I’ve been fascinated by the Doukhobors, a people who came from Russia a very long time ago, but I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s the general lack of information that makes them somewhat mysterious. Whatever it is, I wanted to learn more about them. Who were these people, what sets them apart, and why did they come to Canada? That’s what this blog is about.
If you mentioned “Doukhobors” to me a few years ago I would have responded with “British Columbia”, “Grand Forks” and “nude protests against the government including the burning of their own clothes and homes”. All of that is correct but what I didn’t know is that British Columbia (“BC”) represents the second or perhaps latest migration of the Doukhobors. In Canada it was Saskatchewan that was their first home – with a small group in Alberta – and I only learned of this a few years ago. Doukhobors have many similarities to the English Quakers yet I could find no connections between the two so they appear to have evolved separately.
First some basic history. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Doukhobors broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. The Doukhobors rejected church liturgy, believing that God dwells in each human being and not in a church; they rejected secular governments; and practiced pacifism. They replaced the Bible with orally transmitted psalms and hymns, which they called the Living Book. They strongly believed in community ownership of land and property and this is the trait that caused them the most grief in Canada.
17th century Russia – as well as anywhere else in Europe – was not exactly known for religious liberties. During the late 18th century, this group was persecuted by the tsars and the Russian Orthodox Church for heresy and pacifism. In 1785, an Orthodox archbishop called them Doukhobors, or “Spirit-Wrestlers.” It was intended to mean “Wrestlers against the Holy Spirit,” but the group adopted it, interpreting it as “Wrestlers for and with the Spirit.” They were constantly being relocated to more distant parts of the Russian Empire and that eventually resulted in them moving, community by community, to Canada and settling primarily in Saskatchewan. More than 7,500 sailed to Canada in 1899 and settled in what was to become Saskatchewan, where they lived as a community. Peter Verigin was allowed to leave his exile in Siberia to join other Doukhobors in Canada in 1902, making the migration of the Doukhobors the largest single mass migration in Canadian history. Peter Verigin eventual left Saskatchewan with a group of followers to settle in BC but that is part of another story.
The Doukhobors didn’t build churches as such but they did construct prayer houses where they would sing traditional songs and recite psalms. Some of these prayer houses are now museums and others were abandoned. There is one near the Manitoba border that I was able to locate and photograph. Now join me below in a photo tour of this very old Doukhobor prayer house.
Most pacifist groups such as Mennonites, Hutterites, and Doukhobors ran afoul of the Canadian government when they refused to participate in the war. Even then, concessions were often granted, if they would help the war effort in a non-military capacity. However Doukhobors and the governments of Saskatchewan and Canada had severe disagreements even before the war. It was over the communal ownership of the farm land. This was not permitted under the Dominion Lands Act.
More about those bricks
I am very fortunate and honoured to have many of my Saskatchewan posts proof-read and contributed to by Frank Korvemaker, a construction historian and writer of many books and papers. The text that follows pertaining to the unusual brick construction is from Frank Korvemaker.
When laying bricks, the bricklayer was supposed to set the brick with the “frog” facing up, so that the mortar would fill the cavity, and thereby create a stronger bond between the rows of bricks. If the brick is placed upside down, the mortar in the cavity tended to sag, resulting in a less cohesive bond. Deeper frogs also gave better bonding, and took less clay to make a brick, but more mortar during subsequent construction. For modern bricks, those round holes serve the same function, but those bricks are not nearly as interesting to look at – and collect, as many of them lack the manufacturing information printed in the frog base for some bricks.
Frank Korvemaker goes on to say;
One major benefit to laying bricks on edge is that it takes fewer bricks to cover the side of a building. Consequently the brick veneer is thinner: just 2¼ or 2½ inches rather than four inches. That will also affect the amount of heat or cold that masonry offers in frame construction faced with brick or stone.
While this feature is most common on Doukhobor buildings in the Kamsack-Canora area of Saskatchewan (over ¾ of the examples relate to them), I have also found it used elsewhere – but it still is a very rare phenomenon. Perhaps the Doukhobor were more frugal in distributing bricks from their own brickyards. Here are images of most of the examples that we have found to date:
“As for who initiated this interesting brick-on-edge pattern, that has yet to be determined. Nor do I know if there are buildings with this brick-laying pattern in Manitoba or Alberta.
I’m sure there were other Doukhobor buildings that utilized this brick-laying format; however the half dozen identical Doukhobor houses on Myrtle Street in Yorkton do not follow this pattern; but they do share a brick fence, and sheet metal roofing on the houses as well as on the brick garages.” Frank Korvemaker
Image at left: Thunderhill Colony – brick detail (Photo credit: Hugh Henry)
The nearby Vossianie cemetery
It is quiet here now. I can only hear the ever present Saskatchewan wind. What a contrast this silence is to how it must have been at the end of the 19th century. A time with many hands cutting wood and constructing this prayer house as well as the many homes. This was followed by the singing of ancient songs brought over from Russia. It’s believed that there are 20,000 descendants of the original settlers, one third of which maintain some ties with their Doukhobor culture. If you are interested in learning more about the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan and BC, I recommend watching this informative YouTube video. I also highly recommend a superb blog by Chris and Connie called “Anastasia Lords” for an important piece of the puzzle of the Doukhobors in Alberta.
Thank you for visiting my blog. Please feel free to leave a comment. If you know of other Doukhobor structures still standing in Saskatchewan you can contact me directly and I’ll try to photograph them the next time I’m visiting eastern Saskatchewan.
The Canadian Encyclopedia: Doukhobors | The Canadian Encyclopedia Used for general historic information about the Doukhobor Immigration.
Frank Korvemaker, M.S.M.; SAA (Hon), Construction Historian, Regina. http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/korvemaker_f.shtml Source for all historic images not otherwise credited to Glen Bowe and all details related to the unusual brick construction method used by the Doukhobor community.
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.
20 thoughts on “The Doukhobors in Saskatchewan”
There is much history in Verigin , Saskatchewan..
Thanks for commenting Stephanie. I did notice a lot of places around Verigin that have interesting photographic potential but we didn’t have enough time see everything we wanted to see. Perhaps next summer we’ll be able to return. I certainly enjoyed my short visit to eastern Saskatchewan.
Thank you for the story to go with the pictures…I live in seniors condo and have doukabors for neighbors…all nice people…the burning and blowing up we’re the ‘radical’ doukabors who have now mostly integrated and married others that settled here…not necessarily Russian…the doukabors were being persecuted in Russia and the Queen granted them this land in Saskatchewan…
Thanks for commenting Daryl. I agree with you that most of the Doukhobors were and are good people.
Come visit us at the Doukhobor Dugout House National Historic site of Canada.
I hope to visit that historic site someday. It sounds like a fascinating place to experience.
There is a prayer house on a hill just south of Kamsack Saskatchewan. It is almost identical to the one in the blog.
I would love to photograph it. Can you provide me with directions?
You have a stellar blog and I always look forward to your posts.
Thank you very much. I’m happy to have you join me in these adventures.
Thank you Jenn. They are a fascinating group of people. I don’t understand why their history is only found in blogs and memories rather than in textbooks and documentaries.
I enjoyed reading your blog, Glen. It was a good, accurate overview of the history of Doukhobors which will be useful and informative, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the history of this group.
A word about the prayer home and cemetery you highlight in your blog. Both were part of the Doukhobor village of Vossianiye (aka Vossialovka) established in 1899 near the Assiniboine ariver south of Kamsack, Saskatchewan. The prayer home itself was not built in 1899 but rather in 1907 and is one of the very last village prayer homes still standing in the province. The communal village existed for twenty years, however, by 1920 it was abandoned as its remaining inhabitants either relocated to individual homesteads as Independent Doukhobors or else relocated with the Doukhobor Community to settlements in British Columbia, Alberta or elsewhere in Saskatchewan.
For more information on this and other Doukhobor settlements, please visit the Doukhobor Genealogy Website at http://www.doukhobor.org.
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Thank you for your comments and the information about the prayer house. I’m amazed at how soon they left after building the long term structures. I had visited the website but there was so much information that I missed the dates for this prayer house.
Hi Glen – great to stumble upon your blog and your interest in the Doukhobor community. I wanted to let you know about a project that we just concluded this summer to preserve some of the history and traditions of the Saskatchewan Doukhobor community, called the Saskatchewan Doukhobor Living Book Project: https://doukhoborlivingbook.ca/
As part of the project we produced a 90min documentary film about the Saskatchewan Doukhobor community which I suspect may be of interest to you. It is available via Vimeo at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/doukhobor
Thanks for sharing the wonderful photos and I hope you find some of our work of interest!
I saw the trailer. It’s $13.00 for the full video. Does this money just go to Vimeo or to support a cause?
Hello again Glen – all the money from the sale of the film goes towards our fundraising efforts to support the work we have done on the Saskatchewan Doukhobor Living Book Project. Between the documentary film and the exhibit and soundscape installation that was at the Western Development Museum this summer/fall there were considerable production costs that we are trying to cover (https://doukhoborlivingbook.ca/donate).
Thanks again for the interest!
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Very good info. Lucky me I found your website by chance (stumbleupon). I’ve book marked it for later!
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I’m glad you enjoyed it Lionel.
I remember my Dad always talking about the Doukhobors, when we lived in Manitoba. They never seemed to have a name, just a religion. People always seem to single out those who are just a bit “different”, not realizing we are all just a bit “different”. Love the brick style and the explanation. It would make for some truly unique architectural finishes. Thanks for sharing Glen. Allan
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Well Allan you knew more than I did before I started my research. Having only lived in Alberta the only place I associated with Doukhobors was southern BC. Those were the more radical Doukhobors who made the news with stories of burning their homes and clothes. It was quite an interesting awakening I received to learn about the Doukhobors on the prairies, and even in Alberta. They only had a small presence in Alberta though.
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