remembers the community conflict during the tense times.

Suki Sandhu (left) and her sister Cindy Saran (middle) flip through a childhood photo album with their mother and reminisce about their time attending temple in the 1960s and 70s. (CBC News)

But three decades have passed and the anniversary is an opportunity for the community to come together again — both temple members and the general public. 

Sukhninder Singh Sangha is the director at the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar. He said the gurdwara offers programs and  camps for youth, seniors and the community at large. There are Punjabi classes and religious studies and a kitchen where members prepare meals for residents on Vancouver's  Downtown East Side every weekend.

The Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar as it looks today at 347 Wood Street in New Westminster. (CBC News )

Everyone welcome

During the centennial weekend, the temple opened its doors to the public to share their customs — and some communal meals— with the curious.

Sangha said he hopes this will give non-Sikhs a better understanding of what Sikhism is and for various communities to come together to better understand each other.

And there will be another opportunity in the fall for the public to learn more about the gurdwara's remarkable and complicated history when an exhibit about the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar opens at the New Westminster Museum.

With files from Belle Puri