St. Benedict, Sask., Treasured Memories

Dennis Gruending in St. Benedict, Saskatchewan, 1996
Dennis Gruending in St. Benedict, Saskatchewan, 1996

I grew up in a small rural village in Saskatchewan called St. Benedict, which in the 1950s and early 60s would have had a population of 200 or more. There are now about 80 people living there. Twenty years ago, in August 1993, our village held a homecoming event. People who once lived in the area came from far and near to attend and the Saturday evening barbeque was served to almost 1,200.  St. Benedict and nearby community of Reynaud (where no one lives any more) also published a community history. They called it Treasured Memories and asked me to write a Foreword. This article is adapted from it.

* * * * *

When as a child I was sent to bed at night, I would sometimes set out to count all of the people living in and around St. Benedict. Usually I fell asleep before I completed the census, but one thing was certain. I knew every last person in the town and surrounding countryside and all of them knew me. Now, many years later, as I walk along my street in a pleasant, but less familiar city, I look at the houses and ask myself who lives in them.

 Village life

Life in a little village is not inherently better than life anywhere else. Still, there is much from life in my village which I have never been able to replace. The sights, sounds, smells, and above all the characters who populated my childhood continue to inhabit me almost 30 years after I left there as an adolescent. There is rarely a day when some random thought or recollection doesn’t present itself, sometimes in a subtle, almost unconscious way. For example, I lived ten miles from where I worked in Ottawa, and frequently I caught myself measuring that as the distance from  St. Benedict Middle Lake to the neighbouring village of Middle Lake.

It is indeed remarkable, the way in which memory can collapse time and space so that at one moment we are adults at work, and the next we are children catching the smell of fresh bread as our mother pulls it from the oven and calls us to the table.

I will never know another place as completely as I knew this one. Nor will I belong anywhere as thoroughly as I did here in the green and rolling parklands dotted by small sloughs and the remaining willow bluffs and poplar trees.

 A good story

We remain by and large a farming community, descended from peasant people in Europe; Germans, Ukrainians, French, Hungarians and others. Our most vibrant culture continues to be an oral one. Some of us can tell a pretty good story and we all like to hear one. All of this talk, this wonderful talk, is the long poem of our lives in this place, lives filled with ordinary events, but also with tragedy, humour and even some heroism. It is a story as noble and deserving as any other.

A group of good people got together to research and assemble this community history. They have captured a story which lives in our minds and hearts and in our talking, but it is a story which is now scattered as widely as we are, and which otherwise would gradually be lost.

Rural crisis

This history book and the community celebrations planned for its launching are occurring at a time of profound economic crisis. Our community is under siege by forces over which we have little control and which often we don’t even understand. It was about 100 years ago that our ancestors became part of those great European migrations which displaced, and not always justly, the aboriginal people who roamed these parklands and the great plains to the South. It has been a mere 60 years since the railroad first arrived in St. Benedict and the first false-fronted buildings were thrown together to make a village.

This is a mere blink of the historical eye but we’ve been losing families and farms, services and businesses almost from the beginning. Our neighbouring village of Reynaud is now a ghost town. Will we, who inhabit the land which aboriginal people used for thousands of years, be forced to leave this place after only a few generations? I don’t know. I do know that much has been lost but that much which is worthwhile also remains.

 Between the lines

To give this community history book its due, we’ll have to pay close attention to what we read in it. We’re a subtle bunch with a tendency to understatement and our sense of humour is wry. To survive the dirty thirties, the weather and all of the farm crises, our ancestors had to be stoics. We’ve inherited some of that. When life is a mess, and somebody asks, “How’s it goin?”, we’re the kind of people who reply “Not too bad.” (When things are going really well, we say exactly the same thing).

We have also an old-fashioned sense of propriety. We’ve lived in each other’s hip pockets in the way that people in small towns do, and there aren’t many secrets here. But much of what we know we’re not prepared to say, especially in print. To savour these stories then, we must read between the lines and listen for what is said in the silence between beats. It’s well worth the effort.

 

 

 

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

23 thoughts on “St. Benedict, Sask., Treasured Memories”

  1. Well said,old bud. You are right. We still slip back to a simpler time and smile at how good it really was. Well, most of it. Traded away a lot of great cards or stuck them in the spokes. But the bread, the football games on the back field, our major league baseball pitcher/ catcher marathons, smashing stones for mammoth home runs into the pasture, those are so good.

  2. Just stumbled on this. Well said. Our little town is slipping, but still has heart. Volunteers put on strapping, tinned and saved the skating rink and the same with the old school community centre. We have some new residents but they don’t volunteer or realize what it takes to keep a community going. Something I think about is how many successful people live or had lived in St Ben and area including yourself. One of Ed Brockman Sr’s daughters is a judge in New York (I think).One of his sons owns and engineering co. Young Eddie wrote math books. Miles Kroll’s daughter is in charge of fund raising for Stars in Saskatchewan. I am one of 3 chief inspectors for Trans Gas in charge of field pipeline construction and more. Just must be some common values, work efforts or something to have so many success stories from a place that is disappearing.

    1. Thanks for your comment Ken. As you know, I was a friend of your dad Warren, who died much too young, and of your mom Darlene. Please give her my best wishes.

  3. If the Foreword is any indication of the quality of the book, ‘Treasured Memories’ is a gem! Beautiful, nostalgic piece, Dennis.

  4. Enjoyed the piece, Dennis. I think you caught the spirit of so many small towns/villages across Saskatchewan. The spirit of the people, the childhood memories, the hope/questions for the future of these pioneer places. I spoke at the 100th anniversary of my home village, Ruthilda, (30 miles southwest of Biggar) and I had to comment that although there are many fewer people the same spirit of friendliness and cooperation is still evident. It has to be otherwise such events as the ones at Ruthilda and St. Benedict could not have taken place.

  5. Thank you Dennis for this; I did not grow up in Saskatchewan but Calgary, a child of immigrant parents whose memories are perhaps much the same as yours. I recall walking with my grandfather to the bakery for the freshly baked loaves of bread that he went for every second day. I recall walking with him from the bakery to Central Park where we would feed the birds – I remember how excited I was to be able to do that with him. I recall walking with my grandmother to the Calgary Zoo, she in her dress and slightly heeled walking shoes, very elegantly dressed as she was anytime she left her home, and I in my jumpsuit. She would stop and look at the houses along the way and share with me the details of the flowers growing in each of their different gardens. I remember the kitchen filled with friends and family that gathered every summer – their accents and their laughter, their absolute delight with life in Canada is an experience I’ll never forget! I live now in Los Angeles – the city is fast and exciting; opportunity abounds for people like myself who come from those places of stoicism, but also of great appreciation, who take little for granted. I only hope that what the land and the people who lived so close to it taught me is something I am able to place in the heart of my son – who is now on his way to law school. Cities have their own sometimes magical personalities – they are an interesting reality to navigate as they grow, as does the population of the world. But that is a different conversation. Thank you for sharing and for offering the opportunity to comment!

  6. Great article Dennis, we did have a great life growing up in St.Benedict. I certainly wish my children could have had the same.

  7. My children and Tessa believe every inch I travel on this earth is measured for time and distance on the highway from Estevan to Regina. Great reflection Dennis! BK

  8. I lived in Wakaw at different times of my life. There were good times and bad times as there are in anyone’s life. I, like many other students went to a Catholic school. There wasn’t an option and it didn’t matter what denomination you really were. I loved my life out there. You learned at an early age to be self reliant and inventive in fun. I don’t recall being inside the house very often. There was always something to do: chores, exploring “soddies”, building forts, playing with cars and trucks under the front porch, etc. My aunt would wake us up (kitchen was always warm but with no other heat in the house) to those delicious aromas coming from the kitchen for breakfast. We shared the house with small animals that were born too late in the season. We had hens and chickens and brooding hens that would trot out their chicks and teach them to peck. There was no such thing as a television or electronic games. We played any sport you could imagine. Families were close, as well as neighbours, even though they lived far away (since there were sections of land). Religious holidays were a time for celebration. Harvest time – neighbours pitched in and helped bring in the crops, each helping each. There was no payment passing hands, only food for each meal and yes after the day was done a little bit of Saskatchewan “white lightning”. I truly miss those days and keeping in contact with family on the internet, though different keeps the ties. Thank you for sending your reflections of Saskatchewan

    1. Thanks Katherine for your comments. Wakaw is about 20 miles from St. Benedict. When I was a child, we would visit my grandparents, Steve and Annie victor, who retired there. In later years, we played hockey against Wakaw, which always had good teams. And I do remember the white lightning!

  9. Hi There

    My mom was born in St. Benedict on Nov.14. 1927. Her father was the CPR Station agent at that time. Grandmother often talked of good dances held in the station room. She said people were very friendly and eager to have country style fun.

    Josie Ahearn

    1. Thanks Josie for that interesting information. The CPR station, long gone now, was a fixture in town when I was growing up. I can well imagine that the waiting room was a room big enough to hold a dance. By the time I was a dancer, we had a town hall. I will send you a private note to chat in more detail about any possible overlap between your mom and my parents, who would have been contemporaries of hers.

  10. Hi Dennis:
    Arthur Diederichs (my Mom’s brother) used to run a Radio and Television repair shop in St. Benedict in the 70’s called Art’s Radio and TV. I also remember about the same time that my uncle Ralph Diederichs worked at the Credit Union in St. Benedict.
    You and I are related of course thru my Grandmother (Hilda Diederichs – maiden name Gruending) who was married to Nickolas Diederichs; as they farmed in the St. Benedict area for many years before moving to Kelowna, BC.
    Lots of good memories while visiting my Uncles and Aunts and cousins in the village!
    All the best to you!

  11. Hi Dennis, This is all very interesting. But, to Duane Tempel, I am a little confused. I knew Arthur and Ralph as boys, when their Dad [Nick] and my future brother-in-law, Joe Hankey jointly operated a threshing outfit.– I put in 23 days of pitching bundles into that machine,–at about $2 per day.–I thought Arthur was married to Agnes Temple, who went to the same school as I did. I remember hearing that she had died many years ago.–Duane, can you straighten me out?–Thanks!

    1. Hi Leo:

      Yes, you are right in that my uncle Art Diederichs married Agnes Tempel (my Dad’s sister). They had six children who are all alive still today. Aunt Agnes passed away in June of 2002.
      My dad, John Tempel married uncle Art’s sister (Bernadette Diederichs) and they had 4 sons of which I am one. All four of us boys are still alive and well. My dad however passed away in April of 201l.
      Best regards,
      Duane

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