Holy Ascension Russo-Greek Orthodox Church and Cemetery 1898-1910
I often travel great distances to find sites of historical significance or at least photographic interest but that history is not always far far away. There’s a place just beyond the southern limits of Edmonton that tells a story of brief but significant events in the settlement of Alberta. I’ve known about it for years but only recently found out why it exists and why the little church built here had such a short life. Fortunately for you, I’ve done most of the research already so you get to just sit back and enjoy this blog while learning about a place rarely seen or noticed.
This story begins in 1864 with the birth of Theodore Pavlovich Fuhr, in Jaroslaw County, Galicia (which is in southeast Poland and situated just west of the present-day Ukraine). Throughout history the borders of European countries, especially eastern European, were fluid at best. Kingdoms rose and fell and areas that were not blocked by mountain ranges were natural routes for armies from all directions. This particular area was once Lithuanian, Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Polish with frequent invasions by the Ottomans among many others. Galacia was even invaded by the armies of the Ghengis Khan in the 13th century. This was also where western Catholic Europe and eastern Orthodox Europe met. If you would like to learn more about Galacia’s history, I recommend this website.
You may wonder why a man with the clearly German name like “Fuhr” would be born in such a strife torn area such as Galicia? It was because of the actions of a Russian Tsar during a time when this part of Poland was under Russian rule. In the 18th century the Empress Catherine II (herself a German) invited Germans into many regions of the Russian empire in order to re-establish organised farming after the Ottomans had been expelled. Some Germans came in such large numbers that they formed a German diaspora and maintained their language and cultural identity while farming in Russia. Other Germans assimilated into the Slavic traditions including its language and Greek Orthodox religion. It’s this second group that describes Theodore Fuhr’s parents causing him to embrace Russian Greek Orthodox Christianity. In the 18th century (when Theodore Fuhr was a young man) the land was still troubled due to the friction between the Polish Roman Catholics and Slavic Orthodox Christians. The friction had little to do with religious observance but rather the Orthodox Christians were seen as “Russian” and a threat to Polish autonomy. Theodore Fuhr wanted a better life for himself and his family so in 1896 answered the call of the Canadian government as promoted by Dr. Joseph Oleskiw and set sail aboard the S S Christiania bound for Canada.
Most people from eastern Europe came to Canada to take advantage of the offer of free land if they could turn the raw prairie into functional farms with a home within the requisite two year period. Theodore Fuhr was able to buy an existing homestead with a working farm in the area then known as The Rabbit Hills which was southwest of Edmonton. Buying an existing farm was a very practical decision as Theodore Fuhr was a carpenter by trade but without much experience as a farmer. In purchasing this land Theodore is accredited with the distinction of being the the first Slavic landowner in Canada, although that would be difficult to prove.
Theodore Fuhr encouraged many others from Galicia to move to this same area in Alberta as the land had rich soil for farming. Many came. Soon after arriving in Canada the Slavic immigrants experienced one of their first new freedoms, which was the freedom to choose and practice a religion of their choice. Russian Orthodox missionaries from San Francisco visited the region and held Orthodox services in the Fuhr home shown above. Theodore Fuhr and his wife Anna also hosted the missionaries and performed many roles in the new church held in their home. In 1902 Theodore Fuhr donated the land for a tiny Orthodox Church to be built. It was there in 1898 that a cemetery was consecrated and it remains there to this day. In January 1900 the local community resolved to build a church on this land and it was completed in December of 1900. It’s shown below to the left. That is possibly the only image ever taken of this church. The image to the right of it is of the nearby St Mary’s Orthodox Church which I discuss more below.
Bishop Tikhon awarded Theodore Fuhr with a “gramota” (blessed certificate), dated 12 August, 1904. The text honoured him for his work with the Holy Ascension Parish.
The church and cemetery on Fuhr’s land would only be used until 1910. Many families from the nearby Greek Catholic Parish of Saint Mary’s wished to exercise their new religious freedom and become Orthodox. This would be accomplished by uniting with the Orthodox congregation of Holy Ascension. Each congregation would give up something; Saint Mary’s would give up their association with the Catholic Church and become Russian Orthodox. Holy Ascension would give up its church building which made sense as Saint Mary’s was the larger of the two and could accommodate both congregations. See the above historic photo of Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s was no longer Greek Catholic (now generally known as Ukrainian Catholic in Canada) as it joined the Russo-Greek Orthodox Church. As a result of this merger, the Temple of the Holy Ascension was closed permanently. Theodore Fuhr disassembled the now disused Temple, which left only the cemetery on the original site. That brings us to my photos of the site of the former Holy Ascension Russo-Greek Orthodox Church as of 2020 which is still a cemetery.
There are only four markers, including the recently added metal cross for John Doblanka, in this cemetery south of Edmonton. It has a new fence plus one old spruce tree.
The cairn on the original site of Holy Ascension Russo-Greek Orthodox Church and Cemetery identifies those who are interned there. This list includes Anna Fuhr, but who was she if not the wife of Theodore Fuhr? Theodore Fuhr and Anna Fuhr are buried in the cemetery at Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church and Cemetery. Anna Fuhr died on October 22, 1939 and Theodore Fuhr died on June 2, 1942. Here is an image of their shared grave marker.
I can’t read the Cyrillic alphabet so it was no small task to identify this marker as the Fuhr’s because there is no English writing on it. However it is theirs. Note that while we have a different alphabet from the Slavic people we share common numbers. The numeric parts of the marker clearly have the correct dates of death and the shared year of birth being 1864. So Theodore and Anna Fuhr are buried here at Saint Mary’s Orthodox Cemetery.
This brings us back to the question of who was Anna Fuhr buried at Holy Ascension Orthodox Cemetery, perhaps one of their children? Here’s a list of their children: William (1888), John (1890), Alexander (1892), Katherine (1895), Mary (1896), Anastasia (1897), Mary (1900), Evdokia (Eva) (1902), Anastasia (1904), Andrew (1908). Note that there are two Marys and two Anastasias. The only explanation for this is that the first born of that name died as a child before the birth of the next child of that name. None of their children is named “Anna”. Could it be Anastasia, who must have died before 1904 that is called “Anna” in the first cemetery? This is called a hypocorism which is a shorter form of a word or given name, for example, when used in more intimate situations as a nickname or term of endearment. No, I didn’t know what a hypocorism was before I wrote this blog. I would say that it’s not Anastasia with the hypocorism of Anna because a gravestone, of all places, is where the more formal and fuller name of the deceased is used. This is one mystery too many for my blog so I’ll leave it to my readers and others who may wish to pursue this further to solve the question of who is the Anna Fuhr that is buried at the tiny Holy Ascension Cemetery.
There is an Orthodox Church in the Town of Edson, mid-way between Edmonton and Jasper, that has connections to the Fuhr family. I discovered this quite by accident while reading a website about the history of that church. As I was reading I realized that I recognize that name. That website describes the daughters of Theodore and Anna Fuhr as pillars of the Edson parish. Click here to learn more.
“By this time, the settlement of this region included some Orthodox believers. Of them, some were daughters of Theodore and Anna Fuhr of the Nisku area. A small Temple was erected in Edson, and named for the Holy Apostle Andrew, the First-called, and the community continued to be served by the regional clergy.
The daughters of Theodore and Anna Fuhr were “pillars” or “mainstays” of the parish. Two are most significant. Mary Kowalchuk (Michael) and Katherine (Peter) Madick (Peter was a Serb). Mary’s home was only half a block up the street from the Temple. She, her husband Mike, her daughter Naddie (Nadezheda) Ewachniuk, husband Alex Ewachniuk and grandchildren all spent most of their spare time cleaning, repairing, landscaping and preparing the Temple for the services which were conducted there (but not on a regular schedule). The visiting clergy always stayed overnight at Mary’s house. Especially in the fall and winter months, she or one of the relatives would be up early in the morning to light the pot-bellied stove in the Temple in order to make it cozy (or at least bearable) for the services. This was much the way also with the other 2 sisters, Katherine and Elsie (who was later tonsured to be a nun with the name Varsonofia). However, by the 1950s, they had both moved to Edmonton.”Canadian Orthodox History Project
I like to write blogs that feature my best photographic images. This was not one of those blogs. Let’s face it, there’s only so much any photographer can do with a graveyard consisting primarily of unmarked graves. That’s basically a small piece of farm land, and often a weedy piece at that. So why write it? Because people, especially people who live in or near Edmonton, should know that events of some significance occurred on this small block of farm land. Lives were changed, famous people came from far away to be here to either visit or to live nearby, people from exotic far away locations came here to start new lives. You can say the same thing about most of the prairies but this is a little different. This little piece of land just south of highway 19, was the nexus for people from Galicia. You don’t have to be Slavic to appreciate that. I’m not Slavic and I enjoyed the reading and research of this little piece of land and how it affected so many people in such a short period of time. I like to stand in a place like this and let my thoughts wander to a time long ago, before Alberta was a province and when Edmonton was literally just a two horse town. I hope that if you choose to visit this cemetery and cairn, you will feel some of that history. Come with an open mind and spirit and please walk respectfully in the cemetery as there are people beneath the surface who are at rest. They deserve that peace and respect. Something big started here, right here. That’s the take away.
The research for this blog was sourced mainly from the website of the Orthodox Church in Canada. All historic photos are from that site. All current photos are mine. I also visited both sites numerous times to examine the information available and photograph what was relevant to this blog.
The above image is from the Orthodox Canada website. Click here to view it.
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