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A Very Unusual Church

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Winston Churchill – October 1, 1939

In 2019 we hauled our little trailer up to the Peace Country of Alberta for photography and a vacation. “The Peace Country” generally refers to the northwest part of the province where the land is a mix of meadows and forests; of course the mighty Peace River runs through it.

I had planned to photograph many sites on this trip but one in particular was a must see for me. It was Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church, in the general area of Hines Creek, Alberta. It is an extraordinary Old Greek Orthodox Church of log construction. I knew nothing of the history of this old church when I arrived to photograph it. A lot of my blog posts start that way. I visit an interesting looking site of an old church, school or homestead and only after I’ve returned home and start my research do I realize that something special is connected with the place or places that I photographed. I have photographed hundreds of churches of all denominations and styles but this particular church building is still one of my favourite places and its provenance is quite extraordinary.

The purpose of this blog post was originally just to showcase my photographs of that fine looking Old Greek Orthodox Church building but things have changed since I first published this post in 2019. A very special lady, who is the daughter of an early pioneer in the Peace Country, reached out to me in 2021. From her I learned about the story of the people who built this old church, which includes her father. Her name is Polly (Sidoroff) Elder and she wrote a book about the tremendous journey of a group of families that left Russia via Siberia and China (and even Japan) to Canada. Unlike most early century settlers in Canada, the Russians arrived from the west coast, arriving at Vancouver, BC, rather than the east coast via Halifax or Montreal (or north from the USA).

Through the efforts of Polly Elder, the history of these families is very well documented in her book called “All This Shall Pass” (see citation below). I was able to obtain a copy of “All This Shall Pass” that tells their story. And what a story it is. Nearly all of the history that I used in this blog post came from Mrs. Elder’s book. I’ve included page numbers from her book so that the veracity of what I’ve written below can easily be checked. Mrs. Elder’s book was written to be read and re-read by many descendants of a number of families who are connected by both blood and a common experience. As such it sometimes includes more than one account of the same or similar events. My task was to find the common thread and thus provide you with an interesting but much shorter version of the story. Join me now as I begin with some short quotes from her book and then move on to my images of the old church before diving into this very short version of their great journey.

The Russians

The families who built and attended this Northern Alberta church were bound together by their Old Greek Orthodox faith and also by their unique Russian traditions, some of which were likely honed by generations on the Russian Steppe. One of those traditions was the bathhouse. I’ll let Mrs. Elder tell you about it in her own words.

Certain Russian traditions were downright startling; e.g., the custom of the bathhouse, “banya”. Every household had a bathhouse built separate to all other buildings, very much like the Finnish sauna, usually built near a stream or river. Once inside, Russians would steam themselves to full exhaustion, beating themselves with birch-twig brooms and then emerge rosy and naked to plunge head first into the icy waters of the river or roll in the snow.

All This Shall Pass, page 255

The first shift in the bath house would be the girls. Equipped with basin, wash cloths, towels, soap and change of clothing, off we would go for our bath. It was a ball! We would wash each other’s backs and hair, scrub ourselves down, rinse ourselves off and then throw some water on the stones to create some steam. Wow! Then one more rinse and out of there so the boys could come in for theirs. Mother and dad would go in last and dad would stay in until the last particle of steam was extricated from the stone heater. This was the most relaxing time of the week for him.

All This Shall Pass, pages 220-221

Other traditions dealt with men’s and women’s hair and their general appearance. Mrs. Elder gives us a peek into this very old tradition. Interestingly we now see that other cultures, with no connections to Russia, have similar customs. We are talking about a person’s hair, lots and lots of hair.

The beard for the Old Greek Orthodox male is the mark of a real man and a true believer. History tells us they thought clean shavedness made men look like apes. The women were not allowed to cut their hair after marriage but their heads had to be covered at all times. Consequently, there were beautiful heads of hair hidden under a tarn, turban or scarf, only seen when the lady came in from the bath and sat combing her beautiful long hair, only to have it tucked away gain, hidden from the public.

All This Shall Pass, pages 260

Photographs of Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church

All of the colour images below are by me, Glen Bowe, and captured in 2019. There are several sources for the black and white images as indicated below each one.

The construction of the old church began in 1934, according to the Provincial Archives of Alberta. The Archives document includes text with a slight difference in how they spelled the Sidoroff name but I can assure you that the Provincial Archives and the book by Mrs. Elder both relate to the same “Sidoroff” family.

“Built by Russian settlers who came to the Peace area in 1928 through China to Canada. Began building in 1934. Peter, Lorne and Fred Sideroff, Terry Doumnoff among the builders. Interior work done by Ivan Cherviakoff, a deacon of the church who came to Hines Creek in 1949”.

Province of Alberta Archives, object no. A6339
Image scanned from page 261 of the book “All This Shall Pass“. All rights reserved.

Welcome to Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church

Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church, Hines Creek, Alberta
One thing that makes this church building special is the log construction. Log construction is not unusual for very old small and architecturally plain structures, however, for a large building such as this it is indeed unusual. The logs make it strong and beautiful.
Stained glass windows with very old wooden frames.
At all angles there is shape and architectural detail. Notice the missing cross? It was blown off by heavy winds. The cross is in storage until it can be reinstalled.

The church cemetery shown below is at the second location of both the church and the cemetery. The land was donated for the church and cemetery by Peter Sidoroff. His first wife, Lucaria Sidoroff was the first person to be buried there. It was later decided that the new log church should be built closer to the road for better access (a creek cut through the land making access difficult). The first old church would be moved by a team of 12 to 14 horses and was converted to a manse (the priest’s residence). The grave of Lucaria Sidoroff was moved by Peter Sidoroff and his son Mike while the younger children watched. I can’t imagine having to move the grave of a family member by hand or watching the process as a child. That is the stuff of nightmares; however it had to be done.

Nearly all rural churches have a cemetery adjacent to the church building. Actually the cemetery typically is needed before the church structure. Here you can see the use of the crosses that are unique to Orthodox churches and cemeteries.
This old shed on the church grounds still has several tools neatly hanging on the outside where they are as handy as all tools should be. That broom is almost worn out from use. The snow shovel is just a wood board with a long handle on it. There is no plastic to be seen anywhere. Few things say “old” quite like these old tools. Have I just stepped into a museum?
It’s time to say goodbye and close the gate to Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church. Perhaps “I’ll see you again” would be more appropriate. The church is protected by more than just this gate. Descendants of the original families live right next to it and keep an eye on everything.

Update and 2022 Photographs

In July of 2022 it was my privilege to meet Tom and Jean Sidoroff (Tom is Peter Sidoroff’s son). They opened the church for me so that I could photograph the interior.

Image above left: The door from the narthex or vestibule to the nave. Image above right: the words in Cyrillic proclaim in Russian, “Christ is Risen” as you enter the nave.

The inside east end of Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church featuring the iconostasis with the traditional three doors to separate the nave from the sanctuary. Only the priest may use the middle door to the sanctuary.
A close-up view of the iconostasis (note that the iconostasis is the white wood panel). It appears as if there are doors at the left and right edges but those are not doors, they are wires and a crack in the plaster.
Another view of the iconostasis looking northeast. The central doors are called the Holy Doors and the door to left is one of the two Deacon’s doors. They are called this because the north and south doors are used by the Deacons. Tom Sidoroff told us he has used the North and South doors when he was an altar boy.
This is the same as the above image except that we are now looking southeast.

The south side of the church featuring the skull and crossbones below the cross. There are various explanations of the meaning of the skull and crossbones in a church setting which are beyond the scope of this blog to explain. Click on either of the above two images to enlarge. Click the X to return to normal.

Looking west to the back of the church. In the image to the left you can see Tom Sideroff examining something. Click on either of the above two images to enlarge them and click the X to return to normal.

For more information of the role of icons in the Orthodox church see this link by the Orthodox Church in America. https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-building/icons

After I finished photographing the interior, I stayed a little longer to photograph the beautiful outside of the church.
The north side of the church and the cemetery

The History of the People of this Church

Polly Elder’s book, “All This Shall Pass” could be used to teach students about Russian history; I mean that in a good way. Indeed she begins in the early ninth century and the very foundations of the land of the Rus (the first name of what would become Russia). The people of Rus were a mixture of Slav tribes and Vikings plus some Mongolian influences as a result of Genghis Khan’s violent invasions. These early people of Rus were first united by a foreign prince, the Scandinavian Chief Rurik, who in the year 862 became ruler of Novgorod. In the late tenth century Russia had no religion. Prince Vladimir of Kiev took it upon himself to send scouts to different countries to seek out a true religion. Upon their return, the scouts brought back a full account of their visit to the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now called Istanbul). Prince Vladimir subsequently visited the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia and in 988 was baptized. He decreed that the Kievan (Russian) land would adopt Christianity in its Greek form. They referred to their faith as Pravoslavne, which is Orthodox, meaning “true worship” (All This Shall Pass pages 255-256). 

In modern times, the Greek Orthodox Church as a whole is referred to as “The Eastern Orthodox Church”. In Russia, it is “The Russian Orthodox Church”. After the liturgical and ritual reforms of 1666, dissension was forbidden by edict of the Czar. Nevertheless, there were many dissenters and they continue to exist to this day. They are called Starabratsi (Old Ritualists – the ‘bratsi’). Staraveri are Old Believers and in Canada they call themselves “Old Greek Orthodox”. These are the people who did not accept the 1666 reforms and continue to worship today as the Russian Orthodox Church did prior to that date. These are the people who built Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church.

Old Believers

It is easy to confuse the Old Greek Orthodox Church (which is the Hines Creek Church) with the Old Believers. There are similarities between the two. Both groups are the result of resistance of the changes to the Russian Orthodox Church and the the persecution by the church and state in Russia to those who would not accept those changes. They both followed similar paths to escape this persecution by travelling to Harbin, China, although from there the Old Believer’s travelled to South America before making their way north to the USA and Canada. The similarities end there. The Old Believers were denied priests because of their dissension with the Russian Church. Eventually the Old Believers adapted to a new way of worship without the priesthood or churches. They came to Canada in the 1970s in search of both good farmland and solitude. Presently in Canada the best known group is located in the Lac La Biche area of Alberta or more specifically near Plamondon. To learn more about the Old Believers of the Plamondon area I highly recommend a video documentary published by the National Film Board of Canada. It can be difficult to find as I’ve been unable to locate it on the NFB channel. A copy does exist at the Edmonton Public Library. There are other video’s and documentaries about Old Believers on the internet, some are better than others, but none that I’ve viewed are as thorough and balanced as the NFB version. I have put images of the DVD below to assist anyone in locating a copy to view. Remember though that these are not the people of Polly Elder’s family or the churches at Homeglen or Hines Creek, Alberta but it’s still well worth viewing.

Peter Sidoroff 1892 – 1962

Peter Sidoroff – All This Shall Pass, page 126

In 1892, not far from the city of St. Petersburg, Luka and Matrona gave birth to Prokofi (Peter) Sidoroff who is the father of Polly Elder, the book’s author. In Russia, Prokofi was affectionately known as Pasha but we will refer to him by his Anglicized name of Peter Sidoroff. Life was hard in rural Russia so in circa 1903, Luka and Matrona started on the first part of this great adventure by moving to Siberia. In order to encourage Russian settlement in Siberia, Czar Nicholas offered each male member of the family a grant of two hundred rubles, free transportation east, and approximately 40 acres of land. This move was no small task as it meant a trek of over six thousand kilometers east. Luke and Matrona Sidoroff set off for Siberia with their teenage children Peter, Lorne and Anna (Fred, the oldest child, was already married and remained in Russia). The great trek had begun, but they could not have known at the time that this was just the beginning of a much longer journey. Word was sent back to others that they had left behind encouraging them to pick up the challenge and join the settlers in their new lives. Many did, and soon a little community was established to serve the many new farmers in this part of Siberia.

The mention of Siberia to modern and western ears is bound to bring up images of gulags and endless frozen wilderness. Siberia is all that but such a large place is not so easily defined. The Sidoroffs, their friends and family were fortunate to be locating in a southern part of Siberia called Blagoveshchensk, of the Amur District. It is near the 49th parallel and closer to Japan than Moscow. The soil in this part of Siberia was exceptional. Fields were said to be absolutely stone-free and the crops grew well so the land was productive to farm.

This was a time of relative peace but it would not last. World War I broke out! On August 1, 1914, Peter Sidoroff and Philip Andreeff were conscripted, having had compulsory training earlier. During the war Peter Sidoroff was taken prisoner by the Germans. He wouldn’t return home until January 1919, nearly five years later. Below is a quote from All This Shall Pass describing Peter’s return home. When the war ended Peter was set free but he had to make his way home from Germany on his own. He began his journey on foot with little by way of warm clothing or food. Eventually he did make his way to Russia and was able to ride on the train to Siberia. Finally, after a very long journey, an exhausted Peter Sidoroff got off from the train and set out on foot for the remaining sixty kilometer walk to Novgorodka. The quote below describes what happened when arrived back to his community.

In the small Old Greek Orthodox Church, yet another service was taking place where they would pray for the return of their friend, husband and father. The holiday observance was January 19, 1919. Before the ceremony, Father Starasadchev prayed one more time for his beloved friend’s return. He and Peter were the best of friends and would both be turning twenty seven years old that year. As the minister walked out the church door to begin his approach to the water, a figure appeared on the horizon. Father Starasadchev laid down his cross and walked towards this figure, as though in a trance. Happiness, tears of joy and prayers of sincere thanksgiving prevailed. On the horizon was the long-lost soldier Peter Sidoroff. Elated and ecstatic, the whole congregation raced out to meet him.

Emotions rose even higher when Lucaria was reunited with her beloved “Pasha” and for five-year-old Constantine, it would be a whole new world. This was the papa he had heard about for so long. Once again Peter was able to hold his son, a reunion he had longed for and prayed for since he left him at the age of was five. Within a few months tragedy struck and he would never hold his son again. Constantine drowned that summer.

Paraphrased from “All This Shall Pass ” page 34-39

The Bolshevik Revolution

The Communist revolution greeted all Russians returning from the war. It was a time of anarchy and fear.

The Sidoroff and Andreeff families were Kulaks, meaning a capitalist on a smaller scale, or a rich peasant whose property could be confiscated and the owner shot if the Communists saw fit to do so. Peter owned an American-built McCormick reaper which in itself would identify him as one of the ‘petite bourgeoisie’. Anyone that owned an extra cow, horse, harrow or reaper was a petite bourgeoisie and considered a capitalist. Even deep in Siberia they were not safe. Again they had to leave and this time the destination was Harbin, China. It would be a difficult journey and they could bring very little with them. As Russia and Siberia were now ruled by communist regimes the Sidoroff and Andreeff families could not sell their farm equipment. Nobody would buy their equipment because, in theory, everyone owned everything in a communist state. Even if someone wanted Peter’s McCormick reaper they would not buy it because then they would risk being shot by the Communists.

The journey would be along the Amur River, which was the border between China and Russia, to Lohasus (now Leninskoye) in China at the mouth of the Sungari (now Songhua) River, then down the Sungari to Harbin, China. This would not be a pleasure cruise – this was an escape! Polly Elder allocates many pages of her book to this escape. It’s filled with stories of high risk encounters with both the Chinese and Russian officials because each night meant a new stop and, since the river was the border between the two countries, each stop presented a new challege with immigration and customs officials. The journey was a success as they did reach Harbin but they were refugees so this would only be a temporary home.

Then in that same year the Chinese started to take control of the city and to take the railway back from the Russians. Russia had a new government so the Chinese were able to break any contract with Russia. They began to take over all the jobs from the Russian people and soon it became obvious that the family would have to leave Harbin. Then came the biggest blow – the Chinese government told everyone who was not a naturalized Chinese citizen to get out or they would be sent back to Russia. Dad would not have lived long enough to get to the first stop across the border. He was now an enemy of the Communist State.

Victor Nasedkin’s account of the Nasedkin Family’s experience in China. “All This Shall Pass” page 63

Canada

The first group, including the Andreeffs, Lebedkins, Polushins, Mihailoffs and most of the Sidoroffs, left Harbin by train for the southern tip of China in June 1924. From China they had to take take a boat to Yokohama, Japan, to board the ship for Vancouver, British Columbia. The steamship Empress of Russia arrived in Vancouver in June 1924. Other Russians arrived on the Empress of Canada, The Empress of Asia, and likely many other steamships. Despite their exotic names, these were all Canadian Pacific Steamship Company vessels. The journey was on average a ten day trip in steerage.

Fortunately a Russian friend who spoke English and worked in Vancouver was on hand to help them with Canadian Customs. After passing through customs, they boarded a train to Alberta. The destination was Wetaskiwin and soon after they continued southwest by horse, ox or on foot to Homeglen, Alberta. This was to be their new home, at least for a while. When they arrived in Wetaskiwin the Russians were given a warm welcome and provided with some assistance to help them settle on their new land in their new country. Below is an actual article from The Westaskiwin Times, June19, 1924 announcing that the Russians would soon arrive. There was another article that described the actual arrival of the Russians but the reproduction was difficult to read so I didn’t add it to the blog. Click here to read the actual article dated June 24, 1924.

From the distance we first caught sight of the town of Wetaskiwin (now a city) and later there appeared a view of the station with a huge crowd on its platform and around the building. One would have thought that they had gathered to meet well-known celebrities. As soon as the train came to a stop, the ladies of the Wetaskiwin community entered the passenger coach and cordially welcomed the immigrants with hot coffee and lunch. After lunch the group posed by the passenger coach for a photographer, to hold the occasion in grateful remembrance. The photograph was presented to each Russian family as a courtesy of the Wetaskiwin community.

“All This Shall Pass” page 75

Russian immigrants arriving in Wetaskiwin Image by Walin, Carl, June 20, 1924 City of Westaskiwin Archives WET wet-90-is-wet-2323 See Citations below for the website link.

I (the blog author) was born in Alberta so I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like to start a new life in Canada with so little by way of tools or money. Communication must have been a major obstacle because the Russians spoke no English. Those Russians who could read would be faced with a whole new alphabet as Russia uses the Cyrillic script. They had to find their way without being able to understand the language or the law in this new land. The first stop was a campsite and then to a designated area for them to settle. The following is a quote from the local history book, “Homeglen Memories” published in 1980, excerpts of which are found in Polly Elder’s book. It describes how the Canadian children in the one-room school started to speak Russian before the Russians picked up English.

(When) the new Lonesome Pine school was built the younger children began their schooling. None of these fifty Russian children could speak English. The teacher, Miss McQuarrie, thought it best that everybody should try the English language first but much to her dismay, she found that the few Canadian children caught on to the Russian language too fast. But Miss McQuarrie, then a young girl just out from Nova Scotia, who was blessed with a good set of lungs and a strong speaking voice, soon had her class under control.

All This Shall Pass page 85

The local history book called, Crestomere-Sylvan Heights Heritage, speaks very well of the these Russian settlers who made this area north of Gull Lake their home. Some excerpts from that book follow:

In 1924, something unusual happened in the district. We were very fortunate indeed when we received the greater part some of the Russian immigrants. They came to settle the N.W. ¼, 21, 44. We should here pay a tribute to these fine people for their resourcefulness, kindness and their good neighborliness. Many have left the district, but fond memories remain of them. We will now devote some of this book to a brief history of them. We are indebted to Joan and Victor Osokin for getting the information contained in this part of the history.

They also decided to erect a very large building of logs, to serve as a hotel and store. It was one hundred and fifty feet long with one end being used for the store and the other end as living quarters for one family. They left the centre unfinished so as to be able to put on a few social evenings. They held dances, concerts and masquerades, all of which were immensely successful.

Crestomere-Sylvan Heights Heritage pages 422-423
“Community hall, Homeglen Russian colony, Alberta.”, (CU1110142) by . Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary

In the late twenties, quite a number of the children moved away from the district as soon as they mastered the language and received some education. The Anderoffs, the Sidoroffs and the Naskins moved into the Hines Creek country of Peace River. Lebed moved to B.C. where he worked as a jeweller. His son married an Erwin girl by Rimbey. The Osokins were the only ones to remain on the section that they first came to and farmed throughout their lives. Also, here are some who are farming in the Rimbey area, Walter Polushin, Mike Polushin, Fred and Mike Troitsky and Ivanainkos.

Crestomere-Sylvan Heights Heritage pages 424

In Mrs. Elder’s account of the time spent in the Homeglen area she said they were unsure as to why the CPR put them there. There is a possible answer in a local history book for the Ponoka area called Freeway West. In that book, the Russian passenger, George Miasnikoff, provides his own, less complimentary, explanation for why the Russians were sent to Homeglen. I don’t know what to make of Mr. Miasnikoff’s account because it’s my understanding that homesteads were available for only $10.00 paid to the government; how would one man profit from the sale of this land?

Mr.Miasnikoff was certainly correct about the quality of the land, and false promotions of land quality were very common in the early century in Alberta. Perhaps the truth of why or how the Russians were sent to Homeglen will remain a mystery or at least one for someone else to solve. An excerpt of Mr. Miasnikoff’s account from that local history book follows.

From Harbin we travelled to Korea, from Korea to Osaka, Japan by Japanese ship. On board this vessel the food was excellent, being both European and Japanese. From Osaka Japan we took the liner, “Empress of Asia”, to Vancouver, B.C. What a journey that was! There was a strike of the crew on board the ship. The crew seemed to feel their only duty was to make miserable the lives of the steerage passengers, which we were. The meals were so infrequent and inedible that if it had not been for the food we had brought along from Osaka, we would have been half starved by the time we reached our destination. The accomodations for steerage passengers consisted of large wire mesh compartments with about 40 persons in each compartment. Privacy was completely lacking. In each compartment were a series of bunk beds, tables and a few benches.

Before leaving Vancouver, we were met by a man who had a scheme to establish a Russian immigrant settlement near Home Glen. He planned to get everyone gullible enough to buy a lot in a city planned for the future and buy a parcel of land that was too rocky and clay soiled to sustain anyone. From Vancouver we travelled by train to Lacombe where we stayed about 2 weeks. Here my father was lucky enough to receive same good advice from a fellow passenger who had been a farmer in Siberia. So this friend advised my father to seek more fertile land. Somehow he heard of the Gootenkos and Potapenkos who lived in this district at that time. It was with their help that we came to buy the NW ¼-14-45-37-W4, from Gus Hibak.

George Miasnikoff – Freeway West, page 102

With education came new opportunities. Until now the Russians believed that they were required to homestead in the Homeglen area. Abraham Sidoroff learned some English. Before long he discovered that it was not necessary to homestead on Canadian Pacific Railway land and that the settlers were able to go anywhere to file for homesteads. In 1928 Mike Mihailoff took the train to to Peace River area to see if the land would be good for farming. He travelled to many areas in Alberta’s northwest including, Falher, Spirit River, Grande Prairie, Waterhole, and Hay Lake, where he filed for homesteads for both himself and his father, John Mihailoff. The land in the Homeglen area was too rocky and rolling for grain farms. This ushered in the next big move although compared to their previous moves, this next one wouldn’t be quite so challenging although it wouldn’t be easy either.

There are still remnents of the Russian people who once made this area their first Canadian home. It was only by chance that I spotted this old cemetery as there is no sign to identifty it and the access road is neant for trucks and SUVs in good weather only. The cemetery sits on top of a small hill on very uneven ground. Interments range from 1924 to 2020 although two markers have no date.

February 1929 – North to the Peace Country

The Sidoroffs would not have to walk all the way north or go by ox cart as many before them had previously done because the railway from Edmonton to Fairview was now in service. It was still a chore to move livestock and equipment, supplies and a big family including baby Polly but they had come from the other side of the world so this was manageable. They would bring everything that they owned except for the children’s dog Marseek who would be left in the care of their aunt. Freight trains, then as now, are separate from passenger trains so the cattle, horses and equipment would be on a separate train. A lot of coordination was necessary and one person would have to ride with the livestock. That task fell to the oldest person, grandpa Luke. Luke Sidoroff was quite resourceful in his assigned task.

I asked grandpa, using the Russian term “Dedushka, what did you do with the manure caused by the horses and the cows for three days in the box car?”

Grandpa, with a wide grin on his face, said, “I waited until we were going past some farmer’s field and I just flung it out to fertilize his field. I’m sure one farmer was not too happy, he was standing too close to the train track. He got hit with a fork full. I saw him wiping it off and shaking his fist at me as we went streaking by, the wheels just a clattering.” That got everyone laughing. I was not sure whether they were laughing at what happened, or at me for asking the question.

All This Shall Pass page 161
Image obtained directly from Polly Elder, author of “ALL THIS SHALL PASS“. All rights reserved. circa 1934.

The book doesn’t describe the construction of the church but Polly Elder sent me this photo of it being built. This was built on five acres of land donated by Peter Sidoroff.

Peter Sidoroff started farming in Russia with ancient tools such as the scythe that were little changed since the eighth century. Peter would have witness an incredible change in farming practices in his lifetime. The memories quoted below are by Peter’s son Tom Sidoroff.

He cut the crop with a scythe in Russia but he didn’t do much of that on the Hines Creek homestead. The cutting was done by a four-horse drawn machine called a binder. It cut and tied the crop into sheaves with binder twine. They had to be stood up in the field to dry. This was called stooking. After the stooks were dry, they were loaded into a horse drawn rack and put into a stack. Later the threshing machine came along and the sheaves were thrown into the threshing machine which separated the grain from the straw. Later, the stooks were hauled directly to the thresher rather than stacking them first. This process consisted of a tractor that ran the thresher, eight teams of horses (sixteen total) with racks and about ten men. At first dad had his threshing hired, then acquired his own threshing outfit. It was an exciting time when this threshing outfit arrived at one’s farm. When it left, what remained is one granary of grain and a big straw pile. As time progressed all this harvesting of the crop was replaced by one machine called a combine, operated by one man. Dad retired from farming about the time combine harvesting came along.

Tom Sidoroff, All This Shall Pass, page 232

Father Artemy Solovieff – 1877-1961

Father Artemy Solovieff was the priest that came on the Empress of Russia in 1924. He was born in Russia in 1877 and died in Canada in 1961 at the age of 84. In Russia he was married and had one son and one daughter. He escaped to Harbin, China, leaving his family behind with the hope of reuniting with them sometime in the future. Soon after he arrrived in Homeglen, he heard that his wife had died of a stroke and his children were also dead. This was a great blow to him. In his distress and sorrow he began to resent some of the leaders of the congregation for not having made more effort to trace and rescue his family. However, he continued to minister to the congregation (All This Shall Pass page 95). At first he was a trusted and good priest but later he began to change and the congregation had to take action to remove him.

“He recited the liturgy from memory and was meticulous in observing the seasonal Lents and Feast Days, having Sunday worship services at home even if he were alone. He always remembered the ‘name-days’ of every child he had baptized in that little group of Russian immigrants. He would visit the appropriate family on that day to say some
special prayers.”

Merry Fowler “All This Shall Pass” page 96

The final decision was made by the Metropolitan (Orthodox hierarchy) to remove his rights as an ordained minister when he refused to come to perform the last rites for a member of his congregation as she lay dying. That member was none other than Peter Sidoroff’s first wife. Lucaria Sidoroff died from pneumonia following a miscarriage during her tenth pregnancy. Daughter Anne Jordan recalls, while she lay at home dying “they drove out to get Father Solovieff but because of his recent disagreement with dad on church matters, he refused to come.” Michael Sidoroff says at page 207, “Uncle Lorne had gone in another attempt to fetch the priest. Shortly after the doctor left, the priest arrived, only to set up the continuous Ecclesiastical reading according to the custom of the Old Greek Orthodox Church. It was too late to perform the last rites”.

Father Ivan Starasadchev

You might recall the name Father Starasadchev because I put a quote earlier in this post that referred to this man. He was the priest in the village in Siberia and was among the first people to see Peter Sidoroff when he finally made it back home from WWI (see quote above just above the heading “The Bolshevik Revolution”). After reading that quote and then reading how Lucaria Sidoroff was denied the last rights, it’s easy to understand why Peter Sidoroff would want his old friend the priest Ivan Starasadchev to come to Canada and lead their congregation.

Father Starasadchev was a good friend of Peter Sidoroff in Harbin, China. Peter Sidoroff’s ultimate goal was to help the congregation bring Father Starasadchev to Canada to serve their spiritual needs. For almost twentyfive years they negotiated with the hierarchy in Moscow and the Immigration Department, writing letter after letter. Meeting upon meeting, discussion after discussion, took place. Peter was aging and in a wheelchair but he was still writing letters. As the twilight of his life approached, a glimmer of light shone on the horizon. His prayers were about to be answered. Father Starasadchev was on his way! In 1961 he came. Within the year of his arrival, Peter Sidoroff died. He was seventy. Father Ivan Starasadchev was there to administer the last rites.

All This Shall Pass, page 262

Peter Sidoroff would get married again as he couldn’t run the farm and take care of all the children by himself. His second wife, Pearl, added five more children to the family tree. Peter and Pearl Sidoroff lived out their lives at the Hines Creek homestead and are buried at the church’s cemetery. I’ve put images of the three graves Peter and his first and second wives) near the end of this post.

Sidoroff Family Tree

The story of the people who came from Russia and eventually built this church involves many families. I have focused on the Sidoroff family because that is the family of Polly (Sidoroff) Elder, the author of the book All This Shall Pass. It is far beyond the scope of this blog post to describe all of the families because to do so would be to reproduce the Mrs. Elder’s book. I often find that creating a visual family tree helps me to keep the names straight vis-à-vis their connection to Peter Sidoroff.

All This Shall Pass, page 263

This brings my revised blog post to an end. It began with just some photos of an interesting and unusual old church and ended up becoming a story of the extraordinary journey taken by many Russian families to make a new life for themselves in Canada. Their descendants are now spread out all over this country and in many different trades and professions. Some served in Canada’s military and others for the RCMP. Many other descendants of Peter Sidoroff are involved in everything from trades to professions. In seems clear that these people, the Russians, who moved to Canada were Russia’s loss and Canada’s gain. Interestingly very few of them have continued with the Old Greek Orthodox Church. One of Peter’s sons, Tom Sidoroff, Polly Elder’s half brother, remained on the Hines Creek homestead. He has expanded the farm significantly in size and thoroughly modernized it. He also watches over the old church and keeps it well maintained. It was because of Tom Sidoroff (and some other contacts) that I was able to photograph the inside of this church in 2022.

Upon the completion of this revised blog post I sent it to Polly Elder, a day after she celebrated her 93rd birthday. Her response was, “Glen, I am delighted with what you have done! This is awesome!” That’s the response that I was hoping for.

All that’s left are citations and a biography of Polly Elder.

Citations:

  • Elder, Polly. ALL THIS SHALL PASS, Compiled and Published by: Polly Elder, 1995, Chilliwack, British Columbia. PDF copy downloaded from: Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/records/item/148787-redirection.
  • Crestomere-Sylvan Heights Heritage, Crestomere-Sylvan Heights Book Committee, 1969. Used for the quotes from the Homeglen area.
  • Old Believers. National Film Board of Canada, 1988. This is a documentary of a family of Old Believers who live in Northern Alberta, near Lac La Biche. http://onf-nfb.gc.ca/en/our-collection/?idfilm=18032
  • Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church: Provincial Archives of Alberta. Website link
  • Alberta on Record, Item is-wet-2323 – Image of Russian immigrants arriving in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. Website link
  • The Alberta Teacher’s Association. Old Believers nothing new at inclusive École Plamondon School, November 30, 2010. https://www.teachers.ab.ca/News%20Room/ata%20news/Volume-45-2010-11/Number8/Pages/Old-Believers.aspx
  • Freeway West, The Falun Historical Society, 1974. Used for quote by George Miasnikoff as to why some Russians were sent to Homeglen, Alberta. Document source; University of Calgary, Digital Collections, Local Histories.
  • Peels Prairie Provinces, The University of Alberta Libary, used for 1924 articles from the Wetaskiwin Times. Website Link.

If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.


Polly Elder, the daughter of Peter Sidoroff

The main source of historical information for this blog was the book called All This Shall Pass, written by Polly Elder. In that book Mrs Elder describes life in Russia, the move to China, and then the move to Canada. She includes well researched information about Russia and the Old Greek Orthodox Church. It’s an extraordinary accout of the lives of Canadian pioneers.

I am very grateful for all of the assistance that Mrs. Elder provide to me for this blog post. Glen Bowe

Тхей щере хере фор а схорт тиме бут тхей маде а биг импацт

The Andruff Connection

This story is so huge in scope that it is really just one thread in the tapestry of these families from Russia. Polly Elder is from the Peter Sidoroff family so naturally that is who my blog post focused on. However there were so many families that made this journey and each one has their own story. I recently learned that Mike Andruff, a descendent of another family that participated in this incredible journey, has also written a book about the journey from his father’s perspective. I haven’t read it yet as it will not be released until October 18, 2022 but I’m looking forward to obtaining a copy. I’ll provide a link below for those who would like more information about his forthcoming book. Mike Adruff has also set up a fund to help raise money to sponsor immigrants to Canada. In Mike’s own words, “Among a Canadian historical perspective of three generations of my father’s family, my book’s call to action is for the descendants and friends of those refugees in Homeglen to pay in forward by contributing to the Legacy Fund“. This is an exciting development for anyone interested in western Canadian history.

Links related to Mike Adruff and his forthcoming book:

Saint Pokrovsky Greek Orthodox Church

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46 thoughts on “A Very Unusual Church

  1. Love the photos. Excellent post.

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    1. Thank you Dale. I would never have known about this place if you didn’t provide the location for me.

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  2. Thanks Glen, for an always informative trip thru various locations. Awesome photo’s! =)

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    1. Thank you Jackie. Thanks for dropping in.

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  3. We had Russian neighbours who came through China. I believe they were escaping the Russian revolution.

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    1. Thanks for commenting John. Did they have a connection to the church in the blog? I always find it fascinating when people have connections to the old Russian before the revolution.

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  4. If you had questioned the people who live next to the church, you would have found them to be a fountain of information. Also, the End of Steel Museum (about a km south) has much information about the area. It is a very beautiful church.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately I didn’t know where I would have to go to get information about this church. Are you the people next to the church? Do you know more about it that you can share?

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  5. I grew up right across from
    The church and members of the Sideroff family still live in the area. A simple inquiry to any of the local residents would have led you to Tom and Jean Sideroff who occupy the residence just to the east of the church and cemetery.

    Feel free to pm me for any additional details.

    The local history book (seems every small town in AB has published one) has an extensive write up on this church and it’s history. The Chinese migration routes resulted from the fact that these families were loyal to the Russian royal family at the time of their overthrow by the bolsheviks. They escaped Russia through China.
    Kevin Hrab

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve sent you an email Kevin. Thanks for commenting.

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    2. Kevin I’m in Fairview and due to a change in plans I will have time to return to the old Orthodox Church. You mentioned Tom and Jean Sideroff, do you have contact info for them? My wife and I would like to see inside the church but I’d like to phone them in advance rather than just just show up. Would you be able email me with a phone number? 3181glen@gmail.com.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Doreen Verschoor January 17, 2020 — 9:20 am

    A group of Russian settlers lived and some still do in the region east and south in the Ranger districts: Andreefs, Koshieffs, Sideroffs, cherviakoffs, Mihailoffs. Doumnoffs., Nasedkins. There is a cemetery South and east of Hines Creek where some of the old timers are buried. The south half of the cemetery has graves of Russian people and the north half has graves of German settlers’ family members.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for the background information. I’ve often found that the Russian Orthodox Churches are west, southwest, and Northwest of Edmonton. Do you know if there was a reason for that or was it just a case of homesteaders inviting friends and family to join them and the nearest land was to the west of the other Russian settlers?

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  7. Thank you for the photos of the beautiful church.
    An interesting book tracing some of the Russian families that emigrated to Hines Creek and built the Church can be found at the following link:
    https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/records/item/148787-redirection
    David Kaija
    Grandson of Fred Sidoroff and Palegea Petrovna

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you David. I can’t access the book without a membership but I’m glad someone has taken the time to write these events down. I find the history fascinating in part because my own family history is similar, although we are not Russian. Thanks for commenting.

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    1. I was told my great grandfather, Clinton Chapman, helped build this church. This was despite being part of the Anglican Church. They were homesteaders in Hines Creek area. I have one old photo taken not long after completion with center steeple still intact. Wish I were closer. Great photos!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jeremy if you would like to see that photo in the blog I would be more than happy to add it, with full credit to you. There’s an email link below that you can use. If not, that okay too. That’s for sharing your memories and connections to the old church.

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      2. Hi my name is John (ivan) cherviakoff I was named after my great grandfather Ivan I used to go to this church growing up, would you be able to get in touch so I can see what my family’s church look like when it was completed

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  9. Hello Glen. Very nice pictures! I’m very interesting to see that church because we live not far from Fairview. I would be very thankful if you will send me a location of the church. Thank you

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    1. I do not give out locations to the churches and schools that I write about in order to protect them. Far too many of these sites have been subject to theft or vandalizm. While you may be genuinely interested in just visiting this church site, I’m unable to verify that or separate the sincere requests from those who would do it harm. I hope that you understand that this is necessary in order to protect these special places.

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    2. Pm me if need be

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  10. I am Polly Elder, author of “All This Shall Pass”. I am the daughter of Peter Sidoroff. This land was donated by my father to build a church and the cemetery where the first interment was my mother who died in 1931. This church and the Greek Orthodox faith was the center of my father’s life life. Brother Tom Sideroff (yes, slight change in spelling) and his wife Jean still live in the house on that adjoining farm. “All This Shall Pass” covers the stories of all those who came to Canada in 1924 (& 1928) from before the Revolution until the day of the printing of the book. Contact me via e-mail if you wish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m going to check to see if our public library has the book. It should be very interesting to read about this unique and beautiful church.

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  11. A copy of All This Shall Pass is in the Fairview library andin the Hines Creek Museum. Also in the Ottawa Archives and many other libraries, etc. across Canada. That church is like home to me. I grew up next door to it, attended the services when held, frequented the yard and cemetery many times just to enjoy its ambiance and to maintain my parents’ graves and that of the others if needed. I am 93 years old now but remember every precious moment of those days. Brother Tom (bless him) has been diligent in keeping the yard and cemetery well maintained.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was very well maintained when I was there. My wife (a library tech) will look into an inter-library loan to see if that’s possible. I think it is wonderful that you took the time to write your history down. I have something similar from a relative who described living conditions in the old country in ways that I’ve never imagined. Books like that are a window into the past. If she can’t get the book I may have to wait until summer as we hope to head northwest. One way or another I’ll get ahold of it. I thoroughly enjoyed photographing the church exterior and still consider it to be one of the most beautiful churches that I have photographed (although I am rather partial to the stone churches in Saskatchewan}. Perhaps next time I’m up there I can even go inside. Now that would be an honour.

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    2. I was just able to download the book from the link to the American Church of Latter Day Saints website. I’m surprised that they made it freely available but I was glad to get it. I’ve already started reading it and found it facinating. Thank you so much for letting me know about it.

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  12. Glen, where do you live now?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Edmonton. My wife has made a request for a inter-library transfer but it will take a while.

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    2. Thank you. I’ll go there if the inter-branch transfer at the public library doesn’t work. I don’t think that archives will allow books to be removed.

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  13. There is a copy in he Alberta Archives in Edmonton.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My niece sent me a message from you and I was expecting to see it on your blog but it isn’t here. I see you are reading All This Shall Pass on the Internet. How did you find it there? The answer to your question is: no, they were not part of the Old Believers. They are strictly Old Greek Orthodox, They have priests, Bishops, etc. A very old religion. I have a section at the beginning of the book about this religion. We could communicate on my e-mail (dpelder@telus.net) if you wish.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I thought I sent my email to you but it went to your nice which is fine too. I’m going to be reading it slowly because it is on the computer which is not as pleasant as sitting in my favourite chair with a book. Here is the link that I used. You have to register but there was no charge for doing so. https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/records/item/148787-redirection

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  14. Reblogged this on Glen's Travels and commented:

    A 2019 blog post that has been total rewritten. I’ve received an extensive amount of information about an epic journey to Canada.

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  15. Thankyou Glen for another informative post. I truly enjoy reading about the history of our beautiful province and the many interesting and brave people who came here.
    There were so many different cultures and religious beliefs that helped make Canada Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very glad to hear that you enjoyed it, Mezina. I continue to be amazed by the remarkable stories of people and families of the early century. I hope that never changes.

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  16. OMG!, I never knew my grand,grand,grand pa did this!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad that I could help you discover a little more about your heritage Emilie.

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  17. Somehow fitting to read about this church during this period in history. I lived in the Hines Creek area between 1969 and 1971 and I am sure I passed by this church, but can’t quite place it on a map. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Allan when I was there I had no idea that this church had such a storied history. Had Polly Elder not reached out to me I still would know nothing about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t find it on a map and would be interested in seeing where exactly it was in relation to the town. We lived both in Hines Creek and part way between Hines Creek and Worsley. Cheers

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  18. I knew this church looked familiar when I saw it. I lived in Hines Creek from 1969-1971 and went to Hines Creek High. Thanks for the history Glen. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You certainly have lived in or seen a lot of Alberta. I hope that my blog post provided you with some information about the people who built this church that you didn’t previously know.
      Glen

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Just passed this place today after seeing it on my travels back and forth to BC along that highway. Was pleasantly surprised to see such an extensive (and recent!) write-up. Thanks for taking the time to document it.

    Polly’s book has inspired me to get particular events in my family’s history put to word.

    Really glad I stopped there today. Completely enjoyed being there for a few minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jo. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog post as well as the visit to the church. If more people understood how unique and special it is they would be lining up to see it. For now it’s a bit of a secret and that’s fine too.

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