The Garden

Grassy knoll behind Cariboo church is a forgotten masterpiece

A million-gallon lake once resided behind the CCLF church.

A million-gallon lake once resided behind the CCLF church.

Just two old horses, Bugsy and Cheetah, are the lone occupants now laying claim to the nearly four acres of grassy field behind Cariboo Christian Life Fellowship (CCLF) that once looked remarkably like a Judean countryside just outside of Jerusalem, featuring a myriad of life-sized statues depicting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It was simply called “The Garden” and, at its peak, it was estimated that some 3,000 visitors a year would visit and take a walk through history – a journey through various scenes of the life of Jesus and, as they did, electronic recordings of scripture and background ambience of the sounds of the Sea of Galilee or a marketplace (or whatever the scene called for) launched into life.

It was in the late ’60s and early ’70s that Henry and Arthur Block began to develop the vision of the 108 Mile Ranch, a unique community where the emphasis would be to benefit the “whole” man, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Part of that vision was the construction of the then 108 Chapel and The Garden as the centerpiece of the 26,000-plus-acre ranch community.

In a 2001 speech to the 108 community, Henry Block said: “This master plan was developed to be in partnership with nature (referred to as the great escape), where our company, Block Bros., promised to only develop 20 per cent of the land. This would leave 80 per cent as a recreational ranch, with ranching and agriculture to be an ongoing part of the community. The dream was of a community and of vacationers — people walking, riding, biking and fully participating on the same land where cowboys and cattle roam! This included a ski Mecca in the winter. This plan of development was to be unique in North America. The concept of only developing one acre out of every five was unheard of in the ’60s and ’70s, and certainly more so today.”

The church building, which has recently undergone renovations, was built in 1975 and The Garden was soon to follow, with construction taking 10 months culminating in a grand opening on July 16, 1977. That opening included an eight-day celebration of festivities including concerts and lectures, eating and more concerts.

“It was an incredible vision,” says current CCLF Pastor Rick Barker, whose wife, Marci, worked in The Garden in those days. “You almost felt like you were transported into another country when you were in the labyrinth of stone walls and rock-filled landscaping. The most outstanding feature was a 12-foot high statue of the risen Christ on a lit-up concrete platform in the middle of a million-gallon, man-made lake and waterfall. Incredible. My wife and I were baptized in that lake, which is now a field of dreams back there.”

Visitors would take about an hour to walk through The Garden, which included 24 life-sized original sculptures depicted in 14 different scenes from the birth of Jesus, to his baptism, through to his crucifixion and the empty tomb. It was fully lit for night-time viewing and even included a 650-seat outdoor amphitheatre, which played host to various concerts with guest performers — Christian artists and speakers flown in by Block from all over North America.

The statues were valued individually from $1,500 to $15,000 and were made out of fibreglass by the Italian sculptor “Trinka,” who was flown over from Florence to Vancouver where he worked on the pieces in a garage on 13th Avenue. He completed the work in five months. The total cost of The Garden project was estimated at nearly $1,000,000, excluding the land. Financing for the entire site was through donations made through the 108 Chapel. Construction involved some 1,500 yards of concrete and many more tons of rock plus seven miles of underground cable. It all took about $30,000 annually to maintain. Included was a 4,000 square-foot orientation building, which housed a projection studio to show the making and vision of The Garden, plus a souvenir and book shop. It is now used for seminars, administration, children and youth events and pastoral offices. The original idea for The Garden was derived from an indoor religious center in Dallas, Texas, designed by Peter Wolf, who Block later hired to design the 108 project.

In the development of the 108 Ranch, Block Bros. also donated land for the 108 Heritage Site, the rights to Ducks Unlimited for creating miles of wildlife habitat, plus the land for the church. According to Block, the church was to “encourage a community based, non-denominational approach to serving the practical needs of burying and marrying as well as the spiritual needs of the 108.”

The company also provided land for the Field House between the church and the elementary school, land for the fire hall and a donation for the first firefighting equipment. The land for the community hall is also part of the legacy that Block Bros. left the 108 Community.

“There are many stories of people who were forever touched by God at the chapel and The Garden in those days. People would come from miles around to walk through, meditate, find peace, find God,” says Barker. “In fact, we still have people drop in now and then looking for The Garden but all that remains are a few rock walls on the south side, which currently acts as a wind shelter for the horses.”

It was in the early ’80s that things shifted at the 108. CCLF was birthed off of the 108 Chapel in the spring of 1981 in what Barker calls “a classic church split of two different visions.” But, he adds, that it was in 1983 that “a very out of the ordinary thing took place when the two congregations reconciled and the leadership at the 108 literally gave over the property, assets, leadership – everything to CCLF.”

The church tried to make a go of The Garden vision for awhile, but ended up giving it all away the following year to former BC Premier Bill Vander Zalm’s Fantasy Gardens in Richmond, citing that the theme park in Vancouver would see 30,000 people a year rather than the estimated 3,000 in the Cariboo and that the CCLF vision was to have a community church as opposed to a tourist attraction. The leadership team of CCLF did not have the vision to staff and maintain The Garden at some $30,000 a year.

“I still remember seeing the 12-foot-high Jesus on the back of a flatbed truck heading out of town. It must have been quite a site to see going through the Fraser Canyon tunnels,” said Barker.

Fantasy Gardens was then sold sometime in 1990-91 and the statues that once graced the landscape of the 108 Mile Ranch were bundled up and put away in a warehouse where they still sit at the Lower Mainland. There have been rumours of another Bible theme park being planned along the 401 Interstate in California where the statues may once again take their position in pointing people towards the life of Christ. But, for now, they wait.

Meanwhile, the former Garden site remains a field, but various ideas for development are still being bandied about by the CCLF leadership. Who knows what dreams may come?