Bradlo in Northern Ontario
by Martha Quin - Bies
As a Canadian of Slovak descent, who speaks, reads, and writes the language with difficulty, St. Paul's Slovak Ev. Lutheran Church has special meaning to me. I see it as an anchor and a spiritual lifeline for those dear to us who gave up so much to come to this country to forge a better life for their children and grandchildren. For them it was, and continues to be a small oasis, a sacred spot in their lives, where they can communicate with their pastor, with each other and with God to reaffirm themselves as people.
Because my husband is of Irish descent and neither he nor our children speak Slovak, we attend an English speaking church and are quite involved in its spiritual life. However, when my mother who lived in Northern Ontario visited us, we would try to take her to the church because she was hungry for the fellowship and worship that St. Paul's offered her. For all the years that she lived in Canada, there was never a Lutheran church in her community. She had to attend an English-speaking United Church and, in fact both my parents were buried from that church with the service conducted in English and not in the Lutheran tradition. Except for her oldest daughter who was born in Slovakia and baptized a Lutheran, she had had to baptize all her children in the Protestant church that existed in the town. At one point, Mom held off the baptism of four of her children in the hopes that a Lutheran church would be established. This never happened. For mom, her annual visits to St. Paul's were a joy but perhaps a sad reminder of what she had had to give up in coming to Canada.
When she died a year ago (1991), her children finally packed up her earthly belongings and sold her house. She had hundreds of letters that she had received over the years from her family in Czechoslovakia. How well I remember when a letter would arrive! What bittersweet moments as the letters were opened and either Mom or Dad would read aloud the contents to each other and to us, their children. Never was a letter completed without the choking back of tears. How terribly lonely and cut off they felt from all those that they held dear. So often the little Lutheran church in their village in Slovakia was mentioned in passing; it continued to be a focal point, a meeting place for the rites of passage that the villagers, the "krajani" experienced.
These letters, records and glimpses into the lives of my parents and their families are what have brought me to St. Paul's. I have come to develop and in fact retrieve that language that I first heard at my mother's breast. This Journey back to the language and spiritual roots of my ancestors has been a journey into a primal part of me. It is difficult to explain the emotions that seem to surface from another era, another dimension as I read and sing the ancient prayers and hymns of my parents' Lutheran faith. The "dobre rano" (good morning) that individual parishioners wish me before the morning service and the vibrant culture that exists in the church have had a subtle and profound effect on me.
By reaching back into something deep within me, I have moved across generation and continent and connected to the spiritual plane of my ancestors. For those Slovak parishioners and their descendants who are on the same spiritual quest, may St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church enjoy long life and many, many more anniversaries,
My parents' Lutheran faith has been traced back to the Huguenots in France and Holland. My father, Jan Bies, was born on May 11, 1904 in Hrasny Vrch, Slovakia. He died in Hearst, Ontario on September 28, 1976. My mother, Anicka Huckova was born on November 8, 1906, in Hodulov Vrch and died in Hearst, Ontario on May 25, 1991. Both parents were baptized and married in the Lutheran church in Kostolne, a village situated between the towns of Stara Tura and Myjava.
My father first came to Canada in 1928 to make his fortune. He rode the rails across Canada looking for work as a farmhand or woodcutter; hunger and cold were his constant companions. He returned to Slovakia to marry my mother Anicka in 1932. Along with a sixty other Slovak immigrant families, my father and mother cleared the land of their farms in a community they named Bradlo, ten kilometres from Hearst, Ontario, and approximately 1,000 km northwest of Toronto.
They raised seven children, OIga (Stevenson), Anne (Siska), John, Rudy, Bill, Martha (Quin) and Ernest. They had 15 grandchildren and each was precious to them.
My father was the last of the original Slovak settlers in Bradlo. When we experienced a heavy frost in June, one year, he finally accepted the fact that farming for a living in Bradlo, Ontario was not a viable reality and he too had to abandon what represented 35 years of backbreaking labour for both my parents. As the sixth of seven children, even I remember clearing rocks, boulders, and tree roots from that virgin soil. With only their hands and a team of horses, they had cleared fifteen acres. In my pilgrimage back to the farm on the day of my mother's funeral, the emotions I experienced as I gazed at their farm were indescribable. Here and there I recognized certain landmarks where the farm house, barn, and sheds had stood but in fact most of the cleared land had reverted back to the original wilderness my parents had started with in 1933.... A total waste of effort? ... a total waste of a lifetime of work?? I think not.
My parents represent those Slovaks who settled in various parts of Canada, isolated from each other, from their motherland and from their Lutheran church. For all those years of toil and deprivation, they never once sought or accepted welfare. The gift they gave us, their children was one of perseverance, and a deep and abiding faith.
Their children became teachers, engineers, accountants and artists. A son was awarded the Governor General's Award for his sensitive dealings with our aboriginal peoples, a daughter has three times won national awards for her work in promoting posltive ethnocultural relations, another daughter works unstintingly with the terminally ill, and another sensitively captures the human experience on canvas. Another son organizes one of the largest United Appeal campaigns in Metro at his workplace and yet another has given hours to promoting youth activities in his community.
The seeds my parents planted did not necessarily have a physical dimension. And what they in fact harvested in abundance was the sure knowledge that they had created children who had the gift of faith and who understood empathy and the milk of human kindness.
As a little girl I used to listen to Mom's endless stories of the old country. What stands out clearly are my mother's religious convictions, and her deep seated respect for education. She told me how she used to hide in the grass as a little girl and watch the farm veterinarian operate on the animals. She knew she would get spanked by her father if he found her, but her dream was to become an animal doctor. She took great pride in being able to cure our own animals suffering their different maladies. Well Mom, wherever you are, your granddaughter and namesake, Anicka, has matriculated with nine awards and two major scholarships. She attends Guelph University, a nationally acclaimed school of veterinary medicine. Your granddaughter, Jennifer, that you used to call "moja mila" (my darling) won gold and silver awards in science at the national level and also the David Suzuki award for excellence in communication. A talented writer, she recently wrote a moving tribute to you from the memories she holds of visits to Hearst. Another grandson Robert has won a major fellowship and is studying for a doctorate in the field of pharmacy. You have grandchildren who work with the blind, the socially distressed, and more often than not have taken on roles of responsibility and leadership wherever they are. I have a feeling both you and Dad sit up with each and every one of them when the nights are long, and their pain and study seems endless. You live on in your children and grandchildren. Your life's work a waste of time7 Definitely not.
"SLADKO SPlTE MAMA I TATO"
A tribute to my parents, their grandson Russell Siska (1960-1987) and especially to my sister Olga who was always there for them and for us all!
Originally published in: St. Pauls Lutheran Church 50th Anniversary Yearbook, 1942 -1992, Toronto, Ontario Canada. ISBN 0-9697605-0-7. Used with permission.