Békevár, Saskatchewan

1900
Associated name: New Botrágy
Location: 9 km southeast of Kipling SK. Rural Municipality of Hazelwood No. 94. Township 12, Ranges 4 and 5, W2. (50.023633 N, -102.599095 W)
See also: Esterház-Kaposvár SK; Otthon SK; Hun’s Valley MB.

Békevár means “fortress of peace” or alternatively “peace awaits you.” It was the largest and one of the most prosperous Hungarian farming settlements in the Prairie West. It was populated primarily by members of the Reformed (Calvinist) Church and, to a lesser extent, by Baptists. Similar to the symbolic role played by its Catholic counterpart, Esterház-Kaposvár SK, the Békevár settlement was regarded by generations of Hungarian Calvinists in Western Canada as their spiritual centre. The settlement was also a strong and, in many ways, unique, centre of Hungarian culture in Canada. In particular, Békevár resembled a traditional Hungarian peasant community in that a rich array of traditions and folk customs were cultivated and maintained in the new setting for several decades.

János (John) Szabó (1853-1925), who founded Békevár, had been employed in the mid-1890s as a coal miner in Pennsylvania. Like many other Hungarian immigrants, Szabó viewed the backbreaking and dangerous work in the mine as a short-term measure to build up enough capital to purchase land in the old country. While in Pennsylvania, however, Szabó read a series of published letters written by Rev. János Kovács (see Otthon) touting the great farming opportunities in the Canadian Prairies. Upon learning of his wife’s death back in his native village of Botrágy (in Bereg County, northeastern Hungary, now Berehove Raion, Ukraine), Szabó quit his job and returned home in 1897. He subsequently sold all his belongings and left for Canada in the spring of 1898 with his two sons and daughter, a new wife and one of her children.

He went first to Esterház-Kaposvár SK but because there was no land available there he rented land near Whitewood until he could find a suitable location to establish his own colony. Szabó’s settlement plan was utopian in the sense that he intended to recreate Botrágy on the Canadian prairies by transferring a large part of his native village there. He wanted to improve the lives of his co-villagers, and a great many planned to join him. A letter dated 15 August 1899 sent to the Department of the Interior indicated the intention of 55 or more families to emigrate to Canada once Szabó had secured a suitable area for mixed farming.

In the summer of 1900, with the aid of Hungarian agronomist János Faragó, Szabó located southwest of Whitewood what he thought would be an ideal place to establish his “New Botrágy.” They marked out the boundaries of the first house of the colony on July 20, a foundational date that was to be commemorated annually by the descendants of the pioneer settlers. Szabó subsequently sent letters back to his village informing his relatives and friends about everything from the size of acquirable lands for cultivation and grazing to the costs of houses and stables. Over the course of the next three years several small waves of settlers brought 38 families to the colony. While the majority of these and later settlers came from Szabó’s native village, others arrived from elsewhere in the northeast and from other parts of the Hungarian Kingdom (Kunság and Trans- Danubia). Szabó’s farming settlement had a population of 1,578 by 1916, and new settlers continued to arrive as late as 1930. Its name, Békevár, was adopted in 1902. In 1904 the “Bekevar” post office was established.

Szabó acted as both leader and unofficial settling agent. The “Moses of Békevár” as he was to be later remembered, advised and helped secure and locate quarter sections for newcomers and offered much of his time, in spite of his own work, aiding those who could not take care of themselves. He also helped secure the colony’s first minister, Rev. Kálmán Kovácsi (1873-1931) in 1901 with the help of Dr. James Robertson, superintendent of Presbyterian missions.

Bekevar Church photo
Békevár Church (1911). Source:  http://www.worldisround.com/articles/347778/index.html

Rev. Kovácsi’s sermons were initially held in the homes of settlers, later in school buildings, until in 1912 the Békevár Reformed Church was opened. The architectural design for the twin-spired wooden structure was likely inspired by either the Reformed Great Church of Debrecen, in the so-called Calvinist Rome of Hungary, or possibly the Romanesque parish church of Ják in western Hungary.

Rev. Kovácsi was credited with introducing two controversial movements during his nearly decade-long stay in Békevár. One was a prairie-wide initiative to promote bilingual English-Hungarian schooling. He worked on this with his younger brother, Lajos, a missionary in Winnipeg. Their cause resulted in the Winnipeg-based Canadai Magyar Szövetség (Canadian Hungarian Association), established 1908, with its first branch in Békevár; and a similarly short-lived organization, the Canadai Magyar Testvéri Szövetség (Canadian Hungarian Fraternal Association), established in 1910.

The second controversial initiative was a quasi-cultic movement called spiritism. Rev. Kovácsi returned to Canada after a visit to Hungary in 1907 as a convert to spiritism, a movement that promoted faith healing and belief in the possibility of communicating with the spirits of the dead. With the support of Szabó, he established a thriving but short- lived spiritist movement in the Békevár colony. In particular, under his guidance, adherents of spiritism formed the lay fraternity, Keresztyén Spiritisták Egylete (Christian Spiritists’ Society). The spiritist organization was highly controversial as its presence suggested that the church could not cater fully to the spiritual needs of the Calvinist congregation. In fact, the spiritist movement left the community in strife and divided. The pro-spiritist faction in Békevár began to use the Kossuth School for its meetings while the anti-spiritist faction used the Rakoczi School in the adjacent township. Finally, Rev. Kovácsi was pressured by the anti-spiritist opposition to leave the settlement in 1910. Although the Christian Spiritists’ Society was dissolved the following year, the spiritist group continued to function for some time. The spiritist movement, though organizationally short-lived, was eventually incorporated into local traditional legends and it became a popular topic of conversation well into the latter half of the century. It also had an influence on the settlement’s small but very active Baptist congregation.

In 1911, four Baptist families in the colony constructed a small wooden church adjacent to where the Reformed Church was being built. A year later, the Baptists’ first minister, Rev. János Mónus, arrived. A number of Calvinist adherents of spiritism subsequently joined Békevár’s new Baptist Church, which had already been infiltrated from the start by traditional folk beliefs. Conversions were undertaken in a large slough called Jordan- tó (Lake Jordan) and the 14’ x 20’ church structure had to be enlarged in 1915 and again in 1918. By the time Rev. Mónus left in 1925, the congregation had 65 baptized members and 109 children were attending Baptist Sunday school. The Church continued to grow with new memberships from both Békevár and the nearby village of Kipling.

Békevár was regarded as a leading centre of Hungarian Canadian culture. In fact, it has been argued that Békevár was culturally the richest Magyar settlement outside of Europe. Not only were folkloric rites and rituals preserved (e.g. baptismal, marriage and funeral customs), but the transplanted culture was further developed, with new songs and poetry produced to address new circumstances. The solid cultural foundation that included an array of folk traditions and values was largely tied to the fact that the core population of Békevár originated from the same village. Thus, systems of kinship and co-villager groupings, as well as the archaic yet vibrant folk belief system of turn-of-the- century Botrágy were transplanted, largely intact, to the Canadian prairies.

Rev. Kovácsi, a poet of some repute in Hungary, greatly facilitated Békevár’s development as a creative centre of folk-poets, prose and drama writers, musicians and festivals. For example, the settlement had a brass band and a succession of at least three string brands, a choir, and at least two well-published writers. Committed to fostering the anti-Habsburg Kossuth cult, the reverend-poet wrote patriotic poems and speeches such as “A Szabadság Ünnepére” (On the festival of freedom) for important annual events such as the Hungarian National Day on March 15. He also oversaw the Önképz?kör (Self-Training Circle), a cultural organization that helped nurture the poetical and literary creativity of many of the pioneer settlers. Poetical texts, short stories and even long epic poems were produced by the early Békevárians, including works with such titles as the “Hymn of Bekevar” and “The Conquest of our New Home.” A Self-Training Circle for Youth (IfjuságiÖnképz?kör) was also established to encourage the Canadian-born children to learn Hungarian poetry, song and music.

The active reinforcement of Hungarian culture at the heart of this settlement declined by the mid-twentieth century.

The main studies upon which this entry is based are M. Kovacs (1980a) and the edited collection of studies by R. Blumstock (1979). For spiritism, religious mysticism and sectarianism in Békevár see L. Dégh (1980) and her study in Blumstock’s edited volume. For examples of poetry from Békevár see Kovacs (1980b). Shorter overviews with additional information include Kovacs (1980c; 1982; 1985) and Dreisziger (2004; 2016).

by Jason F. Kovacs
16.05.16

References:

  • Blumstock, Robert, ed. 1979. Békevár: working papers on a Canadian prairie community. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.
  • Dégh, Linda. 1980. Folk religion as ideology for ethnic survival: On the Hungarians of Kipling, Saskatchewan. In Ethnicity on the Great Plains, ed. F.C. Luebke, 129-146. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Dreisziger, Nándor. 2016. Church and society in Hungary and in the Hungarian diaspora. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Dreisziger, Nándor. 2004. The quest for spiritual fulfilment among immigrants: The rise of organized religious life in pioneer Hungarian-Canadian communities, 1885-1939. Magyar Egyháztörténeti Vázlatok – Essays in Church History in Hungary 3-4: 95-124.
  • Dubé, Kristie. 2013. Optimism and competition in Saskatchewan’s rural gothic revival churches in the early twentieth century. Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture 38, 1: 75-83.
  • Hryniuk, Margaret and Frank Korvemaker. 2014. Legacy of worship: sacred places in rural Saskatchewan. Regina: Coteau Books.
    Kovacs, Martin L. 1980a. Peace and strife: some facets of the history of an early prairie community. Kipling, Saskatchewan: Kipling District Historical Society.
  • Kovacs, Martin L. 1980b. Early Hungarian-Canadian culture. Canadian-American Review of Hungarian Studies VII, 1: 55-76.
  • Kovacs, Martin L. 1980c. Hungarian communities in early Alberta and Saskatchewan. In The new provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan, 1905-1980, eds. Howard Palmer and Donald Smith, 101-130. Vancouver: Tantalus Research.
  • Kovacs, Martin L. 1982. The Saskatchewan era, 1885-1914. In Struggle and hope: the Hungarian-Canadian experience, ed. N.F. Dreisziger, 61-93. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd.
  • Kovacs, Martin L. 1985. New settlers on the prairie: problems of adaptation. In Central and East European ethnicity in Canada: Adaptation and preservation, ed. T. Yedlin, 63-85. Edmonton: Central and East European Studies Society of Alberta.