Otthon, Saskatchewan

1894
Location: 14 km southwest of Yorkton SK. Rural Municipality of Cana No. 214. Township 24, Ranges 4, 5 & 6, W2.   51.096466 N, -102.597936 W
See also: Békevár SK; Hun’s Valley MB; Esterház-Kaposvár SK.

Otthon was founded by Reverend János Kovács, also the founder of the First Hungarian Reformed Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the second oldest Magyar settlement in Canada after Esterház-Kaposvár SK. Otthon means “home” in Hungarian. A small hamlet remains at the heart of the old Hungarian colony.

In January 1894 Rev. Kovács wrote a letter that was published in the most popular Hungarian language newspaper in the United States at the time, Amerikai Nemzetör (American Home Guard). It claimed that some of his congregation had wrongly accused him of misappropriating funds for the construction of his church. Accordingly, he declared his intention to leave Pittsburgh and organize a group of Hungarians with the purpose of establishing a farming settlement in the Canadian prairies at a suitable location suggested by Canadian authorities. His plan was undoubtedly influenced by Paul O. Esterhazy’s earlier work in settling the Esterház colony, as well as by his own back-to-nature philosophy. In particular, the reverend believed that farming was a far better option than the constant danger and “moral corruption” that the Hungarian immigrant faced working in the small mining towns of Pennsylvania.

A follow-up letter in March written by the editor of the Amerikai Nemzetör warned readers that while 150 people had already expressed interest in leaving Pennsylvania, they and others needed to be fully aware that they could in no way expect to “find manna in readiness and milk, honey and beer flowing in the river beds.” He further warned that “shirkers should not join” Rev. Kovács’ co-operative land settling enterprise and potentially repeat what had occurred eight years earlier when many of the first Hungarian settlers destined for the colonization initiative at Esterház returned weeping from the hardships they endured during their first winter in Canada. It seems the warning was effective because only about four or five families moved to the Yorkton area that April of 1894.

Rev. Kovács rented a small house for the settlers until they could complete the task they undertook cooperatively of building temporary sod hut dwellings in the forested area that was to be theirs. In the winter of 1895, Rev. Kovács wrote a number of letters that were widely circulated, including in the press, giving details about how to acquire free homestead land, the cost of livestock, the superior quality of the new land in Canada, and life in general by contrast to what was offered in the United States. Not only were these letters read by Hungarian immigrants in the United States, but also by many of their relatives and friends in Hungary. As a result, Rev. Kovács and his initial followers were soon joined by a dozen or so families from the U.S. as well as eight families directly from Hungary.

The chief Canadian supporter of Rev. Kovács’ plan to settle some fifty Hungarian families of the Reform (Calvinist) faith was Rev. Theodore Teitlebaum of Saltcoats SK (near Yorkton), a Church of England clergyman and son of a refugee of the failed 1848-49 Hungarian War of Independence. The initiative gained the additional support of Dr. James Robertson, Superintendent of Presbyterian Missions for the North-West, an immense region defined by his institution as stretching from Lakehead ON to BC and the Yukon.

Although the first group of settlers were of the Reformed faith, subsequent groups also included Catholics and Baptists. For most of the first decade of its existence no permanent congregation of any denomination could be organized in the colony. Before their church was built in 1905, services for Reformed-Presbyterians were conducted in Reverend Kovács’ house, and later in the homes of two settlers. Otthon’s Catholic church was built in East Otthon where most of the Catholic Hungarians had settled. It was consecrated in 1903.

The first institution in Otthon was the post office (Sec. 36, Twp. 24, R. 5, W2) and Rev. Kovács served as the colony’s first postmaster from 1896 to 1898. Upon the Reverend’s resignation, the post office was briefly closed, reopening in 1899 at a new location (Sec. 14, Twp. 24, R. 5, W2). Six postmasters served there until its closure in 1968. Rev. Kovács’ letter of resignation as postmaster in late 1897 may have been linked to the growing alienation that he was facing in his new home and adopted country, particularly following a conflict he had with the Presbyterian Church of Canada. The conflict led not only to a reprimand and loss of an annual subsidy, but also to the departure of several members of his flock. The founder of Otthon left his colony and Canada at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Reformed congregation of Otthon received a promising replacement with a theological student from Hungary, but he left after no more than two years service. Then Lajos Kovácsi, a former teacher in Hungary who had become a missionary for the Canadian Presbyterian Church, arrived in about 1905 and provided the colony with strong leadership in both the religious and ethno-cultural sense for two years. He and his older brother, Rev. Kálmán Kovácsi (see Békevár SK), were responsible for establishing the Canadai Magyar Testvéri Szövetség (Canadian Hungarian Fraternal Association) in 1910, a supracommunal organization jointly based out of Winnipeg and Békevár. It served Hungarian interests such as the promotion of bilingual (EnglishHungarian) schooling. A branch of the short-lived organization was established in Otthon that same year.

Despite the relatively short time spent in the colony, Lajos Kovácsi seemed to have helped awaken the Otthonians from their apparent indifference to cultural activities. In particular, like his older brother in Békevár, Lajos actively promoted the cult of Lajos Kossuth, leader of the 1848-49 Hungarian War of Independence. He delivered patriotic speeches on Hungarian national memorial days, March 15 and October 6. Following his departure a number of other ministers served Otthon’s Reformed congregation before Lajos’ older brother Kálmán – a capable orator, leader and poet – arrived in 1911 to minister. Kálmán Kovácsi, too, was succeeded by other Reformed Hungarian ministers. Unlike the Calvinists, the Hungarian Catholics of Otthon were not as fortunate in the matter of obtaining their own clergy. Their church was often served by visiting priests from the Esterház-Kaposvár settlement.

The Otthon colony had two schools, the first of which was established in 1899. It also had the Rákóczi Orchestra, formed in 1905 and named after the leader of an earlier Hungarian War of Independence in 1703-1711. An important social event in Otthon was the mid-summer picnic. The first of many picnics was arranged by the Reformed congregation in 1912. It was geared to all members of the community, irrespective of religious and ethnic background. Many other important occasions for communal eating, dancing, music-making and singing existed, usually tied to religious dates and events such as Christmas, Pentecost and Easter, particular saints’ days, baptisms and weddings.

Satellite view of the hamlet of Otthon
Bird’s-eye view of the hamlet of Otthon. Source: Google Earth

For more on Hungarian settlement in Canada in general and Otthon in particular, see M. Kovács (1980a; 1980b; 1982), Dreisziger (1982), Paizs (1928), and Ruzsa (1940).

by Jason F. Kovacs
13.05.16

References:

  • Dreisziger, Nándor F. (ed.) 1982. Struggle and hope: the Hungarian-Canadian experience. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
  • Kovács, Márton L. [Kovacs, Martin L.] 1980a. An early Hungarian settlement [Otthon]. Études Finno-Ougriennes XVI: 181-214.
  • Kovacs, Martin L. 1980b. Peace and strife: some facets of the history of an early prairie community. Kipling, Saskatchewan: Kipling District Historical Society.
  • 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 & Stewart Ltd., 1982.
  • Paizs, Ödön. 1928. Magyarok kanadában [Hungarians in Canada]. Budapest: Athenaeum.
  • Ruzsa, Jenö. 1940. A kanadai magyarság története [The History of Canada’s Magyars]. Toronto: no publisher.