Planting faith in a Canadian mining town

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, December 16th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we are so glad you are! 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

As 2020 nears an end how will we remember this year 10, 20, or even 70 years from now? What’ll history record? Pandemic? Riots? A pervasive sense of unease?

EICHER: Or perhaps will we recall seeing God’s redeeming work in the world and in us. 

A woman born 100 years ago sought to follow that path. WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett has her story.


BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: The handcrafted grandfather clock marks the quarter hour in Billie Kennedy’s cozy apartment. She doesn’t hear it. The clock stands to her left. Her right ear is her good ear. At 100 years old, Kennedy considers herself blessed that she can hear at all.

Her late husband, Raymond, built the clock. His skill as a fine carpenter was a life-long talent honed during the war when he worked as a tool and die maker. During that time the newlyweds lived in Chattanooga and attended Highland Park Baptist Church, even though they weren’t Christians.

But God eventually called them to himself. He then called them from the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains where they grew up.

BILLIE KENNEDY: And we found out about this small town in Canada and we decided that is what the Lord wanted us to do is go there…

With support from their church of $160 a month, Raymond and Billie Kennedy and their 10-year-old son, Steve, set out for Atikokan, Ontario in December 1950.

NEWSREEL: Into Port Arthur on Lake Superior rose an unceasing flow of Canada’s rich iron ore…the source of the flow of this mineral wealth is Steep Rock Mine…

The couple didn’t know what to expect when they arrived in the burgeoning mining town. Accessible only by train, Atikokan and its 3,000 residents were far removed from anything—except the bone chilling cold. Kennedy recalls her first impressions.

KENNEDY: It was winter time. It was quite a change. The first winter we were there we were really initiated because it got to be 64 below zero…

The family’s first home was two rooms in Mrs. Mulligan’s, um, “boarding house.”

KENNEDY: And in order to seal off those two rooms from her part of the house she just took a piece of plywood and nailed it on the door [LAUGHS]

Staying warm wasn’t the only challenge. Like most of the places they rented, the house had no indoor plumbing.

KENNEDY: We did have an outhouse. But, unfortunately, it became such a problem before the winter was over that you had to take the ax with you…

Water for indoor use was collected at a communal pump.

KENNEDY: There was a spigot, an outside spigot, that ran all winter long. And you can imagine the ice hill that would build up around it. 

Did the hardships make them reconsider their commitment to church planting in Atikokan and nearby Sapawe, a smaller town also only accessible by train?

KENNEDY: [LAUGHS] Often [LAUGHS]. But other people were living there and thriving so we said, ‘If they can do it we can too.’ We were very much convinced that’s where the Lord wanted us…

The Kennedys eventually established a church but didn’t know what to expect before the first service. At that time they knew little about the town and were keenly aware that they had arrived uninvited.

KENNEDY: [LAUGHS]. That’s the reason that when we advertised it in the paper, we were so delighted to have 17 people attend [LAUGHS]…

The congregation flourished. The family moved into an old barber shop that Billie did her best to transform into both a church and home. That arrangement worked well until the tragic death of a neighbor.

AUDIO: It was as though people had shut themselves up in their houses trying to hide from an unseen and deadly enemy…

In 1952 Canada, like the U.S., was suffering under a deadly and debilitating polio epidemic. A little neighbor girl died from the disease.

KENNEDY: When Beverly died and we had to keep her body in the church I was very concerned about Steve because the church, it was extremely small…

The Kennedy’s son Steve caught the virus.

KENNEDY: I just knew he must be going to have the same outcome. I just walked the floor…

And prayed. All night. During that vigil, Kennedy said God brought to mind a passage from Second Chronicles.


KENNEDY: Let’s see. Don’t be afraid. This is God’s war not yours. Just stand firm and watch God’s saving work for you take shape. Don’t be afraid. God is with you.

By morning Steve’s fever broke in time for him to run his paper route.


For 11 winters the Kennedys ministered in Atikokan and in Sapawe.


The Atikokan congregation helped construct the building for their First Baptist Church. Confident the church was in the hands of a spiritually mature congregation the Kennedys knew it was time to return to Tennessee.

Memories, like hearing, fade with time. Yet Billie Kennedy’s years in Atikokan, Ontario linger. Time has blurred some details of the joys and struggles in Atikokan.

But it has not diminished one lesson learned over a century of living, including when she stepped off a train in an unfamiliar Canadian town one bitterly cold December day 70 years ago.

KENNEDY: Trust the Lord. I mean, He will see you through. It’s as simple or as complex as that. Trust the Lord.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett.

(Photo/Bonnie Pritchett)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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