By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
In the rugged remote foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Alberta stands a hill which, at first sight, might seem indistinguishable from any of the countless other hills and buttes that blanket the landscape. But for the Doukhobors who once called this area home, it was a place of unique natural beauty imbued with deep religious and cultural significance and was revered as a sacred site. For them, it had a special name – Safatova Gora – meaning ‘Jehoshaphat’s Hill’ in Russian. This article traces the history and folklore of the hill as told through the oral tradition of the Doukhobor people.
Beginning in 1915, the Doukhobor enterprise known as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood purchased land near Cowley and Lundbreck, Alberta on the southern line of the Canadian Pacific Railway for a new agricultural colony. Within two years, it acquired 14,400 acres formerly belonging to the Eddy ranch, Terrill place, Godsal ranch, Sedgewick place, Fir Grove ranch, Simister place, Irelade ranch, Riley place and Backus ranch, comprising some of the finest grazing and grain-growing lands in the foothills.
Over 300 Doukhobors from British Columbia settled in the new colony, where they established 13 compact farming villages. To bring the land to peak production, they practiced irrigation and worked it with heavy machinery, owning and operating six steam-powered traction engines. To store the grain they grew, they built a 35,000-bushel grain elevator at Lundbreck in 1915 and another at Cowley in 1916. In 1922, they purchased the Pincher Creek Mill and Elevator Company’s flour mill and moved it to Lundbreck to mill their wheat. They built large warehouses at both rail sidings for the storage and distribution of colony supplies. They also bought the A.H. Knight store in Cowley as a central office and hall.
The Doukhobors maintained a communal way of life. All land, buildings, machinery, implements and livestock were jointly owned by the Community; all cultivating, sowing, harvesting, threshing, haying and animal husbandry was performed collectively by the colonists; and all income was deposited in a common central treasury. Everything was shared. They did not receive wages for their labour, but were provided with food, clothing, lodging and basic necessities by the Community. Sober, industrious and hard-working, they embodied their motto, ‘Toil and Peaceful Life’.
The Doukhobor colony quickly became one of the largest, most successful farming and ranching operations in the foothills. It was not only self-sufficient, but shipped substantial quantities of hay, grain, flour, draft working horses, milking cows, butter and wool by rail to the Community settlements in British Columbia. In return, they received railcars of lumber, fresh fruit and produce and the famous ‘K.C. Brand’ jam produced by the Community in British Columbia for their own use and for sale at the trading store they operated in Blairmore.
A Leader’s Visit
Not long after the Alberta colony was established, probably in 1915 or 1916,[i] Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, the spiritual leader of the Community, travelled there by rail from British Columbia to visit and inspect its progress. Such visits by Petushka, as he was affectionately known,[ii] were momentous occasions, accompanied by mass gatherings and meetings, worship services and special celebrations.
After disembarking from the train at the C.P.R. siding in Lundbreck, the charismatic Doukhobor leader rode by horse and buggy to the colony’s first and largest village, a picturesque settlement at the edge of the foothills along Cow Creek, eight miles to the north. Originally known as the Terrill Ranch, the Doukhobors renamed it Bogatyi Rodnik, meaning ‘Rich Spring’ in Russian because of its abundance of fresh, clear water from the myriad springs that fed into the creek.
Upon his arrival there, following the customary exchange of greetings, Petushka strolled through the settlement, accompanied by village elder Semyon I. Verigin, to survey the improvements made since its purchase. The original two-story, ornate yellow farmhouse, mail-ordered from the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. catalogue by the Terrills years earlier was now a multi-family communal dwelling for 35 villagers. A large sitting room and bedroom on the main floor was reserved as a gornitsa or ‘special quarters’ for the leader’s use when he visited. A number of new structures had also been built, including a large new, one-story blue dom (‘dwelling’) for another 15 villagers, a banya (‘steam bath house’), kuznitsa (‘blacksmith shop’), granary and a large red sarai (‘barn’) for the purebred Percheron draft horses they had begun breeding and raising under the Doukhobor ‘Д’ brand. As well, large gardens were planted to supply the villagers with vegetables, as they were strict vegetarians. The village was teeming with activity. Much pleased with their progress, Petushka commended the villagers on their accomplishments.
A View from a Hill
Beside the village to the north towered a large, steep, grassy hill – one of the most easterly outlying foothills overlooking the valley where the Doukhobors of Bogatyi Rodnik lived and farmed. Eager to view their land from its vantage point, Petushka beckoned his host familiarly, “Syoma, let us climb the hill, for surely it offers a sight to behold!” The humble, good-natured elder obliged and the two men began their ascent. After a brisk, twenty minute climb, led by the sure-footed and indefatigable leader, with Syoma, somewhat winded and labouring to keep up, they reached the summit.
Sure enough, the hilltop commanded an extraordinary panoramic view of the countryside for miles in every direction. To the west was the vast expanse of foothills running north to south across the horizon, and further west, the Livingstone Range of the Rockies with the Crowsnest Pass distinctly visible. Immediately below, at the southeast foot of the hill, the village appeared tiny and distant as the creek wound past it and bent south. To the east, the wide, flat-bottomed valley spread out before them. It was there, on six square miles of the valley floor, where the villagers grew oats for feed and wheat for milling, cut hay in the meadows for winter feed, and grazed cattle alongside sheep in their summer pastures. Further east, along the far edge of the valley, the narrow, rugged gorge of the Oldman River carved its way north to south. Further east still sprawled the Porcupine Hills, and to the southeast, the Cowley Ridge. To the far south, the Community elevators at Lundbreck and Cowley appeared as faint specks on the horizon.
The two men reclined atop the hill under the sunny, blue sky amidst the grass, wildflowers and rocky outcroppings, a cool, steady breeze at their back, for what seemed like hours, admiring the view so reminiscent of their homeland in the Caucasus. It evoked a sense of tranquility and contentment within them, and indeed, inspired a communion with nature and the divine. They gazed upon the fields and flocks below, each lost in silent contemplation and deep reflection.
So long were they caught up in their reverie that they did not notice the cairn at the far end of the summit until much later. Upon catching sight of it, the Doukhobors leapt up and strode closer to take a look. It was a large mound of rough stones piled one upon the other, some three feet high by six feet in diameter. Thick with heavy moss and lichen, it was old – very old – placed there by ancient hands to mark some forgotten past.[iii]
“Who set these rocks here?” wondered Syoma aloud, “And for what purpose?” Petushka stared thoughtfully at the cairn for several moments before answering. Turning to his companion, he declared, “It is a grave”. A hushed silence fell over the elder as he pondered his leader’s words. “A saint was buried here long ago,” continued Petushka somberly, “a holy man like Iosafat (‘Jehoshaphat’) of old… if not Safat himself! The thought that they were standing on sacred ground, hallowed by the ancient patriarch who lay at rest here, impressed Syoma with the gravest solemnity.
“Let us pray at his grave,” bade Petushka. The two Doukhobors stood over the mound, and with bowed heads, earnestly recited prayers and psalms and sang hymns in memory of the long-departed saint. Following the impromptu service, the men slowly descended the hill back to the village, deep in thought about all they had seen and experienced.
The following day, the Doukhobor leader departed Bogatyi Rodnik to visit the other villages of the colony before continuing onward to the Community settlements in Saskatchewan.
A Sacred Place
News of the cairn on the hill quickly spread throughout the village and the rest of the colony. That it was the grave of a holy man, as Petushka proclaimed, the Doukhobor colonists accepted without question, for they believed his word to be divinely inspired.
Many sought meaning in its seeming association with Iosafat of the Bible. “Was it not written that Safat abolished idolatry and followed God’s commands and God thus looked favorably upon him?” some reflected, “So too, we Doukhobors reject icons and follow God’s Law to remain righteous in His eyes!” “And did Safat not lead his people to vanquish their oppressors, not with swords, but with songs and prayers?” pondered others, “So also, our Doukhobors lay down our arms and refuse to kill!” In the figure of Iosofat, the Doukhobors saw a kindred spirit, an ancient archetype of their own teachings and beliefs.[iv]
The Doukhobors of the colony came to view the hill as a sacred place, one they considered holy and worthy of reverence and awe because of its connection to the Biblical patriarch. To them, it was a liminal space between the natural and the spiritual, the human and the divine, the hallowed and the profane. A prominent landmark visible throughout much of the colony, it became part of their living landscape, interwoven between their spiritual lives and daily existence. They gave it a special name, Safatova Gora (‘Safat’s Hill’). It was also known variously as Safatina Gora, Safatushkina Gora, Safatova or simply Safat.
The hill became a place of sanctuary for Doukhobors seeking personal solitude, consolation and serenity away from the rest of the world. It was also a gathering place for religious worship, cultural celebration and social interaction. In summertime, Doukhobors throughout the colony gathered at the foot of the hill, removed their footwear, and climbed barefoot to the top. This custom arose out of their veneration for the hill. Once at the top, the Doukhobors held moleniye (‘prayer services’) while standing on their platochiki (‘handkerchiefs’) so as not to touch the sacred ground. When their prayers concluded, they spread about blankets on the hilltop and had picnics and social gatherings.
Some of the more zealously devout colonists even began to associate the valley below the hill with the Biblical ‘Valley of Iosofat’ and came to believe that it would be there, on their own land, where the events of Judgement Day would take place and God would judge the nations of the earth. Among them, they called the vale Safatova Dolina (‘Safat’s Valley’).
Miracle of the Drought
In the late Teens and early Twenties, a severe and prolonged drought struck the Alberta foothills. Abnormally low rainfall combined with elevated temperatures and drying winds devastated the ranches and farms of the Cowley and Lundbreck district, resulting in crop failures, feed shortages, starving cattle and dust storms as topsoil was blown off cultivated fields.
The hardships of dryland farming, combined with low post-war wheat and cattle prices and high feed prices, drove many settlers to abandon their farms and leave the district. Those who stayed purchased straw for their livestock from the Doukhobor colony, as there was no hay. The drought continued to worsen, and by 1920, the Doukhobors had to bring in 75 rail carloads of straw from the Community settlements in Saskatchewan to sustain their own herds.
In these dire circumstances, the local Blackfoot Piikani Nation performed a rain dance ceremony, consisting of fasting, drumming, singing, dancing and feasting, to invoke the Creator to bless the Earth with much-needed rain. When their efforts led to no avail, the Piikani people approached their neighbours, the Doukhobors, whom they held in high regard, and implored them to pray to God for rain.
Moved by their request, the Doukhobors convened a mass sobraniya (‘assembly’) at their Community central office in Cowley, attended by all the members of the colony. After some deliberation and discussion, they resolved to trek to Safatova Gora, where they would pray for relief from the widespread drought.
Thus, several hundred Doukhobors set off on the 12-mile journey by foot from Cowley, through Lundbreck, to the sacred hill. At the outset, there was not a single cloud in the sky. As they trekked, they prayed and recited psalms seeking God’s intercession.
The long procession made an indelible impression upon the English Canadian ranchers of the district as it passed by. One settler, John Ross, could still recall, many decades later, the Doukhobors, young and old, walking barefoot past his ranch 5 miles north of Lundbreck on their way to the hill to pray.
After six long, arduous hours, when the trekkers reached Safatova, clouds began to appear on the western horizon. Heartened by this sign, they ascended the hill to the holy grave, where they prayed, earnestly and humbly, entreating God for rain. As they did so, clouds gathered and darkened, piling higher and higher above them. But after several hours of prayer and supplication, there was still no rain. Weary and dejected, the Doukhobors made ready to depart.
No sooner did they begin their descent, however, than the sky opened up, pelting them with thick, heavy rain drops. The rain quickly became a deluge as the Doukhobors, relieved and overjoyed, slipped and slid down the muddy hill. By the time they reached the bottom, it was raining so hard that the ground, saturated with water, became a thick, sticky gumbo, almost impossible to cross. Many had difficulty pulling their feet out of the mud and some became quite stuck.
It rained without stop for the next six to nine hours. Not since 1915 had there been a downpour so heavy and extending over so wide a stretch of territory as that day. Almost the whole province was covered, ending the drought, filling the rivers and reservoirs and reinvigorating the land with valuable moisture. That day, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin wired the Calgary Herald from his office to advise that the heavy rain in the Cowley and Lundbreck district “practically assured the crops”. The date of this event was June 29, 1922.[v] Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also Petrov Den (‘Peter’s Day’), one of the most important Doukhobor religious holidays.
Many called it a miracle – others called it an answer to their prayers – and it seemed that it was both. For the Doukhobors, something spectacular happened up on the hill; something so extraordinary that it hardly seemed true. After years of drought, God heard their prayers from the hilltop and sent the rain!
For twenty-two years, the Doukhobor colony at Cowley and Lundbreck operated as a successful and profitable farming enterprise, adding substantial value and revenue to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood and serving as an important supply source of agricultural products for the Community settlements in British Columbia.
Yet despite the success of the colony, by 1936, the Community was bankrupt due to crippling debt and interest coupled with declining revenue during the Great Depression. Although the Alberta lands were paid in full, they were pledged as collateral to secure the debts of the Community accrued elsewhere. Consequently, they were foreclosed upon by the National Trust Company in 1937.
Following the liquidation of colony assets, a third of the Doukhobors moved to British Columbia to be a part of the larger group living there, while another third left the area seeking employment elsewhere in the province. Those who remained took possession of the former colony lands they were already residing on and bought them back on a crop share basis as individual farmers. Thus, in 1938, brothers-in-law Peter M. Salekin and Anton W. Mushta purchased the land comprising Bogatyi Rodnik and Safatova Gora.
Over the following decades, the Salekins, Mushtas and other Doukhobors in the Cowley and Lundbreck area continued to uphold their faith and culture, forming the United Doukhobors of Alberta and building a prayer home in Lundbreck. They still gathered at Safatova for worship, although less frequently than in years past. One of the main events held there was Petrov Den, which they commemorated each year with prayer services and picnics. In 1954, the Union of Doukhobors of Canada, comprising Doukhobors from across the country, met on the hill for a meeting and picnic.[vi] And on particularly dry years, some older Doukhobor farmers still climbed the hill to pray for rain.
By the Seventies, however, most of the older Doukhobors in the district had retired, while many younger Doukhobors moved to larger urban centres to pursue higher education and professional careers. In 1971, the farm where Bogatyi Rodnik and Safatova Gora stood was sold to brothers Mike and Harry M. Salekin, who continued to farm for three more years. Then in 1974, the farm was sold after almost sixty years of Doukhobor ownership.
At the time of sale, Harry Salekin explained the history of the village, buildings and hill to the buyer and took him up to the hilltop to show him where the Doukhobors prayed. Many years passed, and on one occasion, he called in to the farm and the owner shared an interesting experience with him. He said that the spring had been particularly dry and there was no sign of rain. Remembering the explanation about Safatova, he climbed the hill and prayed there. Sure enough, the rain began to fall…
Today, there are few reminders of the Doukhobor presence in southwestern Alberta. Their prayer home in Lundbreck is now designated a Provincial Heritage Resource. Many of the original Doukhobor settlers lay at rest in a country cemetery near the hamlet. In Cowley, a road sign tells the story of their once-thriving colony. A Doukhobor barn stands on display at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village in Pincher Creek while another can be found at Heritage Acres Farm Museum nearby. And a handful of other structures are scattered across the countryside.
As for their once-sacred hill, its Russian name is almost completely forgotten, as is the Doukhobor history and folklore associated with it. But it can still be seen today overlooking the Cowboy Trail as it crosses Cow Creek. The stone cairn stands atop it pristine and undisturbed, much the same as it has for centuries, a silent sentinel to the faith and beliefs of those who once lived there.
This story was told to the writer in July 2008 by the late Michael M. Verigin (1929-2016) of Cowley, AB who heard it, in turn, from his grandfather, Semyon I. Verigin, a first-hand eyewitness to the events described. Additional information was received from Larry and Margaret Salekin of Airdrie, AB and Larry Ewashen of Creston, BC, descendants of the original Doukhobor colonists, as well as from Fred Makortoff of South Slocan, BC whose father-in-law William Bojey participated in the mass procession and prayer service for rain. The writer’s great-great-great grandmother, Maria Kirilovna Ivin was also a resident of Bogatyi Rodnik who participated in these events.
This article was originally published in the following newspapers and periodicals:
- ISKRA No. 2154, September 2020 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ).
[i] Verigin made at least three visits to the Alberta colony during this time, in October 1915 (Bellevue Times, October 22, 1915), June 1916 (1916 Census of Northwest Provinces, MacLeod district, Alberta sub-district 39, page 2) and September 1916 (Blairmore Enterprise, September 1, 1916).
[ii] Doukhobors traditionally used diminutive forms of Russian names to express familiarity and endearment, such as Petushka for Petr, Syoma for Semyon or Safat for Iosafat, as referenced in this story.
[iii] The cairn was almost certainly built hundreds of years earlier by the Piikani Blackfoot as a burial, cache, lookout, route marker or ceremonial site. That it acquired new meaning and significance to the Doukhobors in later times does not detract from its importance as an indigenous site.
[iv] Many Doukhobors fervently believed that the grave was, quite literally, that of Iosafat of the Old Testament. Others reasoned that if it was not Safat himself buried atop the hill, it was nonetheless a person of exceptional holiness and spiritual enlightenment who, in their life, exemplified many of the same qualities as the Biblical patriarch.
[v] Calgary Herald, June 29, 1922.
[vi] The Inquirer, Vol. 1, No. 6 – July 1954 (Saskatoon: Union of Doukhobor Youth).