Polish Immigration to Alberta before the Second World War

Polish Immigration to Alberta before the Second World War


  1. Origins and the First Wave

Polish presence in the lands which became Canada dates back to 1752, but over the next century few Poles migrated to these lands. However, a number of Poles did arrive in Western Canada as soon as the region was opened. For example, there were Poles in Lord Selkirk’s expedition to Manitoba in 1815 and 1817 to protect the Red River settlers. The first immigrants were well educated professionals such as surgeons, army officers and engineers. Among them was Casimir Gzowski (later Sir Casimir), a prominent civil engineer, railway builder, and social activist, who arrived in 1842. Ewin Brokowski became the editor and owner of The Manitoba Gazette in Winnipeg in the 1870s. (1) The First person of Polish origin to set foot on Alberta soil was probably Charles G. Horetzky (Karol Horecki), the son of Scottish Sophia Robertson and Feliks Horecki, Polish concert guitarist and composer. Horetzky came to Alberta as a member of Sandford Fleming’s expedition, which crossed the continent in 1872 in search of suitable route for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Horetzky became well known for the survey photographs and as an advocate for the Pine Pass route for the CPR. He conducted topographical explorations in the Rocky Mountain and the Peace River watershed and in British Columbia. In 1874, he wrote a book Canada on the Pacific, as well as several pamphlets and articles.

The large wave of Polish agrarian immigrants to the Canadian West was the result of the new immigration policy introduced by the federal cabinet Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, who took office in 1896. His objective was to settle the prairies as soon as possible with farmers who could survive on their own and were willing to work in the wilderness. His policy was strongly supported by the CPR which needed traffic and freight. When the preferred regions, such as Great Britain, the United States, Western Europe, and Scandinavia could not supply enough immigrants, Sifton sought to attract farmers from central and eastern Europe. (2) Due to restrictive emigration laws in Prussia and Russia, the majority of Polish immigrants to Canada before the First World War came from Galicia, the Austrian sector of partitioned Poland. Also, several groups of Poles, who were recruited from the United States by agents for the CPR, settled in southern Alberta.

In the overcrowded villages of Galicia, with shrinking land holding and low productivity, Polish peasants heard about Canada, where for $10 one could have a block of land as big as a whole village in their own country. Owning land implied for them a better social and economic status. Thus, in spite of the fact that usually the peasant had never left their native village to go further than to the nearby church or town, many took the risk. These early Polish settlers in Alberta emigrated mostly in groups from one or several villages in the same area and later brought over their relatives or friends; it was typical chain immigration. As family bonds were strong, even members of extended families felt obliged to help their relatives in need. The earlier immigrants often helped the newcomers who arrived after the First and Second World Wars.

The importance of the Church and its missionaries to the Polish settlers in the Canadian West cannot be overemphasized, especially before the First World War. Almost all Polish pioneers were Roman Catholics, who were deeply devoted to the Church, especially since in the new country the Church was the only unchanged element in their lives. With great sacrifice and effort they started to build chapels and churches where they would be able to pray and sing familiar hymns in their own language. The early settlers could be rightly called “the church builders”, while the later immigrants were “the organization builders”. At first Mass was usually said in the small log cabins and homes of pioneers which could accommodate only a limited number of people. Farmers usually constructed churches – a visible symbol of achievement – with their own hands and resources. For centuries, the founding of churches in Poland had been sponsored by local landlords; consequently, to be a founder of a new church was a very honourable matter.

Priests were treated with the utmost respect. They were in great demand and in addition to providing religious and spiritual guidance for Polish pioneers, they were also spokesman, interpreters, advisors, educators, organizers of schools, and in some cases physicians. Prior to 1918, Poland was partitioned among Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so Polish immigrants had no consular assistance. They had to look to a handful of Polish missionaries for protection or advice. For many years, these Polish missionaries worked in extremely difficult conditions. (3) The earliest missionaries in Alberta were the three Kulawy brothers, Oblate Fathers from Winnipeg, who began visiting the scattered Polish settlements in 1898. Wojciech (Adalbert) 1971-1942) and Jan (John) (1872-1941) Kulawy came occasionally in 1898 and 1899, but the youngest Paweł (Paul) Kulawy, spent eighteen years (1903-1921) serving Polish Catholics, and occasionally Ukrainian Greek Catholics, over the vast areas of Alberta.  In 1907-1915, Fr. Paweł Kulawy resided at Round Hill at Demay Lake, where he built a church and organized a school, named the “Kulawy School”. From there he helped to organize several missions, parishes and schools in Polish settlements, as well as to build a number of chapels and churches in Alberta. (In 1921, he returned to Poland. He and his brother Jan were killed by Nazis in Auschwitz in 1941.)

The first Polish priest resident in Alberta was Franciszek (Francis) Olszewski, who was educated in Turin, Italy, and ordained, at the age of thirty, in St. Albert on June 6, 1900. He was assigned to serve Polish settlers all over Alberta until he received assistance from Fr. Paweł Kulawy. To be closer to his people he took a homestead between Beaver Lake and Mundare. He named it Kraków and from there he traveled extensively to almost all Polish communities in Alberta. With a pioneer spirit he served people entrusted to his spiritual care.

Fr. Anthony Sylla, OMI, a native of Popielów in the Opole district in Silesia, educated at the Missionary Oblate College in Hunfeld, Germany, spent eighteen years (1909-1927) in Alberta. He served miners and other Polish settlers in the southern part of the Province, until he was transferred to Edmonton in 1917. From there he visited many Polish communities in central Alberta. Fr. Sylla was later transferred to Manitoba and to Saskatchewan. In 1962, Fr. Sylla was awarded the Membership of the Order of Canada, and was its first Polish-Canadian recipient in Western Canada. He wrote an invaluable but mostly unpublished history of the Polish pioneers in Alberta, based on his interviews with the settlers, his own recollections, and the diary which he kept at all times. He also used Fr. Paweł Kulawy’s diary. (4)

According to the 1911 census, there were 2,243 Poles in Alberta, of which 73.3 percent inhabited rural areas, but this considerably underestimated the actual number of Poles, since some were classified as Austrians, Germans or Russians, depending on their citizenship. In some cases, Poles who emigrated from the United States were registered as Americans.

  1. Rural Settlements before the First World War

Fr. Antoni Sylla wrote that the first Polish settler in Alberta was Stanisław Banach (Banack), a native of the Poznań region in the Prussian sector of portioned Poland.  Maria and Stanisław Banach immigrated to the United States in the early 1880s and came to Strathcona, south of Edmonton, in 1895. The same year, Michael and Catherine Smigel, Maria’s parents, along with the Gorski family (Maria’s sister Frances, her husband Frank, and their three children) joined the Banachs from Tacoma, Washington. All of them took homesteads in central Alberta. The Banachs eventually settled in Round Hill. (5) In what follows rural Polish settlements in Alberta are described in the chronological order of their establishment.

Wostok / St. Michael

Fr. Sylla, who served the St. Michael mission between 1916 and 1923, wrote in his memoirs: “The first settlers in the Wostok (St. Michael) district arrived in 1896. They were: Joseph Dziewenka, Bartholomew Pruss, Adalbert Tymkow, Mike Jakubowski, Nicetas (or Niketas) Jakubow[ski], Nick Staskow, and Joe Sobkow from Sobótka Dziureńska. Later arrived Jan Kucy from Homiechówka and Nick Adamyk from Romaszówka, powiat [district] Czortków.” (6) The newcomers arrived, together with their Ukrainian neighbours, from Czortków district in Galicia, and settled among earlier Ukrainian pioneers in the Wostok area. Some of the Polish settlers were related to Ukrainians, all knew Ukrainian Language, and some even spoke it at home, especially in mixed marriages. Most of them had little education, some were illiterate, and many did not learn English for a long time, since they lived on isolated homesteads and their neighbours spoke Ukrainian. When Archbishop Henry O’Leary visited the settlement in 1922, most conversations were carried on through an interpreter.

The settlers were poor. In the spring of 1898, Fr. Wojciech Kulawy traveled by horse and small sleigh from St. Albert to the Wostok settlers. He met the first Polish farmer northwest of Lamont, Niketas Jakubowski, and offered to say Mass at his place, but the farmer excused himself as he had no table. The Mass was eventually said at the German farmer’s house. Jakubowski’s nephew, Michael travelled with Fr. Kulawy to the neighbouring farms where many settlers, both Polish and Ukrainian, attended services. Fr. Kulawy stayed for the night at Theodore Melnyk’s log cabin and slept on straw with a bundle of hay instead of a pillow. The Good Friday service at Bartholomew Pruss’ place gathered a large number of people. The settlers were very friendly and some shared with missionary whatever food they had, but the bread was made of wheat kernels or other grain ground in a hand mill, and consequently he became sick. In 1901, Polish farmers of the Wostok area began the construction of a Roman Catholic St. John Kantius (Jan Kanty) chapel, which was consecrated in 1906 by Archbishop Emile Legal. As the Polish missionaries visited only from time to time, people, led by John Kucy and Theodore Pruss, regularly gathered in the chapel to pray. In 1915, with the encouragement of Fr. Paweł Kulawy, they built a large new church of the Secret Heart of Jesus. (7) The mission was named St. Michael, and in 1928 it became the official name of the hamlet. Polish priests served this parish until 1959.

Initially, the settlers applied the same methods of farming as in their native country, but many of the worked for better established farmers and not only earned badly needed cash, but also learned new farming methods applicable to the different climate. Usually they ran self-sufficient, mix farms. The settlers of St, Michael were successful farmers. Some provided education for their children. The first Polish teacher in Wostok was Jan (John) Adamyk, who obtained his teaching certificate in Camrose. His sister, Mary, became a nurse at the Grey Nuns Hospital in Edmonton. In 1935, a son of the St. Michael farmer, Piotr (Peter) Klita, became an Oblate father. In 1964, a grandson of the early settler, Fr. John Adamyk was ordained a priest.

Rabbit Hill / Nisku

 Settlement in Rabbit Hill, later called Nisku, started with the arrival of the Stanisław and Wiktoria Sarnecki family in 1887. Soon they began writing encouraging letters to their native village of Laszki in the Jarosław district of southern Poland, and stimulated the immigration of nineteen families in the spring of 1898. The newcomers, mostly relatives and friends, found help and advice at the Sarnecki farm.  Stanisław naturally became their leader. (8)

The Rabbit Hill settlers came with some financial resources, especially the Sarnecki and Hamulka (Chomułka) families, the three Halwa brothers, and the three Hamula (Chamuła) brothers. Jan Hamulka, who had sold his farm in Poland, bought land from the CPR and had a good start in the new country. Franciszek (Frank) Halwa bought a farm the day after his arrival in Rabbit Hill and Jendzy (Jędrzej) Halwa purchased partially improved land with a house and a few other buildings. The third brother, Wojciech (William), who was single, found a job with the railway. In 1902, another brother, Michał, the best educated in the family, came from Poland. The large Halwa family distinguished themselves in service to the community by building schools and churches, opening post offices, and contributing to the community’s welfare. The Hamula brothers (Michał, Joseph, and Andrew) together bought the farm with several buildings, agricultural implements and livestock, and after a few years established themselves on separate farms. The Hamulas brought with them and cherished the long tradition of serving their old country. They were proud of their ancestors’ participation in the 1863-1864 Polish insurrection against Tsarist Russia.

The Rabbit Hill settlers built their first log chapel in 1904 and added a rectory for visiting missionaries in 1907. A more solid church was constructed in 1915. When it burned down in 1930, it was replaced within two years. In 1970, twenty-six families belonged to the Nisku parish. (9) Many descendants of the first settlers are still farming on enlarged and modernized ancestral farms. Some have moved to surrounding areas, while others operate businesses and are dispersed all over the province.


The core of the Skaro community in the Star area (earlier known as Beaver Hill) was the family of Wawrzyniec (Lawrence) and Elżbieta (Elizabeth) Mryczak from Trybuchowce in the Buczacz district of Galicia, and Jerzy (George) Turczański, who immigrated through Brazil. Both settled in 1897 and the next year Mateusz (Matthew) Huculak, a blacksmith from Homiechówka in Galicia, arrived with his family, a team of horses and a wagon. The next to arrive was Szczepan Bato from Laszki in the Jarosław district. By 1899, there were eleven Polish families in the colony, among them Jan and Katarzyna Wachowicz with their six children. They were soon joined by Mateusz and Zofia Malica from Trybuchowce. (Elżbieta Mryczak, Zofia Malica and Katarzyna Wachowicz were sisters.) The Wachowicz (Wachowich) family distinguished itself: Victoria, the daughter of Jan, became the first Polish teacher in Alberta; her brother Stanley was the first Polish priest born in the province; Helen became a Benedictine nun, and for twenty-two years from 1928, principal at the Holy Ghost School in Winnipeg. The grandsons of Jan, Allan and Edward Wachowich, became prominent judges. By the 1990s there were some 400 descendants of Jan and Katarzyna Wachowicz.

The Skaro pioneers started, as did many others, with primitive tools and lot of ingenuity.  Threshing was done with sticks and flails, but soon the established farmers contributed to the purchase of a steam threshing outfit.  Hand mill were replaced by the water mill built by the professional miller Kornel Hołowiecki. The first buggy was bought by Matthew Malica in 1911. The first car was bought by Jan Wachowicz in 1915, and by 1926 there were fifteen cars in the Polish parish of Skaro. In 1917, the settlers replaced their chapel, built in 1904, with a bigger church, which served their needs until 1963, when a new church was constructed. In 1919, under the guidance of Fr. Antoni Sylla, a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes was built and became a well-known shrine in Alberta and site of annual pilgrimages.


At the turn of the century, a group of Polish pioneers took homesteads in the Beaver Lake area, later named Mundare. In 1905, fifteen families built a small church named “Dombrova” and set aside a plot of adjoining land for a cemetery. The church was abandoned in 1924 and the cemetery neglected for a long time. A new church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help was erected in 1915 by Michal Dufrene, the same carpenter who built an identical church in St. Michael. In the 1960s, Albert Lesnik, a Mundare businessman, former mayor, and descendant of the Polish pioneer Franciszek (Frank) Leśnik (one of the founders of the Dombrova church), conducted the restoration of the graveyard. Among the names of pioneer families who belonged to Dombrova church served by Fr. Olszewski, and later by Fr. Paweł Kulawy, were: Borowski, Leśnik, Engel, Prażanowski, Hałas, Frebrowski, Woyczyszyn, Liber, Jakobin, Bandura, Lemiszka, Różycki (Ruzycki), Rachański, Bogdański, Jasiński and Nowak. (11)


The first Polish parish in Alberta north of Beaver Lake near Mundare, was named “Kraków”, after the old capital of Poland, by the Fr. Franciszek (Francis) Olszewski. At this homestead, Fr. Olszewski, in addition to his pastoral duties, worked as hard as other farmers to grow wheat and rise horses, cows and chicken. Fr. Olszewski’s dream was to create a Polish religious, educational, and cultural centre in Alberta. Before the winter of 1902, with the help of farmers from the neighbouring settlements – especially Mateusz Huculak and Jan Wachowicz of Skaro, and Piotr Hamulka as foreman – Fr. Olszewski managed to erect a large two-story building. It contained a boarding school, a convent for girls, and an office for the priest, and a chapel. The chapel was used by residents and Polish and Ukrainian Catholics from the surrounding farms until a bigger church was built in 1906. In 1907 Fr. Olszewski begun construction of a new building, but his health deteriorated and he moved with his sisters to the United States. Services at the church were held by Polish missionaries until 1920s.


The Chipman Poles arrived in the Beaver Hill Lake area around 1900. Fr. Olszewski, and later Fr. Paweł Kulawy, provided occasional religious services to them. Mass was said in private homes, as the community was small and could not afford to build a church until 1916. Their German neighbours helped to construct the church and shared it with the Poles. Most of the services were in German because Polish missionaries visited the Chipman community irregularly. This situation led to dissatisfaction among the Poles and Bishop Legal sent to Chipman Fr. Boniface, OFM, who knew some Polish. (12) From 1929 to 1933, Fr. Mieczysław Rosiecki served the mission regularly.

Round Hill / Lake Demay

The Polish community of Round Hill was started by John Banach (Banack), who took his homestead there at the turn of the century. He was joined by his brothers and father, Stanisław, who is believed to have been the first Polish settler in Alberta. In 1900, the family of Ludwik Gołembiowski took a homestead in the vicinity and between 1901 and 1903, an immigrant party from Galicia – Michał and Józef Budyński, Paweł Czternastek, Jan Lutczyszyn, Józef Starczecki – settled in the area of Lake Demay. Michał Budyński, of Przemyśl district of Galicia, immigrated to Canada in 1900, encouraged by letters from Franciszek (Frank) Mach (Mack), a former miller from the same area, who had arrived in Canada earlier. The Budyński family, with seven children, stayed for a year in Sandy Lake, working for a well-established farmer. They built a log house on a previously chosen homestead which Mike applied for in May 1901. Soon, his son Frank filed for another homestead about three miles away.

New homesteaders continued to come. They found temporary shelter at the farms of earlier Polish settlers, who usually helped in the search for suitable homestead.  There were still unoccupied quarter sections of land around Lake Demay, which were taken by the children of the first settlers, as soon as they reached the age of 19. In 1903, when Fr. Olszewski begun to organize a polish parish in Lake Demay (later Round Hill), he listed thirty-nine adult males who joined the parish. Most of them were penniless, but none starved. Wild berries, fish, rabbits, and wild fowl were always plentiful in the area.

The farmers harvested and threshed their wheat by hand, ground it with a quern, and made their own bread. While men worked on the better established farms for bushel of potatoes, a piglet, a few chicken, an old wagon, or some cash, women and children worked on their own farms. Whole families would clear the land and work in the fields. The early Polish homesteaders in Round Hill did mixed farming, which made them self-sufficient. At the beginning, water supply was a problem. The settlers used water from sloughs, but it contained insects, tasted bitter, and was hard for washing. Later, the pioneers dug wells. Gradually more land was cleared, livestock numbers increased, and the settlers become more prosperous. On his farm, Frank Mach constructed a horse-operated mill and later bought a second-hand mill and a steam engine. Until 1912, farmers from the surrounding area brought their grain to his mill. As better equipped mills were established in the area, Frank Mach could no longer compete. He then purchased a threshing machine and travelled with it from farm to farm. Most of the Polish pioneers stayed on their farms for their entire life and passed them on to their children. There are still many descendants of the first settlers who successfully farm in this area. The settlers organized a parish of St. Stanislaus and in 1904-1905 built church and rectory, it was quite a venture for the whole community. The only man able to design the church was Frank Mach, professional miller and jack of all trades. The steeple created a problem for this amateur architect, but it was a traditional part of the church and all settlers helped with the construction. Among them Frank Banack shingled the roof while Ignaś Kalawski covered the steeple with sheet-metal. In spring of 1904, when the church was almost ready, strong wind levelled it because it had not been braced properly. The farmers blamed the designer for the mishap but were not discouraged. They cut the studs shorter so that the church would be smaller and lower but much stronger, and they constructed the walls again. In 1907, Fr. Paweł Kulawy took up permanent residence in Round Hill and from there visited Polish settlements in central Alberta for seven years. He also established a school called “Kulawy Public School No.1526” where he taught Polish and Catechism. (13)

Hay Lake / Bittern Lake

The core of the small Polish community at Hay Lake, northwest of Camrose, was formed by the families of Jan Famułak, Antoni Pelc, Marcin and Jan Gałęza (Galenza). They all took homesteads in 1901 in the area then called Bittern Lake. Soon Joseph and Andrew Hamula, the pioneers from Round Hill, bought land in this vicinity. Fr. Olszewski visited the colony in July 1903. Later Fr. Paweł Kulawy visited the community. He used to say Mass at the Famułaks place, as it was the largest and best house in the community. There were only trails in the region and the priest with his driver were once lost in the bush.

The farmers decided to build a chapel on the land of Jan Famułak, but Fr. Kulawy advised then to join the Round Hill parish instead. Not all settlers were satisfied with such an arrangement, but the majority agreed. The logs prepared for the chapel were then used for Fr. Kulawy’s stable. During the winter and elderly women, Mrs. Wieliczko, died and was transported to the Round Hill cemetery, but the coffin had to be returned, because no grave could be dug in the solidly frozen ground. Polish farmers, together with their Ukrainian neighbours, decided to establish a common graveyard on a lot donated by a Ukrainian, Matwij Szawaga. In 1908, they began building a chapel and completed it four years later. In 1914, the Poles added a steeple. The Ukrainians did not like the chapel, because the steeple was not onion-shaped and the altar was situated at the wall, so the priest could not circle it. The problem was serious enough to result in a temporary separation of the two friendly groups. (14) Subsequently, the Ukrainians built their own church and Fr. Kulawy took full control over the old one, which served the Polish community well until 1957, when a new church was constructed. Polish priests served the mission until 1971. The last of them was Fr. Franciszek Tomczak, who served the Hay Lake congregation from Round Hill. (He was a Second World War veteran chaplain and colonel in the Polish Army in the West.)


The Polish colony at Waugh, on Athabasca Landing trail close to Westlock, was formed by Paweł Marczak (Paul Marchak), who built his log cabin in 1901. The next year he was joined by three families of: his brother Jan, Grzegorz Zaduńajski, (Zadunayski) from Wola Czarnowiecka in the Husiatyń district of Galicia; and Roman Medyński, his father-in-law. Several others Polish and Ukrainian families arrived at the same time from the Zbaraż area in Galicia. In 1903, Władysław Wrona took a homestead in the vicinity of Waugh. Most of the new settlers soon changed their sod cabins and dugouts for houses built of their hand-hewn logs with shingled or straw-thatched roofs. In September of 1903, Fr. Olszewski said the first Mass at home of a Ukrainian, Joseph Sereda, attended by all the Poles and many Ukrainians. Later, when Fr. Olszewski occasionally visited the Waugh settlers, he would say Mass at Roman Medyński’s place or at Joseph Patry’s, a French-Canadian horse-breeder.

Whenever Polish missionaries arrived in the Waugh community, Ukrainians were present at the Mass and conversely, Poles attended Greek Catholic services. The two groups intended to build a common chapel together, but eventually erected two separate ones. Polish parishioners constructed a small chapel on a lot donated by Roman Medyński and the first Mass was said in 1913. In 1919, the parish hall was built and two years later a belfry was added to this tiny church. The building committee was chaired by Gregory Zadunayski, who become the first Polish councillor in the local municipality and who served the community for many years. He organized schools and tried to secure funds for road construction, which in turn provided extra income for the local homesteaders. The farmers, dispersed in the surrounding areas, joined the Waugh community. Among them was John Andreychuk, who settled in Wien (Fedorah) and became a very active parishioner. He helped to build a second church and for twenty-five years was a member of its choir. In 1940, the family of Henryk Pęcak, who immigrated to Edmonton twelve years earlier, purchased a half-section in the Waugh area and settled there. Those who stayed on the original farms formed a Polish Recreation Society in 1953. The Society purchased and old school building and used it as the community hall for “pierogi” suppers, picnics, bingo, and sport activities.


In the spring of 1903, a part of Polish settlers arrived in the scarcely populated area between Daysland and Holden. They came from neighbouring Polish villages in the Mościska district, east of Przemyśl in Galicia. The families of Marcin Szczepaniec, Maciej Bobik, Wawrzyniec and Andrzej Dochniak, Stefan Sroka, Jan and Tomasz Zak came from the village of Trzciniec, and another group consisting of the families of Maciej Kosiński, Antoni Kleban, Jan Szczurek, and Piotr Szott, came from the village of Łącka Wola.  Some newcomers brought with them enough money to purchase horses, wagons, and agricultural implements. In a short time more homesteaders settled in the vicinity, among them Walter Ogonowski and Peter Kawalilak. In 1926, the parish records listed sixty families. The first houses were simply small cabins covered with sod and dry grass. In a few years they were replaced by log buildings with white-washed mud walls, straw roofs, and solidly clay floors. The first shingles and wooden floor were used at Ogonowskis house in the spring of 1904.

In 1905, the settlers established a cemetery and organized a building committee to construct a chapel, which was ready in March of 1907. However, as new settlers arrived, the community decided to build a larger church. The farmers had to borrow money from the bank, but because they had never before taken out loans, they were very reluctant to sign the required papers. It took some time before Fr. Paweł Kulawy was able to persuade them to sign. The church was completed in 1910 (annex was built in 1917) and was blessed by the Bishop as St. John the Baptist’s. The old chapel was used as residence for Fr. Kulawy when needed. The Kopernik community also opened the “Polska School.” From 1919 to 1921, Victoria Wachowicz taught Polish, Ukrainian and Catechism there, and played the organ at the church. Fr. Kulawy named the mission “Kopernik” after Nicolaus Copernicus, the famous Polish astronomer. In 1910 the name of the local post office, Kopperville, operated by Polish settler Piotr Miciak, was changed to Kopernick (misspelled) in 1910. In the 1950s the parish was served by visiting Polish and English speaking priests, because the new generation of parishioners spoke better English than Polish. In 1970, Fr. Tadeusz Rataj preached in Polish to older people. Visiting Polish priests served the parish until 1984. The church was closed in 1988, except for funerals and special occasions. (16)

Flat Lake

The Polish community of Flat Lake, twenty kilometers north of St. Paul, can trace its beginnings to the year 1906, when the first homesteaders arrive there. Fr. Paweł Kulawy visited Polish immigrants there in January 1913 and wrote in his diary: “I met people of my tongue who were deprived of the priestly administration for seven years.” (17) The influx of Polish families to Flat Lake occurred between 1912 and 1915. They came from the United States and Poland, as well as other parts of Alberta, and settled in a predominantly French area. They included the Passek, Pratch, Reszel, Kriaski, Wilkowski, Rogalski, Gabryj, Raróg, Wróbel, Niedzielski, and Grant families. In 1918, the community began construction of a church which was completed in 1922. The first Polish priest, who served them occasionally until 1921, was Fr. Paweł Kulawy. In the 1920s, new immigrants arrived directly from Poland and the parish of Flat Lake became predominantly Polish. In 1935, it received its first resident priest, Fr. Edmund Rygusiak, OMI, who stayed there for fifteen years. He was joined by Fr. Joseph Kucharczyk in 1937 and they served the Polish settlers in the area of St. Paul, Bonnyville, and Ardmore until 1945. Before a rectory was built, they lived in a log cabin, where in cold winters they has to sleep wearing fur caps. Among the priests who later served the community was Rev. Józef Kochan (1952-1956, 1964-1972). He wrote a short history of the Flat Lake Polish Community. In 1968, a new church was constructed. (18)


About 1907, several Polish families settled on farms in the area of Barrhead. Later, the place was named Naples, because there were many Italian settlers there. Among Poles were the families of Jan and Stanisław Czerwonka, Franciszek and Józef Majkut (Maykut), Mentus, Fridel and Bartus, all from Galicia. They all had large farms and raised cattle and wheat. Józef Majkut operated a sawmill. In the early 1930, the Polish families of Naples, with the help of Italians, built a church. Józef Majkut donated the lumber. Many farmers’ children received good education and moved to the cities, but a number of farms were inherited and cultivated by children and grandchildren.

Tawatinaw and Nestow

The small Polish community of Tawatinaw came into existence between the years 1908 and 1909, with the arrival of the Walenty and Katarzyna Oko from Stryj in Galicia. They settled in a wilderness, thirty-five miles south of Athabasca Landing. (They son, Peter stayed there the remainder of his life. His descendants still operate farms in this area). More Polish farmers settled in the neighbouring area of Nestow. In 1905 Feliks Barnaś with two adult sons John and Raymond, immigrated from Ożarów, near Warsaw to British Columbia. Later they moved to Cardiff, Alberta and worked in a coal mine. After two years of mining, they took homestead in Nestow in 1910. There were several other Polish families who switched from mining in Cardiff to farming in the Nestow and Tawatinaw area. Many others took homesteads while working in the mines, among them Kazimierz Tomasik and Mike Sobkowicz, a section foreman, who started farming about 1913. Fr. Paweł Kulawy visited the Polish farmers of Tawatinaw at their request in June 1914, and Fr. Antoni Sylla payed his pastoral visits twice in 1919. The priests said Mass, preached, and instructed children in Polish. The settlers were delighted with the opportunity to use their native language with the priests. More Polish immigrants joined the community in the 1920s.

Richmond Park

The small Polish community in Richmond Park, northwest of Athabasca, was the only Polish-Protestant community in Alberta. The Polish homesteaders of the region joined the Anglican Church in Athabasca, as there were not enough of them to build their own church. The first Poles were Karol Góra and Paweł Kawulok, who settled there in 1912. They were joined by more families – Martynek, Bartus, Wisełka, Rabik, Malik, and Rusz – all from Zaolzie and Cieszyn regions in south-western Poland. In 1920s, several miners from Canmore moved in. Paweł Kawulok, for example, came from the United States, where he worked in a Wyoming coal mine. After settling in Richmond Park, for many years he worked in the Cardiff coal mine during winter. By the 1960s, his family cultivated a 2,080-acre farm. (19)

Rural Settlements in Southern Alberta

There were relatively few Polish immigrants in southern Alberta before the Second World War, except for the mining communities in the Lethbridge, Crowsnest Pass, Banff, and Drumheller areas. Farmers who settled there came mostly via United States and formed several rural clusters in southern Alberta – Tide Lake, Acadia Valley, Empress, Fourways, and Pakowski. (20)

Tide Lake

Between 1908 and 1912, a distinctly Polish colony was established in Tide Lake, east of Brooks. A majority of the settlers were recruited by the CPR from Buffalo, New York, and Pennsylvania, where they had mined coal. They were originally settled on forty-acre plots in Strathmore, forty-five kilometers east of Calgary. They named their settlement “Kraków”. The first settler was Walenty Kosior of Łańcut, Galicia, who spent nine years in Pennsylvania before he arrived in Alberta in 1904. A few years later, more families arrived, but they found the farms too small to develop and most moved to Tide Lake, where the governments had opened additional homestead land. By 1911, ten Polish families – Kosir, Strzelczyk, Luty, Bażant, Olekszyk, Harahus, Gancarczyk, Korytkowski, and Kożej with thirty-one children and six single persons had taken homesteads there. The single persons included Julia Bukowska, Mike Czuryło, Jan Głowaczewski, and Romuald Jeżewski. Later relatives and friends, some directly from Poland joined the first colonists. The community built a school named “Polonia” and a small chapel which, from 1911 to 1917, was served from Canmore by Fr. Antoni Sylla. He noted in his memoirs that fifty people attended the Mass at Tide Lake on December 10, 1911. The visit of a missionary was an important event in the community. Donald Olekszyk, who spent his childhood in Tide Lake, remembered later that the whole community participated in preparation for the arrival of Fr. Sylla. The settlers celebrated all religious holidays according to Polish tradition, particularly Christmas and Easter, and there were also dances, picnics, and social gathering. The little community was closely knit, like a large family. (However, a tragic event which deeply affected the entire community occurred in 1912. A widow Julia Bukowska, could no longer cope with the farm and taking care of two children and killed herself and the children.) Sentiment for Poland was strong in the community. When Poles fought for Poland’s independence during First World War, the Tide Lake farmers collected donations and forwarded them to the Polish Relief Fund. (21)

Acadia Valley

In 1910, the first group of Polish people filed for homesteads southeast of Oyen, In Acadia Valley: brothers John and Joseph Niwa, their close friend (an American) Lockie Cameron, Steven Pawlak, Andrew Rafa, Joe and John Knapik, and John Wataha. All of them had spent at least several years in Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota or Illinois (mostly Chicago); some were born in the United States. Attracted by free land in Canada, they settled on homesteads in Broderick, Saskatchewan, about 1905. Some men worked on railway construction, while their families operated farms. When the government of Alberta made new land available for settlement, they decided to move West, to the area which was kind of oasis in semi-arid land with fairly heavy soil and more moisture than was usual in that dry belt. Later, several Polish families came directly from the United States. In 1910, the Knapiks brought their nephew, Jan Machura (Mahura), from Wadowice, near Cracow. He was soon joined by his widowed mother and five siblings. In 1917, when the settlers decided to build a church, the census taken by Fr. B. Beaton listed more new names: Matz, Churciel, (Chruściel), Gurdecki, Shappiak (Szubek?), Jabłoński, and Frenzel. There were many families with the same name, as the majority were related through marriage. (In the early 1980s most of the names still could be found in the district.) All of the Polish farmers were involved in building the church. Paul Szubek donated a six-acre lot for the church and cemetery. The building was ready in 1918 and could accommodate about hundred people. Fathers Knapik, Shalla, and Stefański served the congregation for many years. Since 1963, the church has not been used, except for funerals, because a new, large church was built in the village. (22)

Fourways, Empress

In 1910, five Polish families and several single men from United States settled in the area of Fourways, north of Medicine Hat. Their parents had immigrated to the United States from Russian sector of partitioned Poland. Among them were Tomasz Bautch, Tomasz Timoszkiewicz, and Adam Surnicki. Another Polish community existed near the village of Empress, on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, north of Medicine Hat. When Fr. Sylla visited Empress in 1916, he heard forty-five confessions. Between 1910 and 1916, Fr. Sylla visited several small Polish communities – the miner in Taber, and a little rural colony in Pakowki, to which farmers came from Independence, Wisconsin. Occasionally, he stopped at the homes of individual Polish families, dispersed along the CPR line – Werner, Granum, and Macleod where CPR employees lived. Hundreds of Polish farmers were dispersed all over the province. In his “Memoirs”, Fr. Sylla mentions his and Fr, Paweł Kulawy’s visits to small groups of Polish immigrants in Warwick, Plain Lake, Peguis, Monkman, Stry, and Prague. Although they lived far from their compatriots and Polish parishes, some participated in the affairs of Polish communities. Stefan Czołowski, a successful farmer at Fort Saskatchewan who arrived in Alberta in 1897, lived far from Polish parishes in Edmonton and Skaro, yet he took part in their activities, generously donated money and helped new immigrants. His son Joseph, joined the Polish Army of General Stanisław Haller in Niagara-on–the-Lake during the First World War, and in 1920 fought the Bolshevik invasion of Poland. John Liss (Pożarzycki) of Sangudo was very active in the Polish community of Edmonton. In 1952-53, he was the first President of the Canadian Polish Congress, Alberta Branch.

  1. The Second Generation

The experiences of the second generation can be illustrated by several sons of pioneers from Skaro. By the time they were old enough to assume their own homesteads, the land around their parents’ farms had already been taken and they had to move further away. Several settled in the area of Opal. In 1905, bridges over the Redwater River were built and this area became more accessible. Marian Placzner (Plachner) purchased a farm in Egremont in 1908. About the same time, Peter Wachowich took a homestead in the vicinity of Opal. Later, he and his brother-in-law, John Turchanski, ran the first general store and a machinery shop in Opal. Peter became active in the Liberal Party, although at that time it was rare for Polish pioneers to be involved in political life. During the First World War, the price of wheat soared and the economic situation of many farmers improves substantially. Small towns were growing fast and there was demand for agricultural equipment and other machinery. Philip Wachowich opened a hardware, lumber and machinery business. More families had settled in the area – Purschke, Hołowiecki, Bielecki, Woźny, (Wozney) Wawreków, Krzywy, and others. The Poles, helped by the Ukrainians neighbours, built a church in 1918. In the 1920s, there were about twenty Polish families living in Opal and vicinity. There were four Polish merchants, one restaurant, and the post office which was operated by the Polish family. (23) Another example is Kasper Halwa, who arrived in Rabbit Hill in 1898, at the age of three. As a teenager he worked in a coal mine. Later he improved his English by taking night courses at Alberta College in Edmonton and became an interpreter for the employment office. In 1916, he married Mary Hamulka, a neighbour’s daughter, and in 1917-1929 he ran his father’s farm. In 1930s, he bought a half-section farm in St. Albert. At the same time, he was involved in various businesses: supplying wood to Edmonton with his trucks, buying and selling cattle, machinery and household appliances. After retiring in Edmonton in 1953, the Halwas contributed their time and money to community service. Kasper helped to build the Polish Holy Rosary Church and the Polish Hall and served for years as President of the Holy Rosary Men’s Club. In 1973, he was honoured with Medal of Merit by Pope Paul VI.

Another pioneer’s son, Joseph Polanski whose parent Jan and Maria, had immigrated to Alberta in 1908, spent his childhood and youth on the parental farm in Myrtle Creek in Radway district. He married in 1930 and started farming on his land, but after eleven years sold the farm and, in partnership with his brother, opened a hardware store in the village of Thorhild. He became a successful businessman, mayor of Thorhild (when it was granted town status), and distinguished person in the county. (25) His sons also attained respectable positions: Frank at Bank of Nova Scotia, and Edward as President of the QCTV television network.

  1. Polish Immigration after the First World War

After the First World War, immigration from independent Poland resumed. It started in the early 1920, with the arrival of the families who had been separated during the war. Between 1927 and 1929, the number of Polish immigrants arriving in Alberta increased greatly. Many Poles came under the Railway Agreement, which authorized the CPR and CNR to procure, select and settle immigrants from several eastern and southern European countries. The Polish ethnic group in Alberta grew from 7,000 people in 1921 to 21,000 in 1931. The introduction of quota system in the United States in 1921 had directed the stream of Polish immigration to Canada, but Canadian immigration officials placed Poland among the “non-preferred” countries from which only farmers, farm labourers, and domestics were accepted. Although new immigrants were recruited predominantly from villages, there were also some ex-soldiers, policemen, artisans, merchants, and miners who passed themselves off as farm workers. The new wave of immigrants differed from that before the First World War. Many new immigrants had participated in the struggle for national independence by fighting against the Germans and Russians. This experience affected their attitude towards both their old country and Canada. A number of young men had received occupational training in the Polish army; some had acquired experience in political and social problems and national consciousness were higher than that of the majority of the earlier Polish settlers. There were very few illiterates among the newcomers because male immigrants had to pass a literacy test. Many post-war immigrants preferred cities to the countryside, especially single men, who tried to find jobs in the cities. In greater Edmonton they worked at packing plants, at railway construction, and in small mines. The new immigrants joined the existing Polish communities and dispersed all over the province along the newly built railways – Vilna, Bonnyville, Flat Lake, Fox Creek, Radway, Manning, Cadomin. Only two new Polish rural settlements were established in Alberta in the 1920s – Webster at Peace River Country and Ardmore near Cold Lake.

Peace River Country

Before the First World War, the Polish settlers in the Grande Prairie area were dispersed throughout the region, except for a small concentration in the Clairmont area, where Frank Pasiekowski filled for a homestead in 1910, followed a year later by the families of Jan Kryszta, his son-in-law Andrew Hobal, and the Kopakas. A year later, Franciszek Durda and Józef Tomczak (Tomchak) slogged over the Edson Trail to the area of Clairmont and took up homesteads. Later, the Tomczak family became famous in the region because of their trio of pet Trumpeter Swan cygnets, which was credited with providing Grande Prairie with its symbol after it was granted city status. In 1926, the arrival of Józef Kozłowski in Webster initiated the settlement know for a time as “Kozłowo”. By 1930 the Webster-Sexsmith area held some forty Polish families who came directly from Poland or from other places in Alberta.  The community was strong enough to finish construction of a church in 1931. A few years later a rectory and the Polish Hall were built and in 1956, a Grotto was erected on the church grounds. In 1964, the church burned down after being hit by lightning, but Grotto still gathers people of Polish origin from the Peace Country every year in June. Before the school building was completed, classes were held in the Polish church. The pupils were all ages, from six to eighteen, because many children had previously been unable to attend. Among the most industrious Polish families in Webster were Grotkowskis, Adam Sr., ran a livery barn, Jan and Julian a sawmill, and the entire family was involved in building the church. There were also other pioneer families: Mike Jaskiw, Nick Yurichuk, Vincent Goscilo, John Ankwicz, John Antonio, Ben Plahta, and Stanley and Joe Szaniawski. (26) During the Great Depression the colony deteriorated, since some men left for Eastern Canada in search of work, leaving the farms to their wives and children. However, the social and cultural life of the community flourished during the Second World War, mostly due to arrival of an energetic young priest, Joachim Michałowski, OMI, who settled in Webster in 1938. He established a small Polish library and encouraged his parishioners to read. During social gatherings he would read aloud articles from the Polish press. In 1940s Fr. Michalowski helped to found the first Polish organization in the Peace River Country “Stowarzyszenie Polskie” [The Polish Association]. Poles from distant places, even Manning and High Prairie, joined this Association, altogether about 200 people. Among them was Antoni Woźniak, at that time homesteading in Wanham, who later became a distinguished community leader. Other leaders of the Polish Association were Julian Grotkowski, Walter Konowecki, Kazimierz Kulicki and Leonard Ostaszewski. After the Second World War, the early Polish settlers of Grande Prairie region sponsored thirty-two people, mostly Poles from DPs camps in post-war Germany.


In 1927, two Polish families – Szpojanowski and Świderski – began farming in Ardmore, northwest of Bonnyville. More followed either individually or in small groups, the largest of which arrived in 1930 from Robczyce in the Rzeszów district, and included the families of Jan and Józef Szeliga, Wojciech Martowski, and two Strzępek brothers. In the 1930 there were twenty-three Polish families farming in Ardmore and its vicinity. Some farmers moved from the Bonnyville area in search of more fertile land. Among them was Donald Oleszczyk, the son of Polish pioneer from Tide Lake. First, they built a school and then, in 1938, a church. During the Great Depression Polish immigrants were more exposed to more hardships than Anglo-Canadians, for unemployment affected them more often, and they were excluded from many jobs. Only a few had permanent jobs in mines and factories. Many wandered across Canada in search of work, some walked from town to town and bolder ones rode on roof of train carriages, although some paid for this with their limbs. Polish farmers had a hard time too, but most of them survived because they practiced diversified agriculture and helped one another. The difficulties and hard times strengthened ties within Polish communities. Polish immigrants rarely asked for government help because of the risk of deportation. Occasionally, Polish farmers gave accommodation and food to unemployed Polish labourers and thus saved their compatriots from deportation. Maria Oleszczyk of Ardmore recalled: “Our neighbour had several children; when they were starving, their father decided to go to Bonnyville and ask for relief, but his last pair of shoes just fell to pieces. Only one shoe was good enough to put it on. The poor man found a rubber shoe and walked to Bonnyville. He has his heart in his shoes, as there were rumours that Slavic immigrants who had applied for relief were being deported to the old country. But happy he came back with a sack of potatoes.” (28) There was almost no immigration during the Great Depression.

  1. The Mining Communities

From the beginning, coal mining in Alberta attracted immigrants. In the oldest mines around Lethbridge, many Slovaks from the United States found permanent employment as early as the 1880s. Little is known about the first Polish miners in this area, but in 1899 the group must have been fair-sized as Bishop Vital Grandin asked the Oblate Fathers of Winnipeg to send a Polish missionary to Lethbridge. In September 1899, Fr. Jan Kulawy, OMI, visited Polish and other Slavic miners in Lethbridge. The same month he also paid pastoral visit to the Polish miners in Canmore. In the fall of 1903, his younger brother, Fr. Paweł Kulawy, was assigned to care for the Roman Catholics of Slavic origin in Lethbridge. He replaced a resident missionary of St. Patrick’s Church, Fr. Leonard Van Tighem, OMI, who left for Holland. Fr. Kulawy found many Slovaks from the United States and a number of Poles who were employed at the Galt coal mine no. 3, the first coal mine in Alberta. He preached in Polish and English, because some of the parishioners were Italians and Hungarians. From Lethbridge he also served Polish miners in the Crowsnest Pass in Coleman and Blairmore. From 1910 to 1916, Fr. Antoni Sylla visited Polish Roman Catholics and Slovak Greek Catholics in Lethbridge. He recalled: My ministry consisted in hearing confessions, holding services, preaching in Polish and preparation for the First Holy Communion and for Confirmation… Whatever help Fr. A. Rosenthal needed in contact with the Slavs, such a Poles, Slovaks, Rumanians, I was a hand. As advised by our Provincial, every month in 1901, I spent about two weeks in Lethbridge. (29)

Later, Fr. Sylla visited Lethbridge from Canmore only at Easter. During such a visit in 1911, he had 195 confessions and the next year 205. He continued his pastoral duties in Lethbridge until 1916. Earlier, in 1910, Fr. Sylla visited Taber, where a number of Poles, Slovaks and Ukrainians were employed in a coal mine; usually thirty to forty people attended Mass.  In the late 1890s, the miners in Crowsnest Pass established distinctly Polish communities, primarily in Coleman. They has emigrated from Bielsko-Biała and Żywiec regions in southern Poland to the United States, where they were employed in coal mines. From United States they moved to Canada, to the mines of Coleman, Bellevue, Blairmore, and Fernie.  Walter Żurek wrote in his family’s biography that his father, Andrzej Żurek and his friend, Paweł Pieronek immigrated to Coleman from Żywiec region in 1895. In August 1904, Fr. Paweł Kulawy visited the Polish miners in Coleman, where he found many Catholics families of Polish, Slovak, and Italian origin. He said Mass at an inn. During his visit the miners decided to build a church. Fr. Kulawy came back several times to supervise its construction. On June 11, 1905, he consecrated the new church. For decades, the Coleman Polish community was probably the most active one in Alberta. On December 6, 1916, it organized the Polish Society of Brotherly Aid. Among the founders were John Liss, Mike Jakubiec, and Martin Pieronek. The main aim of the Society was to help members in distress that is, provide benefits in case of sickness or death in the rather frequent mine accidents. The Society also helped Polish miners to protect themselves against the discrimination they experienced as “enemy aliens” during the First World War. It issued each member an identity card stating that he was Polish. These documents spared their hearers much grief, since they were thus saved from being regarded as Austrians or Germans. The Society flourished in the 1920, when new immigrants who had been attracted by relatively good wages arrived from Poland. Few of them had mining experience as most had been farmers and farm labourers. In 1927 the Brotherly Aid Society had 118 members in Coleman, thirty-six in Blairmore, forty in Bellevue, and forty-eight in Rosedale, near Drumheller. The most active branch was in Coleman, which boasted a cooperative store, a Polish language school, a library, a drama group, a choir, an orchestra, and a soccer team. (30) The majority of Polish miners were single or had wives in Poland. For them the Polish organization was a substitute for family and homeland.  Polish miners in Coleman lives mostly in a settlement with Slovaks. Many miners who had farming experience in Poland dreamed about their own farms. Before the First World War, they founded a small Polish colony at Burmis, in the Crowsnest Pass area. The women stayed on the farms, while the men worked in mines and came home for the summer. They eventually settled permanently on farms. In the 1920s, the Polish settlers built a small church, St. Stanislaus Kostka, which served the Catholic congregation until 1963. Another concentration of Polish miners was in the Banff area; in coal mines of Canmore and Bankhead, in the Exshaw cement company. A number of Poles worked also at the “Anthracite Co.” mine which opened in 1886 and closed in 1904 due to labour unrest and technical problems. The first Polish miners in the Banff area had arrived from the United States.

In the 1890s, the Canadian Northwest Coal and Lumber Syndicate on the CPR main line in Canmore was the second-largest coal producer (after Galt’s mines of Lethbridge) in the North-West Territories. At the turn of the century, the Polish Community of Canmore was big enough to host a Polish missionary, Fr. Wojciech Kulawy, for a pastoral visit in September 1898, and Fr. Jan Kulawy a year later. In June 1902, Fr. Julius Seltmann, OMI, listed among his parishioners in Canmore: twenty Austrians, thirty-one Slavs, six Poles, and twelve Galicians.” There is no doubt that among “Austrians” and “Galicians” were Poles and some Ukrainians, while “Slavs” were probably all Slovaks. On November 17, 1911, Canmore’s Polish miners organized a cultural society. At the first regular meeting held on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), the society was named “Zgoda św. Andrzeja” {St. Andrew Concord}. The society organized a small library of Polish books. Fr. Sylla recollected: “once a month I would give them a lecture, in order to create and uphold a catholic atmosphere in the society. The promotor of the society had a leaning towards atheistic socialism.” The society was a short-lived initiative, but it was the first recorder Polish lay society in Alberta. Some Polish miners belonged to a Slovak mutual aid society, “Jednota” {Unity} which was affiliated to a larger American organization. It provided a form of insurance, something that was very important for miners, because Alberta miners were very hazardous. At Christmas of 1910, Fr. Sylla listed in the parish census five Polish families and thirty-eight bachelors, four Ukrainian families and twenty-five bachelors; ten Slovak families and fifty-seven bachelors; and seven Slovene families and ten bachelors.

Poles also worked in the coal mines of Bankhead, a model CPR company town, northwest of Banff. Mining operations there began in 1903 and lasted until 1922. In 1910, the parish census listed six Polish families and thirty single men, mostly from Wilkowice near Wadowice, Bielsko Biała, and Żywiec in southern Poland. The majority came from the United States. Some were living in homes that belonged to the CPR, and others lived in flimsy shacks they built and furnished themselves. On January 4, 1912, the miners of Bankhead organized an athletic club, “Sokół” {Falcon}. Twenty-three Polish and Slovak members of a similar association in Poland or in the United States. Almost every miner was also a member of the Miner’s Union headquarters in the United States. After 1911, with the development of branch railways, coal mining rapidly expended in the Drumheller area. By the 1920s approximately 2000 miners were working in twenty-nine different mines in Drumheller Valley. Polish miners were among them, especially at Rosedale. Many were farmers from central Alberta who found employment in mines during the winter; however there were cases of homesteaders moving to the Drumheller area and becoming miners. Polish miners could also be found in the Coal Branch collieries which developed before the First World War and achieved their highest production in 1929. As in other communities, there were many men from farms looking for additional income. Cadomin (31) was a major mining community with many Polish miners. Many Poles worked in coal mines in the Cardiff area (not belonging to Coal Branch), from where they moved to homesteads, mostly in the Athabasca area.

In the Edmonton area there were many small mines producing coal for local farmers and the city. Some belonged to the Polish families of Fridel, Lang, Piątkowski, Barton, Brzuśkiewicz, Górski, and Tworek. Many new immigrants arriving from Poland in the 1920s found employment there. In 1935, an experienced miner, Tomasz Opaliński and his friend Ruben Klapstein, bought the Pine Creek Coal mine and later the Rabbit Hill Coal Mine (jointly with John Poholka). In 1940 they bought the third Ellerslie Coal Mine. Simultaneously T. Opaliński ran two farms. (32)

  1. Poles in Urban Areas

Immigrants who arrived in Alberta before the First World War settled mostly on farms, but small urban communities were created in Edmonton and Calgary, as well as in smaller towns. The Edmonton Polish community began to consider building their own church in the fall of 1911. The necessary one hundred supporting members were found and the first Mass was said in the new Holy Rosary Church on January 1, 1913. The parishioners of the Holy Rosary parish were miners (including owners of small mines) railway and construction workers, labourers at the Swift Packing Plant, and craftsmen (carpenters, blacksmiths, and masons). The Polish population of Edmonton increased considerably in 1920s, when a new wave of immigrants arrived and stayed in the city, despite the fact that they were required to settle on the land or work on farms. With the railway extensions, Edmonton grew from 59,000 to 79,000 in 1931. Employment was available in building, road construction and transportation. Polish old timers welcomed the vigorous young men from independent Poland and helped them to find jobs and places to live. During the summer, many single men worked on farms, road construction, and in sawmills, but in the winter they flocked into the city looking for the company of their countrymen, social and cultural entertainment, and girls to marry. Quite newcomers established small business. In 1927, the old timers and newcomers established the Polish Canadian Society, which become a moving force in the cultural and social life of the Edmonton Polish community for several decades. An amateur theatre and small library were established. Walter Rice (Rajs), a professional musician, organized and directed an orchestra. In 1932, Poles built the first Polish Hall in Edmonton. In 1938, a group of veterans of the First World War and the Soviet-Polish was of 1919-1920 established the Polish Veteran’s Association. The Polish community in Edmonton raised funds and contributed generously to Poland’s war effort during the Second World War.

The Polish community in Calgary before the First World War was so small that its attempts to build a church in 1911 failed. They secured a place for the church and collected some funds, bur in 1914, when numerous young men joined the army, the project was abandoned and the property was taken over by the city. At the end of 1914, a Polish lay organization was founded, “Towarzystwo Wzajemnej Pomocy” {Mutual Help Society}, whose aim was to protect Poles against discrimination as “enemy aliens” during the First World War. However, the Society did not last long. Between 1921 and 1931, Calgary’s population increased from 63,000 to 84,000, mainly due to oil boom in the Turner Valley. The Polish community grew faster; the number of Poles increased from 287 to 807, and by 1941, the number reached 1,370. (However, it is possible that census data of 1941 did not ascribe all Poles to the Polish ethnic group.)

A more successful Polish organization in Calgary was the “Polonia” society, established in 1931 by new immigrants with the support of old timers. It had about eighty members and its first President was Mr. Sotwiński. Two years later the Society’s name was changed to “Związek Polaków” {Polish Alliance}. English classes for adults, Polish Saturday school for children, a choir, concerts, and radio programs were organized. Within the Polish Alliance of Calgary the “Young Polish Canadians” group was organized. Its President, Felicia Kukurski, a bright girl who won a scholarship to study in Warsaw, led the organization until 1937. During the Second World War the polish community in Calgary contributed generously to the Canadian Red Cross and Polish Relief Fund. Polish women’s group, in close cooperation with the Catholic Women’s League and IODE, collected money and sent parcels to the victims of war in Europe, to refugees, and to exiles and orphans. In 1946, $2,895 was raised for Mobile Hospitals for Poland.

  1. Conclusion

The early Polish rural colonies were located in central Alberta, north, east and south of Edmonton, except for three settlements – including the small community of Burmis established by Polish miners – in the southern part of Province. All but two, Webster and Ardmore, were created before the First World War. For these pioneers, the Roman Catholic Church became not only a religious, but also a social and cultural centre. The settlers founded their missions and parishes and build the churches. The missionaries provided guidance and leadership in religious, spiritual, and social matters; linked Polish communities on the prairies; were instrumental in preserving national identity; and played a unifying role with the old country. (For example, priests encouraged their parishioners to collect money for the relief fund for Poland during and after the First World War. Mutual assistance was common phenomenon in Polish rural communities. Fellow countrymen and neighbours helped each other in looking after homesteads, building houses, digging well, and purchasing farm equipment.

The first Polish miners emigrated from the United States to the coal fields of Lethbridge, Canmore, and the Crowsnest Pass area. Most probably they proceeded the rural Polish settlers in Alberta. Better educated, interested in social and political issues, they established their own communities and organizations. Some, who had families, eventually settled on farms.

The Polish immigrants who arrived in Canada after the First World War came from various parts of Poland, not only from former Galicia, and not only from villages. They expanded Polish rural and urban communities in Alberta and changed the occupational structure of the Polish ethnic group. The Polish rural population grew from 5,414 in 1921 to 16,597 in 1931, and the urban population from 1,758 to 4,560 respectively. The post-First World War immigrants were better educated than those who had proceeded them. They were not only farmers and farm labourers, but also people from Polish cities. Many of them preferred to stay in the urban areas of their new country, where they established small businesses and worked in various trades. These newcomers built Polish halls and founded the lay societies which helped them to attain identity and security among familiar people and within familiar patterns.

The rural settlers maintained almost no contacts with the Anglo-Canadian community, but had some contact with German farmers, as many of them had come from Polish territories and spoke some Polish. Polish and Slovak miners in southern Alberta, many of whom came together from the United States, retained close relations. The farmers in central Alberta had their closest ties with Ukrainian neighbours who outnumbered them. The two ethnic groups helped on another in building churches and often attended either Roman Catholic or Creek Catholic religious services. Intermarriage among the two groups was frequent, especially in the second generation. It was not unusual for Polish settlers who lived surrounded by Ukrainians to consider themselves Ukrainians, while Ukrainians were often attracted by Polish culture.

In the interwar period, new waves of Polish and Ukrainians immigrants arrived. Many carried strong national feelings and relations between the two groups, especially in the urban areas, suffered. The process of integration and assimilation into Canadian society was rather slow. The rural pioneer schools did not facilitate the process. Polish children very often learned little English at school, and rather more German or Ukrainian from other students. A great number of immigrants – miners, unskilled labourers, road and railway builders, farm and factory workers – remain anonymous, yet they have brought their significant, unrecorded share to the building of Canada, their new country.


Joanna Matejko

Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995 by Andrzej M. Kobos (A.M.K.); Jolanta T. Pękacz

  1. Radecki and B. Heydenkorn, Member of a Distinguishes Family, Toronto; Supply and Services Canada 1976
  2. The pioneers were the result of what the opposition of the time called “Sifton’s Folly.
  3. Many biographies of Polish priests in Alberta can be found in John Huculak, History of the Holy Rosary Parish, Edmonton; Holy Rosary parish 1988, pp 60-109
  4. Anthony Sylla, “Memoirs,” MS, Provincial Archives of Alberta and Holy Rosary Archives, covers the majority of the Polish communities in Alberta
  5. See also “The Banach Homestead: Part of the Round Hill Community” in Polonia In Alberta 1895-1995
  6. Sylla, “Memoirs”; Walewander, ed., Lekskon, Lublin; KUL, 1992, pp 470-472. It contains information on all Polish parishes and churches in Alberta
  7. The church was built by Michael Dufrene, a French carpenter from Edmonton, and decorated mostly by Mr. Janiszewski in the years 1918-1925 (Sylla, Memoirs”). It is exceptionally beautiful in architecture and adorning. The altar contains exquisite wooden sculptures of Christ and two kneeling angles. The carved and painted Stations of the Cross inscribed in Polish are hung on the side walls. St. Michael and St. John Kantius are painted on the walls, while Christ and God Father on the ceiling. The latter is very similar to the painted on the ceiling of the St. Stanislaus Church in Round Hill, as the same artist Piotr Lipiński, decorated both churches in the 1930s. The cemetery in St. Michael, adjacent to the church, includes gravestones of the early settlers, engraved in Polish. (A.M.K.)
  8. See also “Follow Me, Stanisław Sarnecki-The Moses of Rabbit Hill” ” in Polonia In Alberta 1895-1995
  9. Debbie A. (Sarnecki) Seipert, ed., Journey Through Faith; Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Nisku, Alberta 1904-1994 Edmonton: The Holy Trinity Church 1994, Joanna Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta, Toronto; Polish Alliance press, 1979, includes several entries on the Nisku community
  10. 50th Anniversary of the Skaro Shrine; Wachowicz Centennial Project. (pamphlets)
  11. Memories of Mundare, Edmonton; Mundare Historical Society, 1980, pp 55-57; Walewander, ed Leksykon, pp 448-450
  12. Boniface OFM, Pioneering in the West (Vancouver; Evergreen Press, 1957)
  13. Golden Jubilee 1905-1955; Salute to Pioneers, Round Hill, 1955
  14. Louise Nordin and Nora C. Wylie, ed., The Bitter ‘n Sweet; The History of the Bittern Lake – Sifton District (the Bitterns Lake Community Assoc., 1983) Sheila Galenza, comp., Village of Hay Lakes, Alberta, 60th Anniversary (1928-1988), (1988).
  15. Walter M. Zientarski, “Polish Pioneers in Waugh (1902-1978) in Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta, pp 275-279; Anne B. Woywitka “Waugh Homesteaders and their School, “Alberta History (Winter 1975), pp.13-17.
  16. Sylla, “The Polish Community in Kopernik,” in Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta, pp.279-290; interview with Fr. Tadeusz Rataj (September 1976).
  17. Sylla, “Memoirs.”
  18. Józef Kochan, “Polish Settlers in Flat Lake,” ’ in Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta, pp. 311-313
  19. John Liss, “Polish Protestants in Richmond Park, in Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta pp. 298-299
  20. On southern Alberta see Byrne, From the Buffalo to the Cross; Calgary; Calgary Archives and Historical Publishers, 1973 and Palmer, Land of the Second Chance.
  21. Sylla, “Memoirs”; interview with Donald Olekszyk (1973).
  22. Byrne, From the Buffalo to the Cross, pp 298-300; Time to Remember, Acadia Valley Community Club, 1981.
  23. Victoria Wachowich, Wachowich Centennial Project; “Marian Plachner of Skaro,” in Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta, pp. 145-149.
  24. See “Kasper Halwa; A Farmer and Businessman” in Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta pp88-91. See also “Polish Pioneer Stories” elsewhere in Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995.
  25. See “Joseph Polanski of Thorhild,” in Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta, pp. 149-151.
  26. See “Conquering the Peace River Country” elsewhere in Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995.
  27. Interview with Antoni Woźniak and Leonard Ostaszewski (July 1977); interview with Fr. Joachim Michałowski, OMI, (September 1977).
  28. Interviews with Maria and Donald Olekszyk; and with Leokadia and Antoni Szydlik (October 1973).
  29. Sylla, “Memoirs.” The “Rumanians” were Ukrainians from Romania.
  30. See “Good Tomes in the Coleman Polish Hall” in Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995.
  31. See “Alberta Coal Branch and Polish Pioneer Life” in Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995.
  32. Sylla, “Memoirs.” In Matejko, ed., Polish Settlers in Alberta, see Joseph Lang, “Mining in Edmonton,” pp. 120-123; Tomasz Opalinski; “A Businessman and Farmer” pp. 135-140; W. Chuchla, “Polish Community in the Crowsnest Area,” pp. 265-269; “The Martin J. Pieronek Family,” pp. 140-144; and “The Zurek Family,” pp. 214-217.

Fr. Paweł (Paul) Kulawy, OMI. Born June 24, 1877 in Leśnice, Opole district, Poland, died August 21, 1941 in the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, Poland. Served the Alberta Polish communities between 1903 and 1921

Fr. Wojciech (Adalbert) Kulawy, OMI (1871-1942), the first Polish priest to pay the pastoral visit to Polish settlers in Alberta in August 1898.

Fr. Franciszek (Francis) Olszewski. Born December 8, 1869 in Krzepice, Poland, died February 24, 1955. Served the Alberta Polish communities between 1900 and 1910.

One of the earliest classes of Fr. Paweł Kulawy’s School in Round Hill, established in 1907.

Left: Fr. Antoni Sylla, OMI, on his way from Exshaw to Canmore along the railway, c. 1912.

Right: Fr. Antoni Sylla, OMI, c. 1911. Born June 1, 1881 in Popielów, Poland, died May 10, 1978 in St. Albert. Served the Alberta Polish communities between October 28, 1909 and January 21, 1927.

Antonina and Jan Pasay, Polish settlers in Leeshore, north of Lamont, since 1901, c. 1927

Left: The Sacred Heart Polish Church in St. Michael built in 1915. On the left St. John Kantius chapel built in 1901-1905 and consecrated in 1906, c. 1916.

Right: One of two sculptures of angels from the altar of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in St. Michael, 1995.

Building containing St. Casimir chapel in Kraków, c. 1906. Built in 1902 by Fr. Olszewski and Polish settlers, it was probably the first Polish chapel in Albert.

The second Polish church in Kraków, c. 1907

Congregation of Polish settlers with Fr. Paweł Kulawy at the first Polish church in Kopernik, c. 1912. Marcin Szczepaniec standing in the centre of the second row.

Polish settlers of  Tide Lake, celebrating their harvest, August 13, 1916. Front row, from the left: Romuald Jeżewski, Grzegorz Kożej, Mrs. Kożej, Mr. Stadnicki, Stanisław Korytkowski, Mrs. Korytkowski, Magdalena Kosior, Mr. Jemioła Rear row, from the left: Andrzej Turkosz and Walenty Kosior (1880-1966). Photo taken probably by Fr. Sylla.

Romuald Jeżewski, Polish pioneer near Tide Lake, in front of his cabin, c. 1913.

Polish settlers of Tide Lake welcoming Fr. Antoni Sylla on his pastoral visit to their community, on July 14, 1913. First from the left: Magdalena and Walenty Kosior. The photo taken by Fr. Sylla.

Loading stooks at Walenty Kosior’s farm near Tide Lake, 1915.

Polish miners in front of the Georgetown Mine near Canmore, c. 1917.

Christmas time in the Rocky Mountains near Canmore, Alberta, 1915. A group of amateur singers and musicians. According to an old Polish custom, the group visited homes in the area, carrying with them a goat effigy, “Turoń” (in the centre), and singing Christmas carols.

Polish miners of the Georgetown Mine near Canmore, c. 1917.

Holy Rosary Church and rectory in Edmonton built in 1913 at 11302-95A Street. On the rectory porch, Fr. Paweł Kulawy, c. 1915.

The Polish delegation to the Premier of Alberta, Charles Stewart, February 1919, in front of the Alberta Legislature. The delegation successfully petitioned for recognition of the Poles as a separate national group, and not as subjects of the three partitioning powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In the centre of the first row Fathers Paweł Kulawy and Antoni Sylla.

Fr. Antoni Sylla, OMI, receiving the Order of Canada from the Governor General of Canada, Daniel Roland Michener, on October 29, 1971. Fr. Sylla was the first Polish Canadian from Western Canada to become Member of the Order of Canada.