On the northwest side of Mundare stands Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church. Like many older rural churches on the Prairies, its white form stands out starkly against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky and emerald lawn. Its monotone exterior offers no hint of the riot of colours that burst forth within.
The Polish parishioners, many of whom arrived in Canada at the beginning of the 20th century, must have felt a sense of awe, pride and perhaps even homesickness when the interior painting of the church was completed in 1940. Here was artwork to rival the beauty of that found in the churches back home in Europe, for this little church in Mundare features the work of two of Western Canada’s foremost painters of religious art – Peter Lipinski (1888-1975) and Count Berthold von Imhoff (1868-1939).
Construction on the church began in the spring of 1915 following a year of fundraising within the community. The money raised was used to purchase six acres of land for a church and cemetery at Mundare. This would replace the small log sanctuary known as Dombrowa Church four miles southwest of the village which many Polish settlers attended.
The building of the church was not supported by all Polish settlers. Some felt it was unnecessary. The Basilian Fathers had built a Greek Catholic church in Mundare in 1910. Many of the Ukrainian settlers and some of the Poles attended services there. The two ethnic groups intermingled in many ways, both in their new homeland and back in the old country, working, playing and marrying together. Many spoke (or at least understood) both languages. Some argued that the Polish Roman Catholics might as well join the Ukrainians in attending the Greek Catholic Church.
In the end, however, the building of a Polish Roman Catholic Church went forward. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1915, by Father Hippolyte Leduc of St. Albert. Its inscription of ‘BOZE ZBAW POLSKE’ (God Save Poland) conveyed the faith and resiliency of this proud people, who fervently wished to see their homeland once again regain its independence after over 120 years of subjugation to the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires, something which they hoped the outbreak of war in Europe the year before would allow them to regain militarily. The rejoicing within the community must have been great when the First World War ended, and Poland once again became a country three years later, on November 11, 1918.
Father Paweł (Paul) Kulawy, the first priest to serve at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, was from Galicia as were his parishioners. When Poland regained its independence, he decided to return and became one of the founding members of the Oblate province there. When the Nazis requisitioned the Oblate house at Święty Krzyż, Father Kulawy was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz where he died on August 21, 1941.
On September 14, 1921, Archbishop Henry Joseph O’Leary blessed the church and dedicated it to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, though it is often referred to as St. Mary’s by locals. The church is in the traditional Roman style with a central tower with a belfry, spire and cross at the apex. On either side is a pinnacle topped with a cross. Major exterior renovations were done in 1985. In front of the church stands a cement cross erected in 1924 to commemorate a mission from Father Aloysius Staskiewicz.
Construction on the interior of the church was completed in 1919 but it wasn’t until 1940 that the interior decoration was complete as it took time to raise the funds, with the Depression of the 1930s greatly slowing the collection. It would be well worth the wait.
The well-known Ukrainian artist Peter Lipinski of Edmonton was hired to do most of the painting in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church. Trained as an iconographer in Galicia where many of the church’s parishioners were also from originally, Lipinski had established a career for himself painting Ukrainian and Polish churches in central Alberta. For the church in Mundare, he painted the Holy Trinity along with four icons to flank the main altar. In addition, he painted the pillars and walls to resemble marble.
Above the main altar of the church hangs a painting of the Virgin Mary by Count Berthold von Imhoff of St. Walburg, Saskatchewan. Von Imhoff was a German artist who painted many churches in Pennsylvania and later Saskatchewan. He believed such work was valuable because it focused the mind of the beholder on spiritual concerns while at the same time making parishioners feel more at home in an environment modeled on the churches in Europe.
Around the walls hang thirteen Stations of the Cross, each identified in Polish. The fourteenth Station is hidden from view under a side altar and was revealed only on Good Friday when the parishioners gathered to pray. When a wooden panel on the front of the altar is removed, Jesus can be seen lying in his tomb surrounded by flowers. It must surely have moved all who saw it to fervent prayer.
About 20 priests served in the church following the departure of Father Kulawy. They came from the Franciscan and Oblate orders as well as members of the diocesan clergy. However, with fewer men choosing to follow this vocation, Our Lady of Perpetual Help was forced to close in 2000 for lack of a priest. Mass is now celebrated in the church only once a year, either at Christmas or Easter, with parishioners traveling to Vegreville the rest of the year. The church is also used for weddings and funerals.
Out behind the church down a path through the trees is the cemetery. Marked by a central cement cross, it is filled with graves old and new, large and small. It is a testament to the faith and courage of the early parishioners who sought a new and better life, and to the continuing connection to the community as many of their descendants and former parishioners choose this as their final resting place.