Canadian-Czech community working to turn derelict Jan Hus church into small museum

 Jan Hus United Church, Canada, Saskatchewan

Dumplings, poppy-seed cakes and Czech traditions help keep the memory of the “old country” alive in the community of second and third generation Canadian Czechs in Saskatchewan province, Canada. A group of local enthusiasts are now also working to restore a derelict Jan Hus church built and used by their forefathers.

The present-day community of Czech immigrants in Canada was established in several waves, and their exodus was almost always triggered by hardship and oppression. A wave of Czechs from Volhynia, predominantly farmers, arrived in Canada probably in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They founded their first settlement, Gerald, in the close vicinity of Kolín and Esterhazy and although their beginnings were difficult, they significantly contributed to the creation of an impressive Czech presence in southern Saskatchewan forming settlements in Gerald, Hanley, Broderick, Milden, Strongfield, Kenaston, Outlook, Glenside, Hawarden, Davidson and Sovereign.

Larry Mikulcik | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

Among today’s settlers with Czech roots going back to those days is Larry Mikulcik from Glenside.

“My father’s side of the family came in 1922 to start farming. My mother’s side of the family came in the late 1800s –about 1890s – fleeing Germany, within a larger group of Volhynia Czechs. They came to Canada and started farming as well. My father’s maternal family came to Canada in the late 1800s again to escape military service for the Austrians – my great grandfather fled when he was on leave, took his family on a ship and came to Canada with his father and his brother and started homesteading here in Canada.”

On speaking Czech at home

Was Czech not spoken in your family?

“On all sides of my family Czech was spoken very regularly. My parents would speak Czech but they did not teach my brother and I Czech and it was the same with most of my friends – their families spoke Czech but they did not teach the children. Our parents were picked on and bullied at school for speaking Czech and they didn’t want us to have the same experience. But if you went to an event where there were lots of Czech families you’d hear our parents and the older generation speaking Czech. We kids, in the 1960s, just spoke English.”

Publication mapping the history of the Czech-Canadian expatriate community | Photo: Bořek Lizec,  Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On preserving the family heritage

Do you have children? Do your children have a connection to Czechia or not?

“I personally have no children, but my brother has two boys and they are very interested in their Czech heritage –even though their mom is German – they are interested in all their heritage, and I see that in some of the families where I grew up. I assist in that area now that I am retired, so I am in contact with a lot of the Czechs and some of them have a strong connection to their Czech heritage while others don’t as much. So it really differs from family to family. But my own family has a strong connection. One uncle has created a book with our family heritage that traces back all branches of the family to the 1700s. He has been to the Czech Republic about three times. I have another aunt and uncle –they’re passed away now – but they also made several trips to the Czech Republic to visit family, and our cousins have been there too. So the Mikulcik – my family – has a strong connection to our heritage.”

Have you been to the Czech Republic often?

“I have not been there yet, but that is my plan for next year. My wife and I are travelling to Germany and the Czech Republic. Her family is in Germany and I have family in Prague and near Luhačovice so we are hoping to spend some time there in 2023.”

How big is the Czech community in Saskatchewan?

Bořek Lizec | Photo: Czech Foreign Ministry

“There are three main areas of our province that have Czech communities. The one I grew up in is called Glenside, because it was started by Scots, but the area around Outlook, Broderick, Glenside, Hawarden, Strongfield, has quite a large Czech community and there are many Slovaks as well –they would be in the hundreds. And there are two Czech communities in the area around Esterhazy. I have not been there, but I know the ambassador [Bořek Lizec] has been in that region and had a chance to visit those Czech communities. And then between Rosetown and Bigger there are used to be a town called Mariott –that town is now gone –but there is still a Czech community and Czech Hall in the area, built by the Czech community at the turn of the 20th century and that is still used. There would be about 700 people in that area.”

On restoring the Jan Hus church built by their ancestors

The first wave of Volhynia Czechs to Canada maintained a strong Czech identity and left their cultural and spiritual mark in the region. One important spiritual heritage that was all but lost is the Bohemian Presbyterian Church established in 1913 and then named after the Czech reformer and martyr Jan Hus in 1929. Today, Larry Mikulcik and other members of the community are working hard to preserve the building and maintain the property. For them the church holds fond memories of their forefathers who first came into the Glenside district generations ago.

Larry Mikulcik | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

Larry Mikulcik, President of the Glenside Jan Hus Society, says the restoration of the church is an uphill task, but he and his friends are determined to complete it bit by bit. Encouragement has also come from the Czech Ambassador to Canada Bořek Lizec who visited the community earlier this year and was delighted to see the efforts on their part to preserve an important part of their history and roots. Larry Mikulcik says it is heartwarming to restore a church that played a big part in the life of his ancestors.

“By Canadian standards the building is old, but I am the director and president of a very new undertaking. The work on the church that my parents went to and their parents went to started in 1913 and the building was completed in 1917, made by hand by the local people and local farmers. It is a small church that –if you squeezed everybody in – might hold 200 people. It hasn’t been used as a church since 1972 although there have been some funerals or special events at the church over the years. But now it is no longer used as a church and the organization took it over and decided that rather than tearing it down we wanted to preserve it and turn it into a small museum about the church and the history of the local Czech community.

“So we started that just a year ago and we are still in the process of doing restoration, painting and reroofing because our winters are pretty harsh and it is a wooden building, most constructions here are wooden. And we also have a Czech cemetery that we manage with another committee. So it is a new project, we have a Facebook page which we encourage people to have a look at and see out progress. It’s a labour of love and I have learnt more about our local Czech history doing it. I was just thinking that the road the church is on – it is not in the town, it is all by itself, on a piece of land that my grandfather used to own and along that seven kilometer stretch there used to be seven farms owned by Czechs –in a row, just to give you an example. That one stretch of road had seven Czech farmers and the community is much larger than just that road.”

How big is the Jan Hus community here in Canada?

“The Jan Hus church community is very small. I haven’t travelled to eastern Canada, but in western Canada where I have travelled, I have only seen one other Jan Hus Church. But as might be the case in most parts of north America, most Czechs are likely from a Catholic background. Last night, at the gala, I was very fortunate to sit next to a fellow who was very interested in the Jan Hus movement. He was raised as a Jan Hus member and had been to the old country a few times, married there, and said there is a lot of research in Europe about Jan Hus and his experiences, but in Canada the Jan Hus community is very, very small.  From my particular community around the Glenside area, most Czechs would be Jan Hus Church members, but otherwise the other Czech families in Saskatchewan are Catholic. So they know of Jan Hus, but that’s all.”

On dumplings, poppy-seed cakes and Czech traditions

Do you keep any Czech traditions at home?

Bramborové placky / potato pancakes | Photo: CzechTourism

“As far as traditions go, we definitely keep Czech food traditions in our hearts and on our tables, at Christmas time, Easter time and other special occasions we have a blend of Czech foods from my side of the family and German foods from my wife’s side of the family. But it doesn’t have to be a special occasion. We regularly have placky [potato pancakes] or have poppy seed dumplings and poppy seed cakes. I want to develop my repertoire of Czech foods because I just love everything about the wholesomeness of Czech cuisine.”

Is there a Czech restaurant in Saskatchewan province?

“Not that I am aware of. But my mother loves cooking and loves looking through cookbooks in general –she has two or three Czech cookbooks – and we have discussed how much fun it would be to have a Czech restaurant. But, we know that it would be a big undertaking to start a Czech restaurant. So no, I am not aware of a Czech restaurant in Saskatchewan. There might be one in the Esterhazy region, but definitely not in my region.”