Czechs in Kalyna Country

The Story of the Prague District

The Austro-Hungarian Empire provided a large number of immigrants to Western Canada, among them not only Austrians, Hungarians and Germans, but many Ukrainians, Poles, Slovaks, Croats and other Slavs. One of the more unusual settlements in Kalyna Country was a small colony founded by Czechs, who had the further distinction of being “second generation” Czech Americans who immigrated to east central Alberta from the United States.

Although local histories sometimes mention “Czechoslovakians” as having homesteaded in several districts north and east of Edmonton, in most cases it was Slovaks, rather than Czechs, who formed these compact communities. Since Slovakia was generally poorer and less developed than Bohemia and Moravia, it was a more common source of immigrants to North America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Further complicating matters was the misleading practice of identifying Czechs and Slovaks until 1918 by which part of the empire they came from rather than their ethnicity, with the former being officially classified as “Austrians,” and the latter as “Hungarians” – despite the fact that both were Slavic peoples. Finally, after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Czechs and Slovaks were united in the state of Czechoslovakia (spelled with a hyphen until 1923), giving the impression of being a single nation notwithstanding the many linguistic, cultural and historic differences between the two neighbouring groups living side-by-side for centuries in the heart of central east Europe. Of course, in the wake of  the collapse of the Soviet Union, pent-up political tensions between the two nations came to the surface and unleashed a growing movement for independence among the Slovaks. In 1993, it was decided to peacefully separate into independent states, so that today there is a distinct Czech Republic and a Slovak one.

A noteworthy reference to an early Czech inhabitant of Kalyna Country can be found in an 1897 travelogue authored by Rev. Nestor Dmytriw, the first Ukrainian Catholic priest to visit Canada. Writing about the short stay that he made in Fort Saskatchewan en route to the Ukrainian colony at Edna-Star, Fr. Dmytriw reported the following:

A mounted police detachment is stationed there, and a Czech policeman, Mr. Knavreki (a subscriber to Svoboda), is very useful to our people, since he understands our language. Besides safeguarding against mistreatment by the local German farmers and Englishmen, he acts as an interpreter for our people and for the lawsuits that our Galician litigants are so ready to plunge into.

Gratefully describing constable Knavreki as “an honest Czech” who stood up for poor Ukrainian immigrants, Dmtyriw nevertheless proceeded to castigate some of his own countrymen for having resorted to begging in town. Where Knavreki was from or what became of him is unknown, but being an educated and worldly Ukrainian Dmytriw would certainly have known that he was a Czech and not a Slovak.

Be that as it may, within a few short years of Dmytriw’s visit a Czech farming community had been established roughly 10-12 miles southwest of the modern-day town of Viking. Interestingly, the homesteaders did not come directly from their homeland, but from a settlement that they had called Prague, in Oklahoma, due east of the state capital. By 1904, there were a sufficient number of them to obtain a land grant for a church, which they constructed in 1906 and dedicated to St. John Nepomucene (c.1340-1393), the principal patron of Bohemia and a graduate of the University of Prague. That same year, the mostly Czech-American settlers also erected a one-room school, naming it Prague in honour of the ancient Czech capital. Although it burned down in 1910, a new school was built to replace it the following year, and served the community until being closed because of centralization in 1956.

The first Prague church likewise had to be rebuilt when it, too, was destroyed by a fire in 1910. It was subsequently remodeled and enlarged in 1922, to better meet the needs created by the arrival of a small number of additional Czech immigrants after the First World War – who this time came directly from Europe. Of course, the congregation always included a few Poles and other Roman Catholics, and it was served by priests of various nationalities, since Czech clergymen were relatively few in number in North America. By 1949 the congregation had outgrown the second Prague church, and thus a third, even more impressive sanctuary was erected. The last regular mass was said at the church in 1985, by which time membership was dwindling due to the effects of rural depopulation. It is now only used on an occasional basis.

A post office and a store in the district once also bore the name of Prague, where in 1939 the Prague hall was constructed across the road from the church. The hall was for many years the hub of social life in the community, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Prague Catholic Women’s League.

Researched and written by Jars Balan