This Canada

A village dying for faith and pride

Ken Becker March 10 1980
This Canada

A village dying for faith and pride

Ken Becker March 10 1980

A village dying for faith and pride

This Canada

Ken Becker

The church rises from the hillside, its twin towers two great peaks, its Gothic steeple an Everest-like summit. From the stone steps there is an unobstructed view of the countryside, cavernous valleys, rolling hills, piney forests, distant lakes. Nothing blemishes the vista. It wouldn’t dare. The church, St. Mary’s RC, and the village, Wilno, Ontario, are one.

The church was built in the early days of the Depression with the money and sweat of its parishioners. Those who are still alive remember, and think of St. Mary’s as theirs, as they think of Wilno as theirs. Their fathers and grandfathers built the village; they built the church, as much a monument to ancestors and heritage as to faith. Heritage and the church are inseparable, too, in Wilno. The town elders, like their parents and grandparents, are Poles first, Catholics first and guardians of the village first. As long as pride in Polish heritage, devotion to the church and the village remain alive, Wilno will be someplace special. But after 120 years, that is too much to expect.

Wilno will die. It will not disappear from the map, that tiny dot between the

ski resort of Barry’s Bay and Pembroke at the Quebec border. It will simply fade away and something less distinguishable will take its place.

The place had no name in 1860 when 300 settlers established the first Polish community in Canada. They had fled tyranny, the Germanization of Poland under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The new land was hard—forested, rocky soil—but it was cleared. Farmers from the Baltic provinces of northern Poland, they were used to heavy work and cold winters. In 1875, the parish was organized and they built a chapel. Soon after, the village was named Wilno, after the birthplace of the parish priest, Rev. Ludwik Dembski. They brought their customs, language and fierce Catholicism and tucked themselves away in a land that was as alien to them as they were to it. They did not assimilate. And they still haven’t.

The Public House on Route 60 is the only place in Wilno to sit down and have a beer. Most days, when the sun starts to go down, the old men wander in. They come down the hill along Burchat Street, or down from Borutski Street, passing Borutski’s General Store and Post Office. Or they come up from across the highway, across the tracks from Smaglinski Street or Szczypior

Street. The faces are weatherworn, the knuckles gnarled. They speak in Polish, the Kashubian dialect of their homeland.

Eddie Prince is a pensioner in his 60s. He, like most of them, was born in Wilno, a descendant of the first settlers, a second-generation Canadian who speaks English with a Polish accent. He, like most of them, inherited the family farm and had to give it up eventually: too many unprofitable years through too many frigid winters on the

rugged terrain. He, like most of them, went to work in the bush, logging, until the bush was gone; then hired out to the contractors and the sawmills, further and further from home.

“There’s nothing to do in Wilno,” he says, sipping his beer. “I have my house. Most of the boys have a roof over their heads and enough money to get by. We’ll survive. But the young won’t stay.” Prince never married. He has no children to pass his language and heritage to. Even if he did, he says, he doesn’t think it would stick. He points across the room to a young man in 'a baseball cap. “He speaks Polish as good as me,” Eddie says, “but he won’t.”

Ronald Yantha is 19. He has worked the past 2 */2 years in a sawmill out of Wilno. He still lives with his parents, but figures when he leaves home he’ll probably leave Wilno. “There’s nothing to do,” he says. At home he and his brother speak a mixture of Polish and English with their parents. “But the young guys are mostly all English,” he says, as if speaking of a nationality rather than a language. “And the young guys stick with the young guys and the old guys with the old guys.” When Ronald leaves, Eddie whispers: “I think the Polish will die.”

The Public House, long owned by the Shullist family, the local Polish gentry,

was recently bought by a couple from White River, non-Poles. The Shell station and general store, also long a Shullist property, now is owned by a Finn from Thunder Bay. The Texaco station and lunch counter on the outskirts of town is operated by a German and his South African wife. The two gas stations and general stores and the Public House are the only retail businesses in the village. From the original 300, the population has dwindled to 164, according to the 1976 census. The merchants depend as much on summer tourists passing through the Ottawa Valley as on year-round residents.

The survival of the village and its ethnic character is not something the people of Wilno talk about easily, especially to outsiders.

“Too many people who don’t really care about us have come here and tried to study us,” says Frank Ritza, 68, selfproclaimed local historian. “Me? I’m selfish about my knowledge. It’s just for me and my people.”

Because Wilno is the first Polish settlement in Canada, it has attracted scholars and journalists over the years. “We have had many visitors studying us and making research,” says the parish priest at St. Mary’s, Father Stanislaus Kadziolka. “And some of them have smeared us. Articles with crazy things, that we were vampires and such. We were hurt.”

In 1968, Ottawa’s National Museum of Man’s Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies commissioned a Texas dialect scholar, Jan Perkowski, to study the linguistic and folkloric aspects of the Kashubs in Wilno. Four years later, the museum published Perkowski’s study: Vampires, Dwarfs and Witches Among the Ontario Kashubs. In 1973, The Canadian magazine, quoting extensively from Perkowski’s pamphlet, pub-

lished a short story titled: Count Dracula in Canada? They Worry About Vampires in Wilno, Ont. Not long after that the National Enquirer and other tabloid headline-hunters started tramping up the bush.

“Do you wonder why they are watching you for a long time before they accept you?” Kadziolka says of his parishioners. Kadziolka came to Canada from Poland in 1948. He spent most of the Second World War in German concentration camps, in Auschwitz and later in Belsen. He is originally from a small village near Krakow, near Wadowice, where he went to school with Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II. Kadziolka, now 65, lived far from the

Baltic, far from the land of the Kashubs. He doesn’t even speak their dialect. He speaks “high Polish.” “If you think it is a long time before they accept you,” he says, “look at me. After 18 years I don’t feel accepted. I am tolerated. In our community there is a devotion to the church. Nobody misses church. If he is not attending it is because he couldn’t start the car or, in spring, he got stuck in the mud.”

But after a while it is apparent he is talking only about the older people. “The young people,” Kadziolka says, “they come here to get married, to baptize a child.”

Will the church survive? Will the village live? “I’m a little bit afraid,” he says.

Kadziolka last saw his classmate and friend Karol Wojtyla in 1977, when the then-cardinal was visiting Buffalo, New York. Until then, and up to the cardinal’s election to the papacy, they had corresponded regularly. Now Kadziolka feels it’s time to renew the correspondence. He wants the Pope, the Polish Pope, to come to Wilno. “Definitely, I think he will,” says Kadziolka. But if and when the Pope visits Wilno, will Wilno still be Wilno?