Snow boating with my dad

Snowboating with my dad, Rudy Gruending
Snowboating with my dad, Rudy Gruending

I am thinking today of my father Rudy Gruending who would have been 96 years old on November 15. He was born on a farm in Saskatchewan in 1918 several years before the Canadian Pacific Railway built tracks nearby and a small, false-fronted village called St. Benedict was built beside them. My dad was to live there for his entire life save for a year working in the nickel mines in Sudbury, Ontario and a couple of years with a brother trying to create a new farm near Leoville, Saskatchewan, which was then on the northern fringe of the grain belt. They were wiped out by a forest fire.

He was one of nine children although a tenth died of appendicitis when he was 14 years old. His parents were farmers and pioneers in the area, arriving in 1904 from Minnesota. They were among a group of Germans who had arrived there to find that the farmland had all been taken. A group of them decided to move north to Canada and to file homesteads on land that the federal government was making available to settlers.

Working hard, playing hard

My father would have been of working age on the farm by about the early 1930s. That was a time just prior to the introduction of rubber tired tractors into the community and my grandfather tended to his growing farm using horses to pull ploughs, seeders and (later in the season) binders to cut the grain, which was then put through steam-driven threshing machines. It was a hard life but one which dad always recalled with great fondness. It was also a good training ground. At one time or another in his adult life, dad worked as a mechanic, a truck driver, a cat skinner, and a lumber jack – in addition to farming, which was always his first love.

He and his five surviving brothers worked hard and played in the same way. They loved baseball, which the settlers had brought with them from Minnesota, and the six Gruendings formed the nucleus of their local ball team. My father was slender as a boy but he grew into a big and powerful man who was a workhorse as a baseball pitcher and was someone who could hit a ball a long way.

He and my mother Anne were married in 1946, when he was 27 and she 22. They both attended the local school and she would always say that for her it was love at first sight. Their life on the farm began hopefully enough, but they, like all but one of dad’s brothers and many of our neighbours, found that their farms were too small in an era of increasing consolidation.

Life in the village

We moved into the village in the early 1950s and my father continued to operate the farm from there. At its peak our village had several hundred people although there are fewer now.  There was one street strung out along the railway track and the grain elevators, and a few other streets that ran perpendicular to it.

We did not have electricity at first and I remember the flickering light thrown by what my parents called a coal oil lamp. The province’s rural electrification program was just being completed at about that time. Nor did we have indoor plumbing or what we called running water. One of my jobs as a boy was to walk several hundred metres with water pails to the home of neighbours who had a well. I would work the handle on the pump, which usually screeched, and then carry home two pails of cold, fresh water. Another of my jobs was to split lengths of wood with an axe and carry it indoors to be used in our wood stove.

A photo speaks  

In the photo that you see above, my father is giving me a ride in town on an early version of a home made snowmobile made from scratch by someone in our village. This was at least several years before Bombardier got around to introducing a commercial product in eastern Canada.

My dad was fond and he liked to take me along when he went places or did something special. I don’t actually remember this snow boat ride but he told me about it in later years when we looked at the photo. Behind us, you can see the railway fence which was built to keep snow from drifting across the tracks. You can also see a portion of the railway station and the back end of what appears to be a late 1940s model car – aficionados can help me with the year and make of the vehicle.

I am wearing a warm parka for this outing along with a cap, mittens and boots.  You can see that I have a lot of snow on my pant legs, which may mean that I have taken a tumble from the machine, or that I had to walk through deep snow to get onto it.

I see that in the photo my dad is wearing a cap as he always did when he was outdoors, winter or summer. This one appears to have an insulated liner, useful in winter. Dad has a cigarette dangling from his lips. He was pretty well a chain smoker and he usually prepared his own using a cigarette roller comprised of a wooden frame with rubberized cloth stretched over it. Eventually the long cigarettes that he rolled had to be cut into shorter lengths using a razor blade, a job that I loved but which he allowed me to do only under his supervision.

A moment in time

This was a moment in time in about 1952. It is so easy to forget these things. I am grateful that somehow this photo survived and that I can share it.




George Tomita’s marriage ministry at age 92



George and Amy Tomita
George and Amy Tomita. He calls each of 170 couples that he married on the day before their anniversary

Our telephone rang early one morning a couple of years ago. “Hello, this is George Tomita calling. You have a wedding anniversary coming up tomorrow. You are on my list.” Indeed we did and it was good to be reminded by this kindly retired United Church minister. 

This is a lovely story that began in Vancouver where George was born in 1921. His parents ran a dry-cleaning business that was confiscated when they and other Japanese Canadians were sent to internment camps in 1942. George escaped internment by receiving permission to work on a farm operated by Grey Nuns near Montreal. Later he moved into the city where he held a succession of office and managerial jobs, including one in a dye casting company. His family later moved to Montreal as well and it was there that he met his future wife Amy, whose family had also been interned in B.C. They were married in 1949.

In 1969, George’s company moved to Cornwall, Ontario so he and Amy relocated. When that job ended, instead of disrupting the children’s education he found work running a gas station. He also worked as the caretaker of his church. “I was always interested in church work,” George told me recently. He asked the minister if he might become a lay minister and that led to an invitation to study for the ordained ministry at the United Theological College in Montreal.

He was 54 years old when he was ordained in June 1976. For the next 12 years he served first at a rural charge in the Gatineau region of Quebec, and later with Japanese Canadian congregations in Toronto and then Montreal.

He and Amy retired in 1988 to Cumberland near Ottawa, where one of their daughters lives. We met George when he performed a wedding for our next door neighbours. Later those neighbours began to invite a small group of us to their home each year on Christmas Eve and we came to know George and Amy. He told us that during his ministry he had performed 250 weddings. Even today he remains in contact with 170 of them despite his age (92) and his enduring a stroke several years ago.

Each year, on the day prior to a wedding anniversary, he places telephone calls. “Sometimes people are so busy that they forget their anniversaries,” he says. “I ask them how they are doing and they say fine but sometimes there are problems and some have been separated or divorced. They share these things and I don’t gossip about it.”

On one Christmas Eve visit my wife Martha indicated that I had forgotten about our most recent anniversary. George took out a notebook and asked for our number. Ten months later our telephone rang early in the morning, and it was George reminding me of our anniversary.

Just recently, we received an invitation to join George and Amy to celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. I called him the other day. “George,” I said. “You have a wedding anniversary coming up. You’re on my list.”

Hugo Gruending, a time to plant

Hugo Gruending, a time for planting
Hugo Gruending, a time for planting

I want you to meet Hugo Gruending, my father’s younger brother and always my favourite uncle. Unfortunately, neither he nor my dad is with us any longer. I came across this black and white photo of Hugo recently when I was rummaging through boxes in my basement, looking for family photos. I recall taking the photo but not the exact date – it would have been in the late 1970s or early 80s. It was in St. Benedict, Saskatchewan, the small farming village where I was born and where Hugo lived his entire life, other than one year as a conscript in the army in 1945. Hugo, like my dad, was a farmer by choice.  The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a season for everything, including a time to plant and a time to pluck what is planted. In those years, Hugo and other farmers would be busy planting their crops in mid to late May. Now, with much larger farms, people tend to seed their crops earlier. My grandparents on either side were of peasant stock from Europe. Early in the 20th century they arrived in Saskatchewan as pioneers.  Farming was never easy and it was financially insecure. Hugo was always industrious and to make ends meet he drove a school bus, then he purchased a garage and later added an insurance franchise. Along with the garage, he purchased a bulk fuel dealership which meant that he supplied farmers with gas and diesel fuel for their vehicles and farm machinery. He worked out of a small office in town and it is there that I took the photo. We all learn in life that appearances can be deceiving, but not in this case. Hugo was  hard-working, wise, honest and warm – I believe this photo conveys all of those qualities. He died in 1990, and his much loved wife Magdalene a few years later. I still miss them.


Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician
circa 1979

I took the photo that you see here of Nicaragua’s Father Ernesto Cardenal in the Mexican city of Puebla in February, 1979. Catholic bishops from all over Latin America were meeting there and the new pope, John Paul II, was on hand to inaugurate the gathering. I was there as a freelance reporter for Maclean’s magazine. The Vatican had already begun the process of reeling in its priests, theologians and some bishops from pronouncements that had been made at a similar meeting in Medellin, Columbia in 1968. There the bishops had promulgated a “preferential option for the poor” — not a popular thing to do in a continent where the division of wealth was scandalous and dictators sat in many of the palaces. Continue reading Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

Father Andrew Britz, rest in peace


Father Andrew Britz and Dennis Gruending, November 2011

I received word on February 14 that my old friend father Andrew Britz had died of a heart attack in Saskatoon at age 71. I had known Andrew since the 1960s when I attended a boarding school run by the Benedictine monks at St. Peter’s Abbey near Humboldt, Saskatchewan. In the early 1980s Andrew became editor of the Prairie Messenger, a newspaper published by the monks since 1904.

I return to Saskatchewan every summer to visit friends and relatives and in 2008 I spent several hours with Andrew, by then ill with Parkinson’s disease. He asked if I would work with him to compile an anthology of his best writing during a long tenure as editor, which ended in 2004. Our collaboration  resulted in a book called Truth to Power: The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk, which has been released by Kingsley Publishing of Calgary. It was a project that gave Andrew great pleasure in what were to be the twilight years of his life.  Continue reading Father Andrew Britz, rest in peace

Murray Thomson book excerpt from Pulpit and Politics

Murray Thomson (Koozma Tarasoff photo)

A number of Canadian newspapers have carried an excerpt from my new book Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life. I was asked to choose the excerpt to be used and decided upon a piece that I had written about Murray Thomson, a Quaker and pacifist who was, in his youth, an air force pilot. He says that he became a pacifist on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I believe it is especially appropriate as we approach Remembrance Day.  Thomson, who is in his 80s, lives in Ottawa. He has not been well recently and I wish him all the best. You can read the excerpt by clicking HERE:

NDP leadership hopeful Paul Dewar, “faith is political”


Paul Dewar, the Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, has entered the race to become leader of the New Democratic Party. Dewar was raised in a political home in Ottawa and his parents were staunch Roman Catholics. Two years ago, I invited him to talk to a class that I was teaching about faith and public life and he was candid with those attending. I posted the following piece on my blog in early 2009. Now, with his intention to run for party leader, Dewar’s remarks about the relationship between religious faith and public life take on an even greater relevance. I am reposting that piece here. 

Remembering my friend Allan Blakeney

By Dennis Gruending

Dennis Gruending with Allan BlakeneyMy friend Allan Blakeney, the former premier of Saskatchewan, died recently at age 85. I describe him as a friend and he was, although I am aware that he had many friends of longer duration and also many admirers. I was an adolescent when he was involved as a young cabinet minister in giving us medicare in 1962. By 1971, when he became premier, I was a newspaper reporter and my specialty at the time was in covering agriculture, not politics. Later on I became a CBC Radio host and interviewed him on numerous occasions but did not know him well. His closer relationships with journalists were with some of the veteran political reporters. He played small chip poker regularly with a number of them over a period of years and he almost always left with the loot in his pocket.

He was a remarkably good premier even though the hand-pumping side of politics did not come easily to him. Although he liked people and was genial and quick witted in private, his public persona was one of someone buttoned up and cautious. He told me in an interview after he left politics that when he was premier he kept in mind the image of a giant reel-to-reel tape that was always recording. He did not want to commit any embarrassing bloopers that would threaten his government and its social democratic projects. Continue reading Remembering my friend Allan Blakeney