On land they homesteaded, pioneers given eternal rest

Cemetery inside Birds Hill Provincial Park restricted to descendants


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Membership has its privileges, and in the case of the pioneer cemetery inside Birds Hill Provincial Park, the application to join for eternity is onerous: you would have had to have your great- or great-great-grandparents settle in the area.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/08/2016 (2348 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Membership has its privileges, and in the case of the pioneer cemetery inside Birds Hill Provincial Park, the application to join for eternity is onerous: you would have had to have your great- or great-great-grandparents settle in the area.

That also meant they had to buy, clear the land, and scrape out an existence on property much of which was more valuable for the rock and gravel underneath than the soil on top.

Just how exclusive is this cemetery?

“I wouldn’t be able to be buried here even as president of the (Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic) church council,” Gerald Palidwor said with a laugh during a recent tour of the cemetery.

“We maintain the cemetery, but my position still doesn’t count. You have to have been a pioneer in this area or a descendant.”

The Pine Ridge Cemetery is located well within the provincial park, located on the northeast outskirts of Winnipeg. It is tucked just off the road that leads directly to the stables where visitors ride horses during the summer and cross-country ski during the winter. A simple chain-link fence surrounds it, and a small gravel parking lot is beside it.

About 350 souls are buried here. No one knows the exact number because people could have been buried before records were properly kept.

At the end of the parking lot is a plaque and monument set up in commemoration of the first Poles in the Red River Settlement in 1817.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Gerald Palidwor may be president of the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church council, but he still can’t be buried in the pioneer cemetery.

A Free Press photograph taken in 1971, when it was erected by the Association of Polish Priests in Manitoba, shows small trees behind. Today, there are trees several metres high in a forest behind it.

The 10 names that are on the plaque were people of Polish descent who served in the Swiss army when it came with Lord Selkirk.

Kevin Jackson, the church’s cemetery co-ordinator, said the plaque was set up where it was because local residents told the priests the site is where the old pioneers had been buried with wooden markers that have long since decayed and disappeared.

A sign at the entrance of the cemetery tells people many of the original pioneers in the area are buried here and it is maintained by the Immaculate Conception Church in Cooks Creek.

In fact, part of the history of the cemetery is intertwined with the history of Immaculate Conception.

Jackson said the cemetery in Birds Hill is just one of four the church maintains.

He said besides that cemetery and the one located at the ornate multi-domed church built in Cooks Creek starting in 1930, it also maintains the ones that were with the St. John the Baptist Church on Zora Road and the original St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church on Sapton Road.

Those two churches came together to form Immaculate Conception.

“These cemeteries have roughly 250 and 150 burials respectively,” he said, noting the earliest headstones at St. John are from 1909 and at St. Nicholas are 1900.

John Lehr, a senior scholar who specializes in historical geography and Ukrainian settlement in the department of geography at the University of Winnipeg, said relatively equal numbers of Poles and Ukrainians came to the Cooks Creek area from what was then Galicia, a province of the Austrian Empire, starting in 1896.

“The first group went to Stuartburn and then the Interlake and then Dauphin and then the Cooks Creek area,” he said.

“They came because in Galicia all the farms were highly fragmented. They were 10 to 12 acres of land spread in eight parcels. Unlike Western Europe, where the eldest son got the lot, in Eastern Europe everyone, including women, got something. This was fair, but it was very inefficient. They weren’t starving, but things weren’t good.

“So when Canada offered 160 acres for $10, it sounded like the bargain of the century. One hundred and 60 acres would have been like a small state in Galicia.”

But Lehr said when the immigrants arrived in Winnipeg, the priests convinced many to go in a different direction.

“They said there was wooded land — they didn’t say it was not good land — but wooded land at Pine Ridge. The Métis had got the land, but a lot of them sold out to the new immigrants. In my research, I’ve only found one Slavic that homesteaded there. The Métis owned it already, but didn’t develop it.”

Lehr said many of the Polish and Ukrainian people who settled in that area sold out and moved after a few years.

“If they had gone to the open Prairies when they arrived, they would have needed enough money to go for a year without making money,” he said.

“They weren’t stupid. The (Birds Hill) area had the wood, water and metal they needed. Long term, the prospects were horrible, but immediately it was pretty good.

“It’s a very sensible decision.”

Lehr said that, unlike today, where a Pole would say they were from Poland based on geography, back then Polish and Ukrainian immigrants said they were one or the other based on religion, language and culture.

Lehr said Galicia was also located where part of Poland and Ukraine are today, and the population mixed with each other, both in community and family.

Lehr said once the immigrants came to Manitoba, while births and marriages could wait, burials couldn’t, so the settlers created cemeteries as quickly as possible, sometimes, such as at this cemetery, even before churches were built and parishes organized.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Pine Ridge Cemetery welcomes visitors (human ones, at least) as long as they look but do not touch.

When you first walk into the cemetery through the gate and look to the right, you quickly see this is where Ukrainian Catholics were buried. Many of the headstones are completely or partially written with Ukrainian Cyrillic script.

Palidwor pointed out all rows in this area have the headstones facing east, so when the resurrection comes and everyone rises, they will rise facing the east.

But to the left, where the Roman Catholic Polish people were traditionally buried, the rows aren’t as straight, the headstones face any direction, and the words have English lettering.

Palidwor said over the years, as space in the cemetery filled up, this has changed, and there has been an intermingling of the Polish and Ukrainian burials.

Unlike the large cemeteries in Winnipeg, there isn’t a who’s who of notable people lying here. For the most part, these were people like most of us. They worked hard, had families, and at the end of their lives were buried here.

They have names such as Slota, Mozel, Sokal, Bodner, Kurylko and Maleous.

Ivan John Chudiek is the first recorded tombstone burial at the site, but Jackson said there were likely earlier ones.

“There are a few illegible early headstones, and many unmarked graves likely predate this,” he said.

“As with many poor immigrant burials of the day, wooden markers were used in the early days of settlement.”

But there are still a few who have stories, and they were recorded in a local history book put together by the Dugald Women’s Institute in 1974. It shows times were tough for the newcomers.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The pioneer cemetery in Pine Ridge Cemetery is maintained by the congregation of the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church in Cooks Creek.

John and Eva Piskor’s lives in the Birds Hill area were delayed a few years after their life savings of $866 was stolen during their trip to Canada. Life didn’t get any easier.

While Piskor’s wife and child stayed with a local family, he spent the next four years digging sewers for 15 cents an hour.

By 1903, Piskor had saved enough that they could buy 20 acres of land in Pine Ridge, but only two acres had been cleared.

Piskor bought a team of horses to help clear the land, but when he was told oxen could survive without eating oats, he sold the horses to buy oxen. But, after he found out how slow the oxen were, he sold them and bought another team of horses.

Later, during the rough economic times before the First World War, Piskor hired five men to clear six acres of land for $6 an acre. Only after they left, and he went to break the soil, did he discover the men had cut some of the large oak trees level with the ground and covered them over with dirt.

Piskor died in 1928 at 57, while Eva died in 1945 at 63.

Michael Slota came to Winnipeg from Poland in 1902, and quickly bought a 20-acre farm in the part of Pine Ridge that is now in Birds Hill Provincial Park. He married Paranika Kindarchuk, who came from Western Ukraine a year earlier, in 1904.

The couple sold the farm in 1908, and bought 60 acres of land about five kilometres south. He continued buying land and was farming 300 acres when he died at 64 in 1936, his wife dying after him at 77, in 1949.

Thomas Novak, his wife, June, and his son bought 40 acres of land in Pine Ridge in 1923, and had to clear bush off most of it.

Just seven years later, the family lost everything when a fire destroyed their house and threatened the nearby school. But, thanks to friends in Winnipeg, furniture and clothing were donated to them and the house was rebuilt before winter.

After Novak’s wife died at 42, in 1945, he continued to live on the farm until the provincial government expropriated the property in 1965 to make way for the new provincial park. He was 84 when he died in 1977.

Joe Zadworny was one of four school trustees of the area’s new school district after the province brought in compulsory education in 1913.

Zadworny and the others bought an acre of land and hired a carpenter to build a school for the Corona School District. The school, which opened in 1914, had more than 60 students from ages seven to 14, each year.

After the school was closed, the building was sold to sculptor Leo Mol, who used it as his workshop. The building now sits in Assiniboine Park in the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden.

Zadworny was 77 when he died in 1943.

Palidwor said there is still room for burials, but available space is getting smaller and smaller. He said they will ask the provincial government if they can have more space someday.

Lehr said he’s not surprised nobody famous was buried in the cemetery. But that doesn’t mean the people there didn’t leave their mark.

“They were usually ordinary people, but extraordinary in another way,” he said.

“It takes a lot of fortitude to settle in an area and then make a living.”


RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A plaque commemorates the first Polish pioneers in the Red River Settlement.
Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.


Updated on Monday, August 22, 2016 7:58 AM CDT: Adds photos

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