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Little Synagogue on the Prairie: the amazing story of how Alberta’s oldest synagogue was lost and then found

IMG_4558_2 (1)
IMG_4558_2 (1)

For a pioneer village junkie like myself, Heritage Park beckoned. With over 180 attractions and exhibits, this Calgary based theme park bills itself as “one of North America’s largest and most successful living history museums”. A veritable cornucopia of ‘all things heritage’ it has something for all ages and stages, including an operational early 20th century steam engine train, paddlewheel boat, functioning vintage cars and trucks, historic amusement rides, and if all that isn’t enough, many pioneer buildings.

Typical Settler's home, Heritage Park, Calgary, Alberta

 

Passenger Steam Engine Train, Heritage Park, Calgary

 

But of all the wonders that Heritage Park has on offer, one stood out from amongst the rest when I visited on a hot July day last summer. The Montefiore Institute is a pale yellow synagogue, dating from around 1916. The oldest synagogue in Alberta, it  is also the only one in a historic park in Canada, and one of the few remaining rural synagogues in North America.IMG_4558_2 (1) It is a magnificent find, a rarity in heritage circles, and I would argue, the jewel in the crown of Heritage Park’s vast holdings.

Now almost 100 years old, the synagogue was constructed by Jewish immigrants in Sibbald, Alberta. They had arrived in Canada from Russia due to the efforts of the London-based Montefiore Institute, whose members wanted to create a better life for their persecuted brethren. This ambitious and optimistic plan had one serious limitation: drought. The region was simply too dry to farm, and by 1927, most of the inhabitants had left, many – not surprisingly given the severity of Alberta winters – for California.

Sibbald Synagogue circa 1920

Taken around 1920, this is the sole surviving photograph of the synagogue in Sibbald, Alberta. At its height, the settlement had about 70 inhabitants.

Eminently practical, nearby settlers purchased the abandoned buildings from the Government of Canada and moved them down the road to nearby Hanna. The synagogue was converted into a private two-bedroom house, inhabited by the same family for close to 70 years.

Were it not for the dedicated work of Lethbridge historian Emanuel Cohen who spent decades painstakingly tracking the synagogue down, it might have been lost to history. In possession of only a single photograph, which documented what the building looked like, members of Calgary’s Jewish Community had already begun negotiations with Heritage Park to erect a reconstruction so as to reflect the history of Alberta’s early Jewish settlers when Cohen finally found the original building.

Montefiore Institute on the move. Photo credit Richard Pitman, Hanna Herald

Montefiore Institute on the move. Photo credit Richard Pitman, Hanna Herald

 

Dubbed The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project, money was raised to transport it to its current site and restore it. Because the building had been left pretty much intact, restoration was fairly straightforward. According to an exhibit now inside the synagogue, heritage experts were able to quickly discover the original paint colours and layout. Even the Star of David on the facade survived – boards had been placed across the tympanum when a private home. The Montefiore Institute had functioned as a house of worship, a school, and a place of study; housing over 1,000 books in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. Two of those books still survive.

Restored, the Montefiore Institute is a wonderful, restrained example of prairie architecture. Modest though it may be in scope, I found it a profoundly moving testimony to the many individuals who came to Canada to escape persecution and build a better life for themselves and their children. Their lives were not easy but their faith was great.