Many gathered at the St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Cemetery on March 17 to commemorate the early Hungarian settlers of the Bashaw area.
Dignitaries from both Canada and Hungary along with several family and friends attended the significant ceremony; approximately over 100 people in total.
It created an intimate setting for all that attended as speeches and songs were spoken in the large circle of onlookers.
The program included a buffet style lunch at the nearby Schultz Community Hall after the ceremony was completed.
A brief history researched and compiled by local Bashaw resident Larry Dubitz and Julianna Stein explained the hardships many Hungarian settlers faced like the harsh Canadian winters in sod houses constructed from the native land they had acquired through government incentive.
The Canadian government offered 160 acres of uncultivated land to encourage immigration and development in Western Canada.
The highest number of immigrants ever recorded was in 1913, when more than 400,000 immigrants arrived in the country.
Because of these hurdles, the St. Michael’s Manfred (Hungarian) Society felt the plaque was a great way to show their pride for their country and roots that have taken place in the west.
It started as a conversation between Barry Stotts, an organizer of the event, and Doug Orom after they had finished conducting odd jobs around the cemetery when a person was spotted viewing some of the headstones.
It turned out to be Julianna Stein from the Manfred Society.
The society had been in contact with the Embassy of Hungary and the Canadian- Hungarian Heritage Council to erect plaques in various places across Canada to honour Hungarian settlers of the past.
Stein visited four times over the course of three years to understand the layout and later create the plaque with her husband.
The announcement was made in January, setting the date for the ceremony. This information was quickly spread online, increasing excitement and attendance.
“We had responses from some people like the Mraz’s who donated their land. A lot of the cousins – they all sort of came [like the] Kerik’s, Orom’s, Filinger’s, Mraz’s… so it just kept on going,” said Stotts.
Stotts displayed heartfelt tears of joy by the sight of how many had arrived for the special occasion.
“I’m just overwhelmed. We expected 20. It just kept on going and I think the thing that got me – why I am overwhelmed is that there are so many cousins. It’s become a family reunion. That’s an interesting thing to know. They all share and meet other people so it is good,” said Stotts.
“We expected 20 and we had 92 relatives that said that they were coming and I think that there was probably 100 coming that were here. So it was really something meant to honour the Hungarian settlers and the people who have settled this land. They worked hard for it.”
The plaque, which is now installed on the obelisk at the entrance of the cemetery, says: ‘We are honoured to pay tribute to the first Hungarian settlers who arrived in this country in 1894 and those who followed in later years. Their legacy has been a great contribution to the success of Alberta and Canada.’
First of the Hungarian settlers came to the area primarily from the County of Tolna, Dunafoldvar vicinity, and Fejer County.
The Meister family first arrived in 1894 followed by the Mraz family in 1895. Later, the Öröm, Dubics (Dubitz), Kerék (Kerik), Pulai (Pullay) Gallai, Tóth, Pék, Pintér, Fillinger, Földi, Rózsa, Fazekas and Csire (Cire) families arrived, all of which had an average of four to six children.
For many years, the idea of a church dedicated to their religion was not realistic so, instead, the families would gather at the Kerik’s where Father Beillevaire, the Catholic pastor of the region gave service and counselling occasionally.
In 1909, Janos (John) Mraz Jr. offered up five acres of his own land to aid in the construction of a church and cemetery.
The next year the St. Michael’s Catholic Church and cemetery were created with the help of many local families including four non-Hungarian Catholic families by donation and other means.
It became the first Catholic church of the region and the only Hungarian chapel within Alberta at the time. This centre became the pinnacle for community.
“I think that because of the strong work ethic that they brought here, it seems like all of the families work together and there was a lot of visiting,” said Stotts.
“There was a lot of community functions when the church was going and they would travel a long distance just to get there. They felt a real sense of community and are wanting to keep their heritage alive in the community.”
Istvan Dubics (Stephen Dubitz) and his wife offered a two metre high stone crucifix that stood in front of the original church.
It was later moved to the cemetery to continue showing the proud heritage of the Bashaw area.
In 1935, the steeple was severely damaged after a major thunderstorm so a wooden cross took its place until the church underwent renovations and reconstruction.
The new church was built over the course of 1955 and 1956 after the original building started showing signs of wear. The major overhaul on the building included the installation of a modern heating system and electrical wiring.
Stotts did mention this church will soon be demolished as many years of wear have taken a toll on the building, especially the foundation.
Despite this, the society wants to continue beautification of the cemetery itself by re-fencing, adding trees, and adding adequate parking among other projects.
Due to the larger church situated in Bashaw, the rural church became obsolete. In 1975, it was announced by the Catholic diocese it will officially close because of the lack of parishioners who were taking advantage of the larger centre for prayer.
The doors of the facility stayed open until the mid-80s for anyone who wished to have a moment but because of the disappearance of several valuable relics and religious items, a padlock was added to the main doors, keeping it shut.
As for the Hungarian Society, its history begins in 1951.
The Manfred club as it was called was formed to mainly take care of the ageing infrastructure but after the closure of the chapel, it was reorganized in 1994 as the St. Michael’s Manfred (Hungarian) that focuses on the maintenance of the cemetery.