The loss of the Happy Nun Cafe to a fire just yesterday has left a void in the southeast Saskatchewan community, but the memories made there are happy ones indeed.
This is the sentiment of philanthropist and country musician Dan Cugnet of Weyburn, who was not only a regular patron of the Happy Nun, but he also had the opportunity to play there in April of this year.
"I was fortunate enough to get to play there a couple times,” he shared, noting he also enjoyed taking in a live music show there on many occasions, with a show from Blake Berglund being a particular highlight for him.
The oft-raved-about restaurant, located in the Village of Forget, was known for its ambience, which Cugnet said didn't seem to match its prairie locale.
He said they always drew a crowd coming out to take in the live entertainment and four-course meal.
“There was a real different mix of artists and genres from all over Saskatchewan, and all over western Canada constantly coming through and the meal was always exceptional and it just had such a great vibe and it's a huge loss to southeast Saskatchewan and certainly to the Forget area.”
“You know the first time you went there, it's like, 'this place isn't supposed to be here', you know? Kind of had that feeling to it, right?”
“You'd just pull in and there'd be a full house in there every night, and the staff was wonderful, and Leon and Gayla [Gilbertson], who ran it the last number of years, did just such a tremendous job of it. So it's just a really sad thing for them I know and just a loss for southeast Saskatchewan.”
Cugnet said the Happy Nun was one of the best-kept secrets in the southeast.
“And then, once you went, it's like, 'okay, well, when are we coming back here?' was always the feeling.”
“It was always a mix, too, because it was 40 minutes from Weyburn, and 40 minutes from Estevan, and half an hour from Carlyle, so you had people coming from all over the place, so it was always a different mix of people in there and depending on the artists too, it was different music week to week and and show to show,” Cugnet noted. “So you had different people that had maybe been a fan of somebody for years, somebody like Jack Semple, who's been around forever and been such an icon in this province. And then, people that were just starting out, too, maybe playing their first or second show, or only been at it for a year or two.”
He said the Happy Nun also used to host open mic jams, and a Beach Bash in the middle of winter, “and at Halloween they'd do like a Rocky Horror Picture [Show] thing. So there was always fun just mixing it up.”
Cugnet expressed concern about places like this being around for musicians to have performances opportunities.
“It's hard to fill that void, and especially when it's such a special place like the Happy Nun was. It was a bit of a trek out there, but it's kind of one of those things where you know if it was once a year you got there or twice a year, three times, once you went, you were going back.”
“Whether you perform there or you are a customer or patron, it's just happy memories, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody that doesn't have a fond memory of that place, who was there for whatever reason.”
Cugnet said the place will be missed by performers and patrons alike.
“Just big hugs to Leon and Gayla and their staff, because they did such a tremendous thing there for so many years and it's always hard when something like this happens to good people,” he expressed. “But just wanted to say Merry Christmas to them, and everybody that feels a loss with this place being gone.”
One of the musicians who had played alongside Cugnet in April at the Happy Nun Cafe, Kevin Schultz (The Lone Rambler), said the news was heartbreaking.
"Any loss of a music venue in Saskatchewan is a loss for everyone. I was fortunate enough to perform at this great venue run by even greater people like Leon and Gayla.”
Regular performer, Jeffrey Straker, commented on the social media post about the fire that he hoped everyone was okay, and, "it’s so sad. [The Happy Nun Cafe was] THEE venue and gathering place of south Saskatchewan. Such a storied place."