By Rochelle Baker, Abbotsford Times

Sucha Singh Thandi gingerly unwraps the tissue paper from around a small, creased black and white photo of an elderly Sikh man sporting thick dark-framed glasses, a turban and a snow-white beard.

Sucha, 77, contemplates the image of his uncle Sundar Singh Thandi, affectionately known to Abbotsford's Sikh pioneer families as taya ji or uncle.

Thandi was critical to the establishment of the historic Gur Sikh Temple on South Fraser Way that celebrates its 100-year anniversary this year.

Yesterday afternoon Mayor George Peary and city council made an extraordinary proclamation to kick off a yearlong celebration of Abbotsford's national historic monument, completed in 1911 by struggling Sikh pioneers.


"Our family did a lot to support the old temple and the new one across the street," Sucha says.

His uncle arrived in Canada in 1907 and went to work at the Threthewey family's Abbotsford Lumber Company on Mill Lake where he earned 10 cents an hour.

Thandi was eventually promoted to supervisor and referred to by workers as "Boss".

"It was like saying foreman in English," says Sucha.

Thandi and other Sikh mill workers began talking about building a small temple, or gurdwara.

Thandi and another Sikh immigrant Arjan Singh raised $3,000, and bought a one-acre property on a hillside on the outskirts of Abbotsford village.

The "boss" then approached the Trethewey family, who donated the lumber for the gurdwara free of cost.

Every Sikh, including Thandi, cleaned the lumber and carried it on their backs up hill from Mill Lake to the temple site.

The gurdwara was constructed to mirror the popular building style at the time, with a wood-framed gable roof and false front facing the street.

When the building was finished in 1911, it contained a prayer hall on the upper floor, a community kitchen and the required four entrances facing in the cardinal points of the compass.

Another important element was the original Nishan Sahib, a 70-foot flagpole carved from a 70-foot-tall cedar and visible from a great distance, that guided the faithful to the gurdwara.

Sucha was thrilled when the temple was designated as a national historic site in 2002.

Sikh pioneers built similar gurdwaras, but no others have survived, he said.

The Abbotsford temple is the oldest, and longest standing building of its kind in North America, and the only gurdwara to have a national historic designation outside of India and Pakistan.

To honour the building's anniversary, the temple's Khalsa Diwan Society is organizing one event a month for the entire year.

The unveiling of a historical exhibit about the temple at city hall took place yesterday following the mayor's proclamation.

In addition to the launch event, readers, writers and film festivals are planned for the University of the Fraser Valley and a historical exhibit is being organized at the Reach Gallery Museum in Abbotsford.

The Khalsa Diwan Society will also hold a three-day prayer, ending with a festival on the temple grounds the last weekend of August.

Sucha, excited by the upcoming celebration, is glad the gurdwara remains to remind younger people of the of their elders' dedication to the community.

"I'm really glad and excited that it remains there. It's important to remember and the kids can see what the older people did."