Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 14, 2004
Nisku rings in centennial
Parish gives thanks for 100 years of happy memories
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
More than a century ago, a group of Polish settlers came to Rabbit Hill to work the land and make a life for themselves and their families.
Their faith was important to them so they decided to build a little log church to worship the God who made their lives possible.
On June 6, some 250 people filled the little Holy Trinity Church to pay tribute to these visionary settlers and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their parish.
Ernest Sarnecki, grandson of the first Polish couple to arrive in the area, led the daylong celebration, which included a centennial Mass at the Nisku church and a banquet at Devon's community centre.
Also present at the events were Karoline Kucharski, 100, who was born just a few months before her small Polish community built its first church, and Walter Halwa, 85, whose grandfather, Jendzy Halwa, was among the three founders of the parish.
Celebrants at the Mass included Archbishop Thomas Collins and Fathers Richard Bednar, Ted Wesolowski and Enzo Agnoli.
Fred Kofin sang in Polish during the service and Bill Peel and his son Jaret, 27, also descendants of the original settlers, rang the church bell 100 times to mark the centennial. The offertory was brought by direct descendants of the settlers who lobbied the bishop of St. Albert for a parish in 1901 and who obtained the land to build the church.
In his homily, the archbishop invited the congregation to reflect on their history and their Christian commitment.
"A centennial is a time to reflect and to think of the past, but also to think of our present commitments of service to God in our daily lives," he said. "I think it is good to reflect on the great mystery of our faith on this feast of the Holy Trinity and of course in a very particular way on the parish of the Holy Trinity on this its 100th anniversary. This is a time to stop, look and listen and reflect upon the foundations of our faith."
In an interview, Ernest Sarnecki and his wife Mary recalled the beginning of their parish, now a mission of Leduc's St. Michael's Parish.
Ernest's grandfather, Stanislaw Sarnecki, was the first Polish pioneer to arrive in the Rabbit Hill area in 1897. He invited others to come and a year later 18 other families came. "They named him the Moses of Rabbit Hill because he led the people from the land of want to the land of plenty," said Mary Sarnecki, who has researched the local history.
The settlers requested a Mass and the bishop of St. Albert, Vital Grandin, invited Oblate Father Wojciech Kulawy to visit the community. Kulawy celebrated the first Polish Mass in Alberta at the home of Stanislaw and Victoria Sarnecki Aug. 15, 1898, the feast of the Assumption.
"They were so happy they had a priest that understood them," Mary recalled. "That was so important to them."
The settlers had to wait until Easter 1899 for Kulawy to celebrate another Mass - again in the Sarnecki home.
Kulawy's brothers, Oblate Fathers John and Paul Kulawy, soon joined the missionary priest in ministering to the various Polish settlements in Alberta and Saskatchewan. But they could only celebrate two or three Masses a year in each of the settlements because it would take them a whole month to travel by horse and buggy from settlement to settlement.
The Rabbit Hill settlers wanted regular services and decided to lobby Grandin for their own church. In 1901 three settlers - Stanislaw Sarnecki, Jan Chamulka and Jendzy Halwa - travelled to St. Albert to speak to the bishop. Grandin agreed to their request.
One hundred years ago the settlers built the first church on a 40-acre parcel of land given to them by the crown. It was a log cabin of sorts called St. Stanislaus Chapel.
The congregation soon outgrew the chapel and so a second one, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was built in 1915. When it burned to the ground 15 years later, Holy Trinity Church was built on the original site in 1934.
The 40-family parish has been closed for Sunday services, except funerals and weddings, since it merged with Leduc in 2001. That doesn't sit right with Ernest Sarnecki, a parishioner since he was born in 1935. "The closing of this church is like a death," he said. "These old-timers came with nothing, except their faith, and now they are closing these churches."
But the Sarneckis and other members of the parish are not prepared to let go of Holy Trinity and are praying that the vocations situation improves so their parish can reopen.
"We continue to be involved in the church because of the heritage," Mary Sarnecki said, noting that many parishioners continue to donate large sums of money to pay utilities and to maintain the building and the cemetery. Some parishioners volunteer to mow the grass and to clean up the site on weekends.
Every time there is a Mass or a special function the church is packed with up to 175 people, most of whom stay for four hours afterwards socializing, the Sarneckis noted. "This is a very active parish," Ernest said. "We should not be closed."
Despite her being bound to a wheelchair, Karoline Kucharski said she couldn't stay away from the centennial of her parish. She was born in Poland in 1903 and joined the Rabbit Hill area parish as soon as she arrived in the area in 1928.
She married her husband Frank in the church a year later and raised her four children in the parish. "It feels good to be able to attend this celebration," she said at the banquet surrounded by three of her children. "I feel very blessed."
Kucharski's daughter Marcella recalls travelling by horse and buggy to the church for Sunday Mass and catechism classes. "It was a lot of fun," she said. "We never missed a Mass." The reason? Her grandfather William Kucharski was the church organist.
Walter Halwa, descendant of one parish founder, was born 14 km away from the church and never missed Mass either. "There was always a good community atmosphere," the wheelchair-bound man recalled. "We all wanted to come to the church."
He met his wife Leona at a dance in Calmar and married her in the little church in 1948. Their four children were all baptized and confirmed in the same church. Some of them married there too.
"I only have good memories of this church," Halwa said. "This is a vibrant church and I think it should stay open. Any parish that has the support of the community should stay open."
Close to 350 people attended the centennial banquet at Devon.