Poles in Kalyna Country

From Krakow, Poland, to Krakow, Alberta: Kalyna Country’s Polish Connections

Poland has a long history of providing immigrants to North America, with some individuals probably finding their way to Canada as early as the second half of the eighteenth century. Certainly, a number of Poles are known to have taken part in the expeditions to Manitoba’s Red River colony in 1815 and 1817, when the West was just being opened to settlement. However, it is thought that the first Pole to visit the future province of Alberta was a man named Charles G. Horetzky (Karol Horecki), of Polish-Scottish parentage, who was a member of Sir Sandford Fleming’s historic 1872 survey for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The earliest Poles to permanently settle in Alberta were Stanisław Banach, a native of Poznań, and his wife, Maria, who arrived in Strathcona with their family in 1895. They were followed later the same year by Maria’s parents, Michael and Catherine Smigiel, as well as a sister and brother-in-law, who relocated to Canada from Washington State. All took out homesteads in Central Alberta, with Stanisław and Maria eventually joining other newly arrived Polish immigrants who settled in the Round Hill district between Tofield and Camrose.

The next Polish settlers to come to what were then known as the Northwest Territories were several families that emigrated from villages in Czortków (now Chortkiv) county, Galicia, in 1896 and filed for homesteads near the present-day hamlet of St. Michael. More small groups followed in 1897, with some settling southwest of Edmonton at Rabbit Hill and Nisku, and others pioneering in the Skaro district to the northeast. By 1899, the Skaro colony consisted of eleven Polish families, notable among them being Jan and Katarzyna Wachowicz – the grandparents of Allan and Edward Wachowich, who became distinguished Alberta judges.

Additional Polish communities were subsequently established in Kalyna Country around the turn of the century. These included the north Beaverlake district, as the Mundare area was originally known, and Chipman and Waugh. At the same time Polish settlements also took root in Round Hill and Kopernick, immediately south of Beaver County. Although still other Polish enclaves eventually developed in different parts of rural Alberta, it was the area within a 120 km radius of Edmonton that became the cradle of Polonia in Alberta, especially the historic settlements in Kalyna Country.

Because of the way that Poland had been partitioned and the restrictive emigration laws in the parts under Prussian and Russian rule, most of the Polish immigrants to Canada in the pioneer era came from the Austro-Hungarian crownland of Galicia. A territory of some 78,000 sq. kms, in the 1880s Galicia’s population was approximately 46% Polish and almost 43% Ukrainian, with the former being heavily concentrated in the west, and the latter being numerically dominant in the east – though parts of each region had villages inhabited by both groups.

The exact distribution and size of the pre-World War One Polish community in Kalyna Country is difficult to precisely determine because the identities of many former citizens of Austro-Hungarian Galicia were frequently blurred. Thus, besides ethnic Poles, some of the immigrants who settled in Kalyna Country were Polonized or Polish-speaking Ukrainians who came from villages in the mostly Polish part of western Galicia; others were intermarried couples or descendants of blended Polish-Ukrainian families; and still others were Ukrainians who had converted to Latin Rite Catholicism and were regarded as “Poles” by Greek Catholic Ukrainians, even though they continued to mostly speak Ukrainian. The fact that many of the homesteaders were peasants with little education meant that they sometimes had only vague notions of their nationality, moving unselfconsciously between languages and cultures. Indeed, some of the Polish immigrants to east central Alberta were much more comfortable speaking Ukrainian rather than Polish – having come from Polish villages in the midst of the predominantly Ukrainian areas of Galicia – and thus easily assimilated with their Ukrainian neighbours. Regardless, by the early part of the twentieth century there was a distinct and vibrant Polish presence in several districts of Kalyna Country.

The first Polish Catholic priests to visit their kinsmen and co-religionists in rural east central Alberta were the Oblate missionary brothers, Wojciech (Adalbert) and Jan (John) Kulawy. The former initially made a month-long trip to the province from his missionary base in Winnipeg in August 1898. He first celebrated Mass at the Roman Catholic chapel in Strathcona for a few Poles working in town while on his way to see some countrymen who had settled at Rabbit Hill, where he also said a Mass in Polish. Fr. Wojciech returned again on 18 March 1899, and on that occasion spent six days in the Star area, administering twelve baptisms and celebrating Masses at the homes of both Polish and Ukrainian farmers. The next to come was Rev. Jan Kulawy, who had a mission to the Beaverhill Creek and north Beaverlake settlements lasting several days in September 1899, but afterwards rejoined his brother in Manitoba. Several years later, the youngest of the Kulawy brothers, Paweł, assumed a long-term pastoral position in Alberta,

Ed Banach and Sam Boychuk moved me from Round Hill with Stan’s truck. I had some ideas about the parish but not very much. At my first mass on Sunday, Josephine Banach, my housekeeper, said, ‘Gee, you had a lot of Ukrainians this morning for mass.’ She heard them all speak Ukrainian so she thought that’s what they were. I said they were all Poles but didn’t know the Polish language, just Ukrainian. They all immigrated from Sloludka in Poland. dutifully serving the Polish faithful, as well as some Ukrainians, from 1903 to 1921. During this time Fr. Paweł spent from 1907 to 1915 at Round Hill, where he oversaw the organization of the Kulawy School District and provided spiritual care to Polish settlers scattered throughout central and other parts of Alberta. He also served at St. Michael. Tragically, both Jan and Paweł Kulawy eventually returned to Poland, and were killed at Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1941.

In the meantime, the first Polish priest to take up permanent residence in Alberta was Franciszek (Francis) Olszewski, who studied theology and philosophy in Turin, Italy but completed his seminary training in St. Albert, where he was formally ordained on 6 January 1900. Immediately afterwards, Olszewski took a homestead northwest of Mundare in what he then named the “Krakow” district, after the medieval Polish capital. It was there, in 1902, that Fr. Olszewski built a large, multipurpose two-storey structure that served as a private boarding school, convent, chapel and office for his mission. Dedicated to St. Kasimir, the chapel was the focus of the first Polish Catholic parish to be established in the province of Alberta. A freestanding church was subsequently erected on Fr. Olszewski’s Krakow homestead around 1905-1906 after the original chapel in the school could no longer accommodate all of its faithful worshippers. It too, was eventually replaced by the present-day Church of the Precious Blood, built in 1934-1935 and boasting an altar painted by the renowned Ukrainian artist, Peter Lipiniski.

Meanwhile, by 1901 Polish farmers in the original Wostok area had started to construct a chapel at the future St. Michael townsite, which was finally completed in 1905 and consecrated in the name of St. John Kantius the following year. However, it was soon outgrown and replaced in 1915 by a much more spacious and impressive church, erected with the encouragement of Fr. Paweł Kulawy and served by Polish priests until in 1959. Although intended to be dedicated to the Sacred Heart, when it was formally consecrated during a visitation by the Roman Catholic Archbishop in 1922, it was blessed in honour of St. Michael the Archangel, the patron preferred by parishioners. In 1928 the modern-day hamlet established on the CPR line south of the church was also given the name St. Michael at the request of local inhabitants.

A similar pattern was repeated at nearby Skaro, where in 1904 Polish settlers built a small, functional church that they utilized until a larger one took its place in 1917. This second church, which like the original chapel was dedicated by Bishop Émile Legal to Our Lady of Good Counsel (at a service held on 15 August 1918 and attended by the almost a thousand worshippers), was dismantled in 1959 and succeeded by the current sanctuary, completed in the fall of 1960. On the same property, south of the church, is the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, at the intersection of Hwy 45 and Secondary Highway 831. It was constructed in 1919, on the initiative of Fr. Anthony Sylla, by both Polish and Ukrainian Catholic volunteers working under the direction of the renowned architect priest, Fr. Philip Ruh. To this day, the shrine is the focus of a popular pilgrimage that annually draws thousands of worshippers on 14-15 August.

In 1904 the Poles who settled at Round Hall likewise began work on a church, but it was leveled by high winds just before it was finished. Undaunted, the settlers modified their original plan and successfully rebuilt the sanctuary, which was first used in April 1905 and solemnly consecrated in honour of St. Stanislaus by Bishop Legal in July 1907. This parish provided the base from which Fr. Paweł Kulawy tirelessly conducted his missionary work. One of the colonies that he served was in nearby Kopernick, between Holden and Daysland, where a church dedicated to St. John Nepomucene, a Bohemian saint, was completed in 1907. Known as the “Polska” church, when the first chapel was superseded by a larger place of worship in 1917, it was consecrated in honour of St. John the Baptist.

In 1905 another small sanctuary was built by Polish settlers four miles southwest of the newly-established town of Mundare. Known as the “Dombrowa Church,” it was abandoned in 1924 after Our Lady of Perpetual Help had been erected in Mundare to better serve the needs of local Roman Catholics. A cemetery with forty-three graves are all that remain at the location of the former Dombrowa log church.

Finally, yet another chapel was erected by the Polish pioneers of Kalyna Country near Waugh, where the first Polish settler was Gregory Zadujanski, a native of Husiatyń County in Galicia. The first Mass was served at what is now known as “Our Lady of Mount Carmel” church in 1908, though the interior wasn’t finished until 1913. As in many cases, it was the church that provided the foundation for Polish cultural and organizational life, which in Waugh centred on a parish hall constructed in 1919.

In addition to the districts mentioned above, Poles also settled in smaller numbers in other parts of Kalyna Country, including Eldorena, Radway, Opal, Egremont, Thorhild and the Newbrook area – where the Wisla School District (established in 1931) was named after the famous Polish river. Another cluster of Poles developed around Vilna, and further east at Flat Lake, north of St. Paul. And Polish farmers could also be found in other towns and districts, such as Derwent, Haight, and around Ryley, Holden and Viking. In some of these communities they joined forces and built churches with English, Irish, German, Slovak, Czech and French Catholic settlers, being insufficiently strong to form entirely Polish congregations themselves. These, as well as the mostly Polish congregations were served by both Polish and non-Polish priests, some of the latter acquiring a functional grasp of the language to be better able to communicate with their Slavic parishioners. Although a few Polish newcomers settled among their kinsmen in Kalyna Country during the interwar years, they were not enough to reverse the gradual weakening of many Polish settlements in rural east central Alberta after the mid-1900s.

One of the more remarkable connections between Poland and Kalyna Country was through the late Pope John Paul II, a friend of Monsignor Jósef Kochan – a Polish priest who grew up near the city of Krakow but got to know the future pope while he was ministering to Polish miners in Belgium after the Second World War. Fr. Kochan served several Roman Catholic congregations in Smoky Lake and Thorhild counties from the 1960s through the 1980s, and kept in touch with the late Karol Wojtiła after he first became a Cardinal and then Pope.

Also, in 1966, Cardinal Wojtiła came to Edmonton on the invitation of Fr. Stanley Wachowich – the first Canadian-born Polish priest in Western Canada – to help celebrate the millennium of Poland’s conversion to Christianity. Fr. Stanley, who born in Skaro to Jan and Katarzyna Wachowicz, had met the future pontiff in Poland shortly after the war and impressed him with his command of Polish. During his stay in Edmonton, Fr. Wachowicz took Cardinal Wojtiła to Jasper on a side-trip in a Thunderbird that he borrowed from one of his nephews. Of course, it is also worth mentioning that during his memorable 1984 visit to Alberta, the late Pope spent an afternoon enjoying Elk Island National Park, being a great lover of nature. That same year, a Bible School that opened in Radway was named in his honour.

Researched and written by Jars Balan.


Kobos, Andrzej M. and Jolanta T. Pękacz (eds.). Polonia in Albnerta 1985-1995: The Polish Centennial in Alberta. Edmonton: Polish Centennial Society, Canadian Polish Congress, Alberta Branch, 1995.

Kobos, Andrzej, M. (ed.). Memoirs of Fr. Anthony Sylla: Sketches on Early Polish Settlements and the Polish Roman Catholic Church in Western Canada. Toronto: Missionary Oblates of  Mary Immaculate Province, 1997.

Martejko, Joanna (ed.). Polish Settlers in Alberta. Toronto: Polish Alliance Press, 1979.

Zenko, Reverend Stanley. “The Changing Times.” Unpublished mss.


#1  The first Poles to settle at Round Hill were the family of Joe Starchecki, who arrived on 19 August 1901. Zenko, p. 216.

 #2 Jan Wachowicz was born 23 June 1855 in the village of Trybuchivci, Buchach (Buczacz) district, Galicia, where his wife Katarzyna was born on 25 November 1859. They has six children upon arrival at Halifax on 21 March 1897 aboard the S.S. Scotsman. After the family spent one year in North Dakota, they filed for a homestead on 8 April 1899 at SE 25-56-20 W4,  northeast of present day Star and south of Highway 45. Family members ended up spelling their last name three different ways. Edward R. Wachowich is the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta.  

 #3 Information from a translated Polish-language article by Bronislaw Gustawicz reproduced on www.pgsa.or/Towns/galicia.htm. The Poles who settled Kalyna Country came from some of the following Galician districts: Czortków (Chortkiv), Jaroslaw, Buczacz (Buchach), Husiatyń (Husiatyn), Zbaraź (Zbararzh) and Mościska, east of Przemyśl (Peremyshl). The Ukrainian spellings of the names are given in brackets.

#4 The Ukrainian term for Ukrainian converts to Roman Catholicism is “Latynyky,” or “Latinists.” In his memoirs, Rev. Stanley Zenko makes the following interesting observation: “The first Polish settlers called themselves Poles but actually they all spoke Ukrainian because they came from certain parts of Galicia where the Ukrainian language surpassed that of Polish.” P. 192. In another part of his manuscript, he relates how: “On September 16, 1945 I was appointed pastor of St. Michael with missions in Skaro, Derwent and Opal. All people spoke Ukrainian, no Polish at all and yet they claimed to be real Poles.

#5  Writing about the decision of Poles to build their own church in Mundare, Fr. Anthony Sylla observed the following: “The Ukrainian Fathers built a large church in the village and had regular services in it since 1910. The Polish people were asking themselves, ‘Is it not possible to have a church for us, too?’ Moreover, it was necessary to have a Polish parish organization, because there was a danger that the Poles would be ‘swallowed’ by the Ukrainians who were in majority. The Poles were friendly to the Ukrainians, they spoke Ukrainian and they married Ukrainians. If there would have been no Polish church in the village, the Polish people would attend the Greek Catholic services and change from the Latin rite to the Greek rite. Some people favoured the idea and said openly that there was no necessity to build a Polish church.” Sylla Memoirs, p. 310.

#6  Fr. W. Kulawy arrived in Alberta on 9 August 1898. The service at the Strathcona chapel can likely be regarded as the first to be conducted in Polish in the future province of Alberta. Fr. Wojciech then celebrated a Polish Mass at the Rabbit Hill home of Stanislaw and Wiktoria Sarnecki on the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 15 August, a service that was also attended by some local Ukrainians. He celebrated another Mass in the Sarnecki home in March 1899, when he heard confessions and officiated at sixteen bapisms. See Seipert, Debbie Anne (Sarnecki), “Follow Me, Stanisław Sarnecki, ‘The Moses of Rabbit Hill’,” in Polonia in Alberta, p. 42.

#7 Two of the Masses that Fr. Wojciech celebrated were at the residences of Fedor Melnyk and Michael Pullishy, both of whom subsequently ended up as supporters of the Russian Orthodox side in the controversy over the Star church. Fr. Kulawy also stayed with Fedor Melnyk for one night.

#8  Fr. Jan Kulawy was accompanied on his mission by Fr. Franciszek Olszewski, then a seminarian at St. Albert. P. 87. He celebrated several Masses at the homes of area farmers, among them a Ukrainian settler, Ivan Danchuk, whose homestead was west of Old Wostok, and at the log cabin of Gregory (Grzegorz) Skulski, a mile and a half from the future Krakow church. Fr. Olszewski said his first Mass at the home of Peter Seniuk, a Ukrainian farmer, married to a Polish woman, whose homestead was a mile and a half south of the Krakow property. Fr. Olszewski lived with the Seniuk family for a year and half until he was able to move into his own accommodations. Zenko, p. 88; Sylla, 321.

#9 According to Rev. Zenko’s memoirs, Fr. Pawel Kulawy joined Fr. Olszewski in Alberta in January 1904. P. 87. 

#10  Fr. Pawel Kulawy left for Poland on 7 June 1921. Zenko, p. 197.

 #11 Franciszek Olszewski (1869-1955) was born in Krzepice, Poland, not far from Czestochowa, in the Prussian sector of partitioned Poland. He is said to have decided to leave Alberta in 1910 because his rheumatism was making it difficult for him to work, though in his manuscript notes Anthony Sylla suggests that the headstrong Olszewski was asked to leave Alberta after he had clashed with Bishop Legal over his running of the convent and school. Regardless, Fr. Francis next helped to establish a Polish settlement in Fried, North Dakota, where he hoped the climate would be more conducive to his health. He also knew the Poles in the USA were generally wealthier, and better able to support his missionary endeavours. (See Sylla, pp. 321, 327 and 332 n. 9.)  Returning briefly to sell his property to a Pole from Edmonton (Henry Dressler), he departed again for North Dakota, along with the sisters, in the fall of 1911. Fr. Olszewski was replaced by a non-Polish speaking priest, Fr. Denis, O.F.M., who served from 11 May 1912 until 21 June 1914, when he left for France to take a position as a chaplain in the French army. Fr. Denis never came back to Canada. Following his departure, Fr. Anthony Sylla took over beginning 19 March 1917, and staying until 1921. In the meantime, Fr. P. Kulawy also assisted in ministering to the needs of all the Polish settlers in Lamont County during this time. Zenko, p. 197. Fr. Olszewski came back to Krakow in July 1918, and apparently was interested in remaining, but instead returned once more to the United States. He eventually died in New Cumberland. Zenko, p. 93.  

 #12 Zenko, p. 89. See the photos  of the convent-school and the church in Polonia in Alberta, pp. 10-11.

#13  The chapel was also used on occasion by Ukrainians, including Fr. Filas of the Basilian mission. The school was run privately, mostly for the children of Polish settlers, but ceased operations after it was destroyed by fire and public schools were opened nearby. One of these was the Swit (Świt) School District No. 1491, situated north of Hilliard. Organized on 10 May 1906, it was named after the word for “dawn” or “daybreak” in Polish. In Ukrainian “svit” means “world,” but as the area north of Hilliard was settled partly by Poles, it is more likely the school name was derived from Polish. The “convent” was a new order ambitiously started by Fr. Olszewski for local girls. He named the congregation “Auxiliaries of the Apostolate.” Because he was unable to provide proper training and supervision for the novitiates, who took their vows after a year of living in the convent, Olszewski eventually arranged for them to come under the care of the sisters of the “Faithful Companion of Jesus” in Edmonton, where they could obtain an education at St. Mary’s Catholic School. Zenko, pp. 89-92. 

#14  The convent-school was razed by fire in the summer of 1910, which unfortunately destroyed all of the parish records. The school was never revived (though it was apparently rebuilt), due to the fact that public schools had in meantime been successfully established in the district. Sylla, p. 327. Zenko P. 92.

 #15 The chapel was consecrated by Bishop Legal on 18 December 1906. Zenko, p. 193. Two men named Paul Jankowski and Alexander Twardowski were hired for $70 to serve as head carpenters, directing the labour of volunteers. Logs for sanctuary were apparently hauled to the site and squared off beginning 1901, but work proceeded so slowly that settlers in the Skaro area decided to build their own sanctuary instead of waiting for this church to be finished. Sylla, p. 293.

 #16 The church was constructed under the supervision of an experienced French Canadian carpenter, Michel Dufrène of Edmonton. Sylla, p. 294.

#17  Inside St. Michael the Archangel church are icons of St. John Kantius and St. Michael the Archangel, as well as a ceiling icon depicting the Holy Trinity, painted by Peter Lipinski in 1925. A statue of the Sacred Heart represents what is technically still regarded as the primary Patron Saint of the parish. Sylla, pp. 296, 303, 304.

#18  Skaro was visited by Fr. W. Kulawy on 29 March 1899. The first Skaro church was blessed on 5 July 1904. Zenko, op cit, pp. 90, 226-227. Three acres of land for the church were donated by Matthew Huculak, on the site where his son had been killed. The second Skaro church, completed on 30 September 1917 for a cost of $5,000, was built by volunteers working under the direction a hired master carpenter, Mr. Shrojel, from Edmonton.

#19  The Round Hill church was originally to be dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel. St. Stanislau was a martyred bishop of Krakow. See “St. Stanislaus,” Salute the Pioneers: Round Hill and District, p. 55.

 #20 The arrival of Fr. Kulawy permitted Fr. Olszewski to concentrate his efforts on serving the Poles in the Beaver Creek area, while Kulawy worked among those further south. The St. John the Baptist church was blessed by Bishop Legal on 6 July 1907. Zenko, p. 219.

 #21 Kulawy also served the Hay Lakes-Bittern community, further east, where Poles built a church in 1908-1910. Constructed jointly by Ukrainians and Poles, the two groups went there separate ways shortly after it was completed, when the former began holding services in local homes. Eventually the Ukrainians built their own church, dedicated to the Holy Cross, which was started in 1921 and completed in 1929.  Sylla, p. 190-191. See also Each Step Left its Mark: A History of Hay Lakes and Surrounding Area, pp. 13-18, 

#22 Polonia, pp. 13-14, 52; Scylla, 343-351. There was another Mount Carmel church near Viking. See Zenko mss, p. 267. The church was originally dedicated to St. Jadwiga (St. Hedwig) and then to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, whose feast day on 8 September was celebrated by large crowds of both Poles and Ukrainians.

 #23 Spelled Wisła in Polish, and sometimes Vistula in English.

 #24 Polish-speakers were not always happy with the priest they received if they spoke little or no Polish.

 #25 See In Search of Greener Pastures: A History of Radway and Area. Volume One, pp. 256, 278; and Polish Settlers in Alberta, pp. 42, 248-249, 254. 

#26  See “Judge recalls long-ago meeting with future pope,” in the Edmonton Journal, 3 April 2005, p. A10.

 #27  See “A life for the ages,” the editorial in the Edmonton Journal on Sunday 3 April 2005, p. A. 12. The article mentions that the Pope had originally hoped to make a quick return visit to Jasper by helicopter, but when he was prevented from doing so by strong winds, a trip was instead arranged to Elk Island National Park by Archbishop Joseph MacNeil.  As recalled by the latter: “He never forgot that… I’d see him years afterwards, and he’d say, ‘How are the buffalo?’” There is a fabulous Vatican Pool photo of the Pope sitting on a bench in Elk Island accompanying the article.