Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 15, 2003
Polish parish provides oasis
After Soviet Gulag, Holy Rosary was a sanctuary of faith
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
In a narrow clutch of undergrowth beside a tiny tree, a tattered 14-year-old Maria Romanko hid from armed soldiers patrolling a barren labour camp hundreds of kilometres inside the Russian wilderness.
Once forced to barter clothing in -40 C weather to help feed her parents and two brothers, the Polish exile knew if she were found she could be shot.
Now 78, Romanko, the archivist of the Holy Rosary Parish, which celebrated its 90th anniversary Sept. 7, could not help but remember those moments as a frightened child while Archbishop Thomas Collins spoke of how it is possible to find an oasis in any desert.
"There was a little tree in the gulag that was secluded. I could hide there and pray. It became like a little church for me," she said. "If we wanted comfort from our religion we had to do it in hiding.
"I remember before we escaped, I went there and I said a special prayer and a special goodbye."
Romanko estimated that one summer she witnessed the death of 1,000 people from typhoid, none of whom had the solace of a priest. What comfort the healthy could provide was done in the strictest secrecy.
"My little brother used to stand outside our barrack of nearly 2,000 people watching for the policemen," she said who, along with her husband Aleksander, moved to Edmonton 47 years ago. They would eventually settle in St. Albert.
"It was very difficult because Polish people do value religion. It is a very important part of our lives. From all this to come here to find a Polish community in prayer and all the holy pictures, we could share our feelings and experiences. There was consolation," she said.
"Finding such hell there, can you imagine what it was like when we came here?"
Grateful to the Polish Catholic forefathers who chose to establish ministry in Edmonton at the turn of the 20th century, Romanko volunteers her time to help preserve their memory.
"I feel our pioneers put so much effort and love and prayer in their work, they should not be forgotten," she said. "You can't imagine how hard they worked."
Barely 20 Polish families lived in Edmonton in 1898 when Father Wojciech Kulawy arrived from Winnipeg. He was the first of three brothers - Wojciech, Jan and Pawel - to come to Canada. In the early 1920s they returned to Poland to help establish the Polish province of the Oblates before Jan and Pawel were killed in 1941 at Auschwitz.
On Oct. 27, 1911, the journey to build a Polish church began. The founding group, including Father Pawel Kulawy, discovered a stipulation that 100 families were required to establish a church in the Edmonton area. Yet, they had a name already in mind since October is the month of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Father Pawel eventually received permission from Bishop Emile Legal in 1912 to build the church on Church land at 95A Street and 113th Avenue.
On New Year's Day 1913, Father Pawel celebrated the first Mass in the new Polish church. On Aug. 1 the church was canonically erected as the spiritual centre for Polish people in Edmonton and area.
The following year, a house was purchased as a rectory and in 1917, Oblate Father Antoni Sylla arrived and served the surrounding area of Polish missions. For 20 years Masses were said only monthly. This motivated Father Pawel to help form the Polish Canadian Society to maintain the Polish language and culture.
A wave of soldiers immigrating to the area after the Second World War raised the Polish population to 5,600. A decision was then made to build a new, larger church.
By 1959, construction was completed, but without a tower. Just two years later, Edmonton's oldest Polish Catholic church, Holy Rosary Parish at 11485-106 St., was completed.
"It was a sanctuary for us from all of the suffering that we went through in Russia," Romanko said. "It's a place you come and feel safe. You feel nourished. You stopped feeling lonely and lost in a cruel world as we were when we were young."
The stories and traditions passed down to Romanko and she, in turn, to the youth today have left an indelible mark on Ewa Jasiukiewicz.
Born in Poland, the 19-year-old came to Edmonton with her parents in 1990.
The first-year pharmaceutical sciences student at the U of A blends the documented struggles of others with her own aspirations for the future.
"To me, the oasis is like our own paradise - our church, our joy and our community coming together for us to share. It's an extension of our faith," she said.
"I'm certain it has changed quite a bit. When the pioneers came and set up the church they had to face different social and political hardships than us.
"But it is still difficult to profess your faith. It strengthens you and gives you inspiration to see people profess the same faith as you."
Jasiukiewicz is a member of the five-person Bethlehem Youth Group that sings at special occasions. She belongs to a larger Polish youth group which when translated, means "What Church means to me."
"We can't change the world but we can do little things like how we treat others, what we say and what we do.
"Especially during Christmas, we serve at nursing homes. It's a joyous time of year and many of the elderly often don't have families who can come and visit them. So we come out and socialize and perform plays, like the scenes of the Nativity.
"I think it's just one of the ways of taking the oasis the archbishop talked about and spreading the joy into other parts of our community."
Perhaps the forefathers would be pleased to know their prayers have been realized and remain alive in the hearts of so many.