A Monk and His Monastery

Last year I wrote a blog about a monastery in northeast Alberta. Although abandoned, it surprised me that it existed at all. Prior to 2020 I thought of monasteries as something of a pre-industrial age institution. Given that the settlement of Alberta was relatively recent I didn’t expect to find monasteries here. This lack of knowledge of our history changed while exploring the ruins of St Elias which was a rare treat nearly comparable to finding old ruins in Europe. I walked through that forest with a sense of wonder; how might these northern woods have sounded as the monks gathered for chants, vespers, and prayers? St Elias was a wonderful discovery but could there be more than one old monastery in Alberta? The answer is yes there can be more than one. The condition of St Elias and the monastery featured in today’s blog suggests abandonment but they are not abandoned. These monasteries are just resting and waiting for one or more Orthodox monks to take up residence.

So join me now as I take you to a different monastery. Welcome to the Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos, in Northville, Alberta. It’s called Dormition Skete for short.

Some Preliminary Matters

I don’t mean to get all academic on you and I’m certainly no scholar, but it is useful to understand that not all Orthodox churches or monasteries are the same. Time, politics (both internal and external), ethnicity and certainly language have a way of creating new movements and organizations. I couldn’t begin to list them all here even if I knew or understood most of them. However for my little piece of the world, that being western Canada, we will trying to keep the focus on a smaller number that I’ll list below. You can skip these six bullets if you’re here for the highlights and images.

  • Greek Catholic Church – a Byzantine Rite Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Pope and the worldwide Catholic Church. This is not an Orthodox Church at all. It’s the second largest church within the Catholic family of churches second only to the Roman Catholic Church. In Canada we generally call this the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Although it’s Catholic, the building architecture and many of the traditions are quite similar to Orthodoxy. Similar but not the same. These are not Orthodox Churches.
  • Patriarchal Parishes of Russian Orthodox Church in Canada – or simply the Russian Orthodox Church. As the name implies, this is the Moscow Church. The headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church in Canada is St. Barbara Church in Edmonton (Located between Grierson Hill and Jasper Avenue). The Russian Orthodox Church claims that the first Orthodox service in Canada was held in 1897 in Wostok, Lamont County, northeast of Edmonton.
  • Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (“ROCOR”) – This is a direct result of the revolution in 1917 and the subsequent involvement of the Soviet government in the affairs of the Moscow Church. Eventually many Orthodox priests left Russia and formed the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to protect it from the communist regime in the USSR. You could say it was in exile or a diaspora of the Russian church. This church ultimately gave rise to the Orthodox Church in America which is primarily in the USA and Canada. The Hermitage of Prophet Elias (the one I photographed in 2020) is affiliated with this American Orthodox Church. The Holy Virgin Protection Convent, in Bluffton, Alberta is affiliated with ROCOR. The American Orthodox Church and ROCOR have differing points of view in terms of modernization and change within the church.
  • Ukrainian Orthodox Churches of Canada – This is a uniquely Canadian institution, and is not connected to the Ukraine. It was formed to unite the huge numbers of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada who, for historical reasons, would rather not be affiliated with Russia. There was a relatively recent development in Ukraine where the Orthodox Church in Ukraine broke off from the Moscow Church in 1990 and absorbed all of the property of the Moscow Church. Needless to say, neither the Moscow Church, nor Russia in general, was very impressed with this development.
  • A skete – A skete is a monastic community in Eastern Christianity that allows relative isolation for monks, but also allows for communal services and the safety of shared resources and protection. The words “monastery” or “monks” can refer to many religious groups from Orthodox Christian to Buddhist, but a skete is solely Orthodox.
  • “Old Believers” – Old Believers are not actually discussed in this blog but they are the most historically interesting or unusual breakaway group of all, dating back to the time of Peter the Great. If you ever want to learn about the “Old Believers” the nearest group of which is a rural area outside of Plamondon, northeast of Edmonton, I highly recommend a National Film Board video production called “Old Believers“. Most of the Russian Orthodox Church (except Old Believers) were very attached to the Tsars of Russia.
St Barbara’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Edmonton

“I saw the end of Tsarist Russia. I remember it in detail, but mainly I remember its spirit. In Tsarist times, everything was peaceful and pious. I remember going out into the garden and hearing the ringing of the church bells. How good and sweet it was to the soul, as if heaven had come down to earth, and one felt an incomprehensible and profound peace. I remember all of this not simply as a memory, but as a remembrance of the heart. I remember an interesting incident. I remember exactly how grandmother took the newspaper and said the following words: ‘This is the end of Russia!’ On the front page in big letters it was written that the Sovereign had abdicated from the throne. I remember the unforgettable difference when the revolution broke out. Everything changed.”

Bishop Vitaly

Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, lets check out this monastery west of Edmonton.

The Old Church at Dormition Skete

An earlier image of the old church at the monastery submitted by James Nicholas who said this photo was taken around 1990

The Skete

The Skete of the Dormition of the Theotokos was formed in 1955 by Bishop Vitaly under the ROCOR. It began with the acquisition of a 300 acre site of an abandoned sawmill west of Edmonton and just north of the Yellowhead Highway (that old sawmill came up in an unrelated blog about German prisoners-of-war in Alberta). Within a short space of time, a building with monastic cells was completed. They were in need of a church and found one near the community of Tomahawk. It was property of the Moscow Church but was seldom used so a deal was arranged and it was moved to the Granada area where the monastery used it. However I have checked a number of sources in the Tomahawk area and they have no knowledge of a church being moved. It’s my guess that the website that refers to the moving of a church is mistaken, at least as to the original location of the church.

The Monk and His Bishop

Father Seraphim was born in Russia in 1908 as Gregory Filimonoff. He became a monk in Uruguay in 1951 and soon after became a priest. He followed Bishop Vitaly from Russia to Uruguay and then Edmonton and finally Granada in 1955. That was the beginning of the Dormition Skete. This fulfilled a dream of Bishop Vitaly to create a monastery in western Canada. Sadly, he had no sooner created the monastery when he was called to a higher role in the hierarchy of the church and had to move away.

Bishop Vitaly

In 1957, Bishop Vitaly was transferred to Montreal, Quebec, to become the ROCOR Archbishop of Montreal and all Canada. Most of the monks followed him to Montreal leaving Father Seraphim behind as the keeper and abbot of the monastery (one source suggests that two monks stayed behind but, if true, the second monk didn’t appear to stay for long). This must have been a difficult adjustment for Father Seraphim because he had followed Bishop Vitaly from Russia, to South America, and then Alberta. Not only was he to stay behind, but this would be a break from following his Bishop and mentor. Father Seraphim was also tasked to serve as the circuit priest for the parishes of the ROCOR faith in the rural areas west of Edmonton. This included Granada, Wildwood, Edson and sometimes Bluffton. This gets close to home for me as part of my childhood was spent in Edson. I remember seeing the tiny Russian Orthodox Church down the street from my school. I couldn’t know then that at the same time that I was attending school in Edson, Father Seraphim was the parish priest for that tiny church down the street. I quite literally could have bicycled right past him although I don’t recall doing so. Knowing this makes me sound very old but I was a teenager when Father Seraphim was in his mid 70s.

Eventually Father Seraphim built 12 small log cabins to be used by pilgrims or for other monks had they ever joined him. He supported himself by growing cabbages and potatoes. Occasionally people would bring him fish from the nearby Chip Lake. He made some money from beekeeping and selling the honey and beeswax candles he produced from the bees. There was also a very large raspberry patch that he nurtured and it contributed to his survival. Father Seraphim died in 1988 of an unspecified but painful illness at the age of 80, and is now buried in the cemetery near Bluffton.

Father Seraphim “had massive, calloused hands from his constant physical labour. He was always very tanned from being outdoors, and he was slim and muscular”.

Source, OrthodoxCanada.CA

The Summer chapel and cemetery of Protection Convent, in Bluffton, Alberta. The burial place of Father Seraphim.

The New Church at Dormition Skete

This brings us to the end of the old monastery and Father Seraphim. However there appears to be a new church on the grounds at the monastery. I’ll talk more about that below. Notice the very spectacular glass-like dome? This is different than the typical domes we see in Alberta which are almost all larger and grey.

I’ve never seen such a beautiful shiny dome like this one anywhere else until now. It’s really quite extraordinary and evokes images of St Basils Cathedral in Moscow. The old church, shown at the beginning of this blog, had a similar, though less grand, blue dome.

Old buildings and new church at Dormition Skete

Historic Images

When you see black and white images of Byzantine style churches in western Canada, there is a good possibility that they were produced by Orest Semchishen. Orest Semchishen was an Alberta radiologist by profession. In the 1970s he took some University of Alberta extension classes to pursue his passion of photographing the people, buildings and events associated with various Byzantine traditions. He also photographed small communities and activities found in the northern prairies, with emphasis on Alberta, his home province. Orest Semchishen’s work was featured at a solo exhibition, called “In Plain View” at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography from April 7 to June19, 1994. His photography has also been exhibited at the National Film Board of Canada, in Ottawa, and the Edmonton Art Gallery. The monochrome images below are by Orest Semchishen. These images were found at the Ukrainian Folklife Archive. You can learn more about Orest Semchishen’s work at this website.

The Monk

This blog post isn’t just about another monastery in Alberta. It’s about a man, born as Gregory Filimonoff but known to most as Father Seraphim. He did what his Bishop asked which was to stay behind, alone, and work hard to support himself while serving others. He was happy with hard work in the cold forest with very minimal human contact (although in later years Ivan Ciupak of Edmonton would drive out to visit him). With limited English language skills, his life was like an endless Covid-19 pandemic lock-down and he seemed just fine with that. He said mass at three places that most people never heard of plus the Town of Edson. Despite this quiet and humble life there are websites and likely books Father Seraphim. A simple solitary man to whom posterity will be kind.

The Skete After the Monk

Currently. Father Andrew Kencis (who was also ordained by Bishop Vitaly) lives at and cares for the skete. He operates a printing press on the monastery grounds called Monastery Press. In this way Dormition Skete is still occupied and slowly modernizing even though there are no longer monks at the site. The printing press appears to be very active and you can clearly see that the blue church on the grounds is either new or extensively renovated. I’m uncertain if it’s part of a repurposing of the grounds as a retreat or youth camp or just updating. I reached out to Father Andrew Kencis for more information and his wife has provided some updates and corrections to the blog. Hopefully as time permits they will continue to contribute to ensure my information is reasonably accurate. Father Andrew Kencis, is the rector of Saint Vladimir’s Parish in Edmonton.

Future Blogs

I am constantly amazed at the depth and richness of the history on the Canadian prairies. For practical reasons, most of my blogs feature places that are a day’s drive from Edmonton. If you know of a place that has photographic interest as well as some little known but interesting history please feel free to suggest it as I’m often looking for new photography and blog subjects. Thank you for stopping in to read my blog.

References:

9 thoughts on “A Monk and His Monastery

  1. Hi Glen ! Enjoyed your blog ! All the information on the monastery and Orthodoxy is very accurate ! I am an Orthodox Christian and I am aware of this. My wife and I were at Edson about 25 years ago and I still have some photos of the old monastery church outside and inside.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you James for commenting. If you would like to see some of your inside images published on the blog that would be great as I don’t have any of inside. Just contact me by the email link below. Also do you recall seeing the blue church there 25 years ago? I don’t know if it’s being restored or is new.

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      1. You are most welcome ! I will locate the images I don’t remember seeing that blue church there no.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Glen. That was (another) excellent post! In particular, thank you for introducing me to Orest Semchishen; fascinating stuff!

    Brian in Camrose

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it Brian.

      Like

  3. Hi Glen ! I located a couple of images inside the church as well as one of the exterior that is not so dilapidated so let me know how to upload then to you

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My email address is 3181glen@gmail.com. If they are already digital you can attach some to an email. If it’s too large, then just send them in multiple emails. If they are printed, you can probably take a photo of them from a smart phone. That depends on the quality of the phone but most phones made in the last few years can do a very good job of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Glen, as always, a very interesting post! You must spend absolutely hours conducting research and then compiling it for us to enjoy. Just the historical facts alone are incredible, to say nothing about the photos. I would love to know what that ‘new’ dome is made of – it looks like it might be glass, but that’s not practical I don’t suppose, so it must be some type of metal. Very different anyway!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much Mary Anne. It does take many hours to research the blogs but time is one “gift” that the pandemic has given many of us. I thought the dome was made of glass too as it sure looks like it. When I zoom in on my computer 🖥 I’m fairly sure I can see either rivets or screws so that means it’s probably some metal with a powder coated paint (like car bodies). It certainly is unusual.

      Liked by 1 person

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