Memoirs of Fr Anthony Sylla OMI
Sketches on early Polish Settlements and the Polish Roman Catholic Church in Western Canada
History enlighten our roots and so helps us to understand our identity. Immigrants have contributed to the transformations of Canada. In the last century they came from different parts of the world, especially from Europe. Many of them were Slavic origin like Polish and Ukrainian.
In their difficult immersion they found the assistance of some priests of the same origin, like Father Anthony Sylla OMI. This Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, born in Poland, welcomed many immigrants, visiting them in different parts of Western Canada, encouraging them in their difficulties, serving them as a priest. He knew well both the immigrants and the society into which they were received. For these reasons the memoirs of Fr. Sylla are an important source of knowledge and understanding of both the history of the immigrants and the development of Western Canada, especially Alberta.
Rev. Marcello Zago OMI
In 1841 St. Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, sent a few of his missionaries to Canada, primarily to evangelize the native peoples. To this end the Oblates quickly moved far beyond the boundaries of Lower Canada, making their way to Red River and eventually to the Pacific coast.
The mission of the Oblates, however, was not limited to the people of the first nations. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, answering the famous invitation of Sr. Clifford Sifton, Canadian Minister of Interior, countless landless farmers from Eastern Europe arrived in Western Canada in search of a better future. They arrived in a strange land with little more than a dream of bread for their families and freedom from an oppressive past. The Oblates soon reached out to them with the helpful message of the gospel and the spiritual support of the Church.
By the 1895 the number of immigrants from Galicia and other parts of Europe was so large that they spread from Winnipeg all the way to the Rocky Mountains. It was at this time that the three Oblates – Wojciech, Jan and Pawel Kulawy – began to minister to these immigrants, many of whom were of Polish descent. In 1898 Fr. Wojciech and Jan Kulawy organized a parish in Winnipeg and build Holy Ghost Church which would serve immigrants of many nationalities. By the late 1890s the Kulawy brothers reached immigrant settlement as far as Alberta.
It is a fascinating period in Canadian history. The heroic efforts of these pioneers, their relationship, dreams and values made a profound and lasting impact on Canadian society. Unfortunately, historical sources on early Eastern European immigration to Western Canada in general and to Alberta in particular, are not all that plentiful. If one narrows the scope of focus to immigrants of Polish descent, one is left with a few documents, records and private dealing with particular local communities and families histories.
One of the only comprehensive and detailed accounts of the beginnings and early years Polish immigrants to Alberta (1895-1926) and of the role of the Roman Catholic Church and the Oblates in this context are contained in the extensive handwritten manuscript of the Memoirs of Fr. Anthony Sylla OMI (1881-1978), a missionary to the immigrants of Western Canada in the early twentieth century. Father Sylla listed attentively to the experiences of the Kulawy brothers and scrupulously recorded in his notes much of their pastoral activity in Western Canada. His Memoirs also include eyewitness accounts of, and reflection on, his own missionary work. The text is documented by photographs the majority of which were taken by Fr. Sylla.
The Memoirs offer the reader a look at the struggles and joys of a people who braved this harsh climate and hard land of Western Canada and at their unfailing faith and dedication to the Church. They offer us a rare look into missionary heart, open to the service of God’s people. In the text that follows we encounter a man of deep faith, great compassion and love. His story opens us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those whose story is often overlook by students of history.
Up to now Fr. Sylla’s Memoirs were being stored in our archives. A few short highly edited fragments had been published in other works, usually without due acknowledgment. Our community is therefore proud to present this publication. Hopefully, it serve as a window into an aspect of Canadian history that has thus far been neglected.
Tadeusz Nowak OMI