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.