My recent blogs have focused a great deal on Alberta’s Peace River region northwest of Edmonton. For a change of pace we will look at the historically rich area northeast of Edmonton. This is the Willingdon, Hairy Hill and Boian area.
Biserica Ortodoxă Română Nașterea Fecioarei Maria
In English: Romanian Orthodox Church Nativity of the Virgin Mary
There is a beautiful Romanian Church up on a hill that has a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. This church – that I’ll refer to in this blog post as the Boian Church – can’t really be seen from the road due to a grand treed driveway that separates the church from the road. The church is a designated Alberta Historic Site. However the main story for this blog post is about another Romanian Orthodox Church just four kilometers south of the church on the hill. This one is covered in torn tarpaper and has been empty for many years. The history of the two churches are thoroughly intertwined so in describing the one church’s history I will describe them both. Both churches are located northeast of Edmonton, Alberta.
Note that Rumania, Roumania and Romania all refer to the same place. Romania is just the modern English spelling of the country that we used to spell with a “u” or an “ou”.
Rome Wasn’t Built in A Day
In the year 1908, sixty Romanian families attended the Orthodox church of Boian (the beautiful church on the hill). Due to a lack of Romanian priests in western Canada at that time, and because of the abundance of Russians and especially Ukrainians in the area, the Parish was mainly served by Russian priests. This was before there was a separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church organization so even many of the Ukrainian churches in Alberta were served by Russian Orthodox priests. The Romanians were getting progressively more homesick for their own language in their church. The Russian priests would conduct the services in either Russian, Old Church Slavonic or possibly even in Ukrainian but not in Romanian. After three years of searching, the Romanian members of the parish were able to get Father Benedict Eliescu to come from Roleau, Saskatchewan (that’s where the TV sitcom “Corner Gas” used to be filmed) to serve their spiritual needs. Father Benedict Eliescu was only to stay for two months duration. Those two months that Father Eliescu served did not make the Russian parishioners very happy because Father Eliescu conducted the services in Romanian which of course they did not understand. The Boian Church Committee was, at that time, composed of two groups – Russian and Romanian. After the end of the two month period, the Russian group refused to use church funds to pay for the Romanian priest’s services so the matter ended up in court. Note that the local history books often grouped Russians and Ukrainians together, especially in regards to Orthodox Church matters because until relatively recently the Russian Orthodox Church was the official Church in Ukraine. So when this church mentions Russians it could be referring to either Russians or Ukrainians.
The Romanian group won the court case to have church’s funds pay the priest’s costs but the judge had some stern advice for them. The judge told the Romanian group that there were more Russian speaking parishioners at the Boian Church than Romanians so they should work together or build a church all of their own. Thus the seeds were sown for the little tarpaper church.
The first meeting of this nascent Romanian Church was on February 13, 1911 at which time they decided that the name for their church will be “Biserica Ortodoxă Română Nașterea Fecioarei Maria din Hairy Hill, Alberta, Canada” which in English is “Nativity of the Virgin Mary Romanian Orthodox Church in Hairy Hill, Alberta, Canada”. The president, Mr Vasile Morz, donated the three acres of land for the new church. They immediately set to building the church and in 1913 it was ready to be blessed. Not all of the Romanian parishioners of the Boian church were willing to leave and join the new Hairy Hill church but that is normal in any situation where another church is built nearby. They may have family buried in the Boian cemetery or just not want to change churches after years of attending there.
It wasn’t easy to find Romanian priests to serve at this church especially during the war years. The only place to find a permanent Romanian priest was from Romania but these were difficult times for that country. Actually, it seems that the times have always been difficult for Romania. Romania was a key crossroads for the Great War and many wars before that. It’s borders were in a constitutionant state of change, especially the area of Transylvania, much of which was lost to Hungary. Below is a quote from a German Field Marshal from WWI which shows how strategically important Romania was.
It is certain that so relatively small a state as Rumania had never before been given a role so important, and, indeed, so decisive for the history of the world at so favorable a moment. Never before had two great Powers like Germany and Austria found themselves so much at the mercy of the military resources of a country which had scarcely one twentieth of the population of the two great states. Judging by the military situation, it was to be expected that Rumania had only to advance where she wished to decide the world war in favor of those Powers which had been hurling themselves at us in vain for years. Thus everything seemed to depend on whether Rumania was ready to make any sort of use of her momentary advantagePaul von Hindenburg, a German field marshal and statesman who led the Imperial German Army during World War I and later became President of Germany from 1925 until his death in 1934 (Hitler was the next leader).
The war and the depression in the years that followed made it continued to be very difficult for Romanian priests to come to Canada. Both the Boian Church and the Hairy Hill (tarpaper) Church find it difficult to attract and keep priests and this problem would only get worse as congregations dropped in size.
The Churches of Boian and Hairy Hill were separate parishes. After petitioning Winnipeg in 1924, the Bishop of Winnipeg sent Vasile Cohan to serve at Boian. In the years leading up to the arrival of Father Cohan, the Romanians were able to slowly increase their numbers on the Boian Church Council. The Russians had to accept Father Cohan for he was sent by their own bishop. Father Cohan, being Romanian, was also able to serve at Hairy Hill. As time progressed, the Russians’ presence was felt less and less until there were only 2 or 3 Russian speaking families left in the parish. The day came when the Romanians saw themselves masters in their own church.
Father Cohan served at both Boian and Hairy Hill, 1924–1929 and 1932–1937. Services within the two parishes were usually divided equally whenever one priest was available. Occasions had arisen where each parish had its own priest however the parishes were small and could not support their own priest for very long.
From the beginning the Hairy Hill church had enough members to support it, but as the time passed, there were fewer members. In 1938 the church had 16 member families, in 1960 the church had only 5 member families to support it. The building was being neglected because of the lack of members. Then Reverend Vasele Toma, who served in this church for eight years, cleaned and repaired it. He also planted the spruce trees by the church.
At the Annual Meeting in January 1960, it was decided that the Hairy Hill church would join the Boian Church because five members were not enough to have a permanent priest. There was no longer a reason to have a separate church as the Boian church was led by Romanian priests (although by this time the services were likely in English rather than Romanian or Russian). The remaining members of the Hairy Hill church became members of the Boian church and both Parishes became one. Services were performed at the Hairy Hill Church on the Patron Saint Day and day of the Blessing of the Graves for a time. I don’t know when those special services at Hairy Hill ended but it’s quite possible that the the last service was 1973.
The latest record I could find of any church related activity at the Hairy Hill church was as quoted below from the website for the Romanian Pioneer Museum of Boian.
On July 21, 1973 His Eminence Archbishop Victorin, the clergy and delegates of the 42nd Annual Congress of the Romanian Orthodox Missionary Episcopate in America, along with the “Casa Romana” from the Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Cathedral of Detroit, stopped and prayers were read for those pioneers who helped found and build the Church, and who now are resting peacefully in the church cemetery.Website – Romanian Pioneer Museum of Boian
I obtained most of the history of the Hairy Hill Church from from this document which was written by Reverend Fr Econ. D Diaconesecu. There is also a website where a similar, though not identical, history is described. Curiously the local history book only describes the Boian Church with not even a mention of the Hairy Hill Church. Their histories are closely related and can only be properly described together.
Romania is known for many things and its culture was influenced by centuries of occupiers including German, Russian, Ottoman and many others. I have prepared a list of three things that I think are the most commonly associated with Romania to a typical North American. I’ve added a fourth item that I recently learned about because it has more to do with Romania’s future rather than its past.
- Dracula. The first thing that people often think of when they hear the name of the European country, Romania, is probably Bram Stoker’s 19th century novel, Dracula. It was based on Transylvanian folklore and history. Some scholars believe that the book was also inspired by the Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler.
- Nicolae Ceauşescu. From 1958 to 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu led Romania as a communist politician and dictator. in 1989 a popular uprising ousted Ceausescu from power so in December 1989 he and his wife Elena tried to flee the country but they were captured by the Military. They were both tried and convicted by a military tribunal for economic sabotage and genocide. On December 25, 1989, both Ceausescu and his wife were immediately executed by firing squad.
- Latin. When asked to name the Latin based Romance languages most people will quickly name, French, Italian and Spanish. After a moment to think about it most people will add Portuguese as well. Those are correct answers but they are missing Romanian. This is ironic given that Romania is named after Rome, which is where these languages derive their Latin roots. The Romanian Cyrillic alphabet was used until the late 19th century when a variant of the Latin alphabet was official adopted. To the best of my knowledge Romania is the only Latin country that practices Orthodox Christianity (nearly 75% of the population of Romania identify as Orthodox.
- Salina Turda. Number 4 in this list is not very well known yet, but I thought I should include something in this list that does not describe dictators, vampires and ancient empires. I’ve known about the Turda Salt Mine for perhaps a year at most. This is the location of an old salt mine that has been mined as early as the 13th century. It’s been a popular tourist attraction since 1992 and in 2005 it was closed for major updates and re-opened in 2010. This is not a mine tour like you might expect to see in Alberta, for example, in Crowsnest Pass, where the focus is how the mine once operated. This is a recreation centre deep underground in the void left by the centuries of mining. You can rent a boat and paddle around, take in some rides such as the Ferris wheel and even play billiards or relax in a spa. It’s a little like a Romanian version of West Edmonton Mall without the shopping and it’s located deep underground. This link provides more information, https://www.salinaturda.eu/en/
Photographs of the Hairy Hill Church
Image Contributed by a Blog Reader
The small cemetery behind the Hairy Hill Church is still in use but most of the markers are very old. In the second image above you can see a wooden cross marker that could have come from anywhere in the cemetery.
I don’t know why the year 1954 is shown on the steeple. Something noteworthy must have happened in that year.
The church was basically empty when I visited it in 2022. Two well known photographers, Alicia and Corey, who are based in Saskatchewan, visited this church in July 2022, a few months before I did. What they saw was dramatically different than what I saw and photographed. It appears that the caretakers are removing all the items of value before they are damaged by water. Once the roof of any old church has deteriorated the buildings days are numbered.
I highly recommend viewing the You Tube video by Prairie Past at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFMRGZ0NENc It shows an earlier view before most of the furnishings were removed.
St Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church of Boian
While this blog post was meant to feature the church at Hairy Hill, The Nativity of Virgin Mary, it wouldn’t be complete without some images of the nearby Romanian Church called St Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church of Boian. The Boian church is now a historic site. I visited the Boian Church in 2021, one year earlier than the Hairy Hill Church. This church is still in regular use with services on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month.
The land on which the church was finallyHistory of Willingdon, 1928-1978. Page 101
built was donated by Vasile Romanko . He donated forty acres of
land, actually twenty -five percent of all the land he owned
In October of 1903, Ion T. Toma, George T. Toma and Dumitru Moscaliuk hauled stones and rocks with sleighs from the farms of Ion Seminiuk and Nicolae Yurko. These boulders were used to build the foundation of the church. In the same year huge tamarack logs, forty feet long and longer were cut down in what was later known as the Shalka district (Bojan). Ion T. Toma, Dumitru Moscaliuk , George T. Toma and George Porozni Sr., hauled the logs to the sawmill near the North Saskatchewan River, close to where the Desjarlais ferry was to operate later. They decided that each of them was to donate twenty dollars to pay for the squaring of the logs for the building. The logs were then hauled back to the site chosen for the church .History of Willingdon, 1928-1978. Page 101
It’s not evident from the outside but this was built with logs, rather than lumber (based on the quote below). The log construction was covered with wood siding in 1918.
The carpenter hired was Eli Raviliuk (Rawlake) and he was to work and supervise the job for the sum of two hundred dollars. This he did with the help of volunteers . Like many other projects of this nature there were many problems but slowly the building rose. However the logs had been cut green and when they dried the walls on the north and south began to bulge out. Ion T. Toma went to see the carpenter and was told that they would need two iron rods long enough to reach across the church so that the north and south walls could be bound together for strength. Ion T. Toma, after three trips to Edmonton at his own expense and time, procured these rods that had been ordered from Winnipeg. TheHistory of Willingdon, 1928-1978. Page 101
walls were reinforced and they still stand today, strong as ever.
Interestingly, the surname “Toma” is prominent in the histories of both churches. At the Boian graveyard there are 40 interments with the last name of Toma.
The plaque below the wooden cross says:
- Romanian Pioneer Museum of Boian: Website. http://boianalbertamuseum.com/historical-background/churches/the-romanian-orthodox-church-of-hairy-hill/
- History of Willingdon, 1928-1978, Charuk, Myrtle. 1978 St. Paul Journal, St. Paul, Alberta. Digital copy from the University of Calgary, Digital Resources.
- Website: Alberta Register of Historic Places. https://hermis.alberta.ca/ARHP/Details.aspx?DeptID=1&ObjectID=4665-0250
- St. Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church of Boian website: https://boianchurch.ca/
- Prairie Past You Tube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFMRGZ0NENc
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.
17 thoughts on “The Tale of Two Romanian Churches”
An amazing history indeed, Glen. Too bad the Hairy Hill church is deteriorating, but I suppose not everything can be saved. St. Mary’s church and school look amazing. Thanks for sharing this bit of our history. Allan
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Thank you Allan. You’re quite right that they can’t all be saved. Fortunately one will be protected and it is the nicer one of the two.
Excellent article on both churches, Glen! I too have visited both.
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Thank you Stan. I’m not surprised that you’ve been there.
Hi there, my husband shared this article and I wanted to comment, as we still to this day have grave blessing at the Hairy Hill church. We have our meal grave side and our Father conducts the service up the hill.
My daughter was the last person to be baptized there in 2011.
We go there to this day to pay our respects and the grounds are a lovely place to visit lived ones.
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Thank you Dawn for commenting about this post and the two churches. As I understand it the grounds are still in use but any indoor activity is conducted at the other church. I hope that I did the story of the two churches justice, in your opinion.
What lovely places!! I wish you had been able to see the one with the furniture inside, but the video definitely does it justice. Glen, sir, you always find the coolest places!
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Thank you very much Rebecca. The video really does show the old church well. I hope someday I can see the inside of the restored church, north of the tarpaper church.
Thank you for the very interesting & informative story which I received from Dawn Ionitz. Unfortunately I haven’t been to the Hairy Hill church, and will try to make a point of stopping this summer. The Boian church however, has been a mainstay in my life attending many weddings & funerals, as many of our close friends of my parents & myself are from this church community, remaining on the board today. I do want to comment though on your reference throughout the article of Russians intertwined with the Romanians in the immigration years. That community was Ukrainian and I do take offence to continually being referenced as Russian. I, and most everyone else from the immigration to 2000, within the county, have been primarily Ukrainian. I feel this article should be revised to clarify that. Please don’t reference Ukrainians as Russians. I was going to share this article but can’t and won’t for that reason. Thank you for you interest in our county & Orthodox religion. Regards Eileen (Kereliuk) Radesh
Thank you Eileen for taking the time to comment. The reference to the Russians in the blog post is based on the the website of the Romanian Pioneer Museum of Boian and the document found in the Harry Hill Church. In fact both of those sources referred to all of the Slavic people as Russian. I’m aware that many people from outside of the Orthodox communitues tend to group all Slavic people together as Russian which of course is not correct. In fact even the Black Sea Germans who came from Ukraine were occasionally referred to as Russian. Knowing this, I added the fact that most of the people who were referred to as Russian were Ukrainian. I tried to balance what I know of the Ukrainian people who formed the vast majority of Orthodox congregations in northeast Alberta with the information provided by the Romanian Pioneer Museum of Boian and the document found in the Hairy Hill Church. I also tried to be sensitive to the fact that we are all concerned about the the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That sensitivity does not extend to changing recorded history. I regret that you found something in my post that you disagreed with but you might want to begin with the Romanian Museum if you feel that facts are incorrect.
Thank you for this interesting read. My sister came across your blog and shared it with me. Your blog shed more light on a piece of our family history connected to these 2 churches so thank you for that. I am looking forward to reading about more of your treasured finds. Safe travels!
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Thank you very much Wendy. I appreciate your comments. Welcome to my blog.
I just noticed that your previous name was Toma. I saw a lot of that name when I researched the history of both churches. Prior to my research I recall only meeting one Toma. Her name wasn’t Pauline Toma and she worked for the federal government in Edmonton for many years.
Thank you. I’m enjoying your blog and lovely photography. My great grandfather Vasile Toma came to Canada in 1899 where he eventually met and married my great grandmother Raveta Yurko who also came from Boian, Bukovina. He filed a homestead on the same quarter the Boian Marea school was built and where the first few children out of 11 children (8 daughters and 3 sons) were born. In 1920 they bought another quarter of land a mile south which eventually became my grandfather, Metro Toma’s, homestead. I remember walking to “the church on the hill” for Sunday worships later on in the years. Thank you again for recognizing these historical structures. They all have so many stories to be told.
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Just to add, as I’m sure you guessed, my great grandparents were very active members of the Boian Church. Great grandfather, Vasile, was a church elder and great grandmother Raveta was a founding member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of Boian.
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It’s interesting how the histories of the two churches are closely related and yet their appearance is completely different. Both are beautiful in their own way. It’s too bad that the Hairy Hill Church is in a state of disrepair and that it was mainly empty when you visited.
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Thank you Wandering Canadians for stopping by and commenting. It’s true that the Hairy Hill Church is in a state of decay. I see it as a temporary location with the Boian church as the older and fully restored church. I count that as a success.
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