Today we document the remains of a forgotten Monastery connected to the Orthodox Church, found in a remote corner of Northern Alberta. Deep in a wooded grove along a lonely back road, this unassuming cluster of small cobbled-together buildings are in varying states of advanced decay and most likely won’t be around for much longer. Accompanied by photographer Robert Pohl, we take time to explore this most fascinating site, on his suggestion (and a good one it is), imagining the incredible sacrifices, the steadfast dedication and humble lifestyle of those who once lived here.
In order to protect this property from troubled types (pickers, vandals, etc) we’re going to be a bit vague in regards to locations and such when speaking of it.
You’ll see us also use the term Hermitage and/or Skete in reference to the Monastery. This reflects different naming conventions found within the varied research materials used when compiling this report. For all intents and purposes however, the three mean pretty much the same thing in loose terms, a Monastic type community whose members lead a simple existence, forgo most material possessions and practise their religion in general isolation. The word Hermit, a person who lives in seclusion, comes from Hermitage.
The Monastery was founded in the early 1950s as the Hermitage, or Skete, of Prophet (sometimes Saint) Elias. The handful of members residing here were of Ukrainian background and were tied to the Russo-Greek Orthodox Church, an arm of Christianity common to Eastern Europe and much of the former Soviet Union. Many settlers in this part of Alberta immigrated from Ukraine, so this these types of churches are rather ubiquitous to the area. Every town, it seems, has an Orthodox Church, with their distinctive “onion’ domes.
The Monks here survived by farming a section of land, rather low lying and almost swamp-like in nature, just to the north of the site. It must have been hard going. But of course in a Monk’s lifestyle nothing is easy, so it seems fitting they farmed land that others would have seen as worthless.
As time past, the population of the Monastery dwindled, the last member leaving in the early 1960s. Ever since then the site had been abandoned, although in recent years a new incarnation of the same order has formed. Members of St Elias today lead lifestyles much less detached from the outside world than before and might be found living in a house or apartment, driving cars and even using social media. None the less, the they follow strict disciplines and focus all their energies on beliefs. They don’t eschew mainstream society anymore, but keep near its fringes. The stereotype of the hooded monk, lost in quiet contemplation, they are not.
The Monastery site includes perhaps a half dozen structures, all rather small and simple in construction. Some were living quarters, some used communally, a cooking area for example. Others might have been devoted to their farming endeavours (a chicken coop maybe?). One building or perhaps one room within a building, would have acted as a chapel of sorts and was devoted to prayer, mediation and those sorts of activities.
Reflecting the vow-of-poverty nature of the Monastic lifestyle, all structures were built using what ever could be found or scrounged up. Walls were made of salvaged lumber or logs and branches. Interiors were mud and straw with a thick coating of white-washed plaster (a common way to do in the old country by the way). Doors and windows appear salvaged too, the former being cut or trimmed to fit the often odd-shaped opening it was placed in. Not being carpenters, nothing is square or even remotely level, but again, I’m not sure that mattered much to those who built them. A simple life means simple things. Plain and, well, simple.
Still, the effect, especially inside the shacks (let’s call them what they are) is very Dr Suess like, with all the walls at odd angles to each other, not because of settling or collapse but that they were built that way! It’s also rather charming in a way.
An old wood spool for thread, metal bottle cap and nail make an ersatz door knob. Other building materials used include cardboard, newspaper, shingles, chicken wire, old wood boxes, moss (for insulation?) and various metal strips and angle iron taken from old machinery. In other words, they used what ever they could find. Buildings were heated by wood or perhaps coal, and lit by lantern.
Outside a stove or two, some simple tables and some other small miscellaneous bits and pieces, the buildings are for the most part empty.
Given the “budgetary” building methods and all the organic material used in their construction, the structures here have not fared well since being abandoned. Some have partially collapsed, while others are close to doing the same. A thick grove of trees has sprouted up all around the site, the buildings almost becoming lost in them (especially when they green up). In couple years I doubt there will be much anything left but those trees.
The piano seen? Perhaps it’s a strange offering of sorts from someone? No one is quite sure. It was built by maker Morris Piano Company in Ontario. The serial number seems to suggest, based on the limited data we could find, that it’s an oldie, dating back to the first decade of the twentieth century. Exposed to the elements as it is, it’s of course in pretty rough shape.
The Orthodox Church dates to medieval times, but has roots going back much further. In North America it was founded several centuries ago, by Russian Missionaries in Alaska, and today encompasses roughly seven hundred Parishes/Missions/Monasteries on the continent. It’s one of the largest religions in the Christian World, although not highly followed in Canada as a whole. It is however rather dominate in this part of Alberta and select areas of Saskatchewan too.
Orthodox clergy wear a distinctive style of dress and the churches themselves are quite unique in appearance. Monasticism, the becoming of a Monk, is common to the religion.
Prophet Elias (sometimes spelled Elijah, alternately with Saint in his title or sometimes with the addition of Glorious) was said to be a performer of miracles, an advocate of the poor and provider of needy with food. Dating back to the ninth century, he’s a significant figure in Orthodoxy and many churches and religious sites carry his name. In iconography he’s shown riding a chariot towards heaven.
Our gracious host and guide this trip, Robert Pohl, is master photographer based out of Edmonton. It’s his part of the world and he took us on a tour. His main area of interest is large format film photography. His daughter accompanied us and is no slouch with a camera either, proving it must run in the family. His site: Robert S Pohl…photographs, travels and stuff.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: March, 2016.
Location: Smoky Lake County, AB.
Article references and thanks: Father Power. Orthodox Church in America, Rob Pohl.
BIGDoer.com visited this site with permission.