Fire destroys historic country church in Two Hills County

Memories are all that remain after fire destroyed an historic country church in east-central Alberta built by mostly Polish immigrants as a place to celebrate faith and family.

“Oh my gosh I couldn’t sleep when I heard about the fire. It’s so sad. The church was more than just a building. It was woven into the fabric of our family,” said Miranda Ketchum, the fifth generation of her family to be involved in Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

Holy Trinity Church once served the early immigrant farming families in the area.Andrew Papenbrock, Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton

The church was situated at New Kiev in Two Hills County, about 120 kilometres east of Edmonton. The fire is believed to have started in the early hours of July 25.

Area residents reported seeing two pickup trucks driving in the isolated area around 2:30 a.m. The church is located on a hill and the neighbour who lives at the bottom called Ketchum’s parents after the fire.

The fire is under investigation by RCMP and fire officials.

Ketchum and her husband Josh were married in Holy Trinity Church three years ago, which was the last wedding at the church. Holy Trinity has been closed for over 20 years, opening only occasionally for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

The destruction was complete, save for part of a brick chimney.Courtesy of Miranda Ketchum

A small cemetery is located nearby, with headstones dating to the 1800s when immigrants arrived to the area, many of them – like Ketchum’s family, the Sokalskis – from Poland.

“My dad’s family came in 1899 and at the time they didn’t have a church so Mass was celebrated in people’s homes,” Ketchum said. “Then they started building the church.”

The Roman Catholic Parish of Holy Trinity was established about 1908, when Jan Baczinksi – an early settler – donated two acres of land for a cemetery. At the time, the first pastor of the church would arrive on horseback, rain or snow, and say Mass. Most times he would spend the night at Baczinski’s home and then leave the following morning.

“They were also a people of great faith and deep conviction for their homeland ties. The Catholic Church has been a great source of consolation and pride of the Polish people, especially during times of adversity,” Mykaela Van Soest, Ketchum’s sister, wrote in preparing a history of the parish. 

“During the early years in this new country, the Church was sometimes the only connection to their native country and culture.”

The current building was the second church on the site replacing the original log building. The Holy Trinity parish community celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018.

Rev. Luan Vu and Rev. Roger Niedzielski concelebrate Mass on the 100th anniversary of Holy Trinity parish in 2018.Courtesy of Mykaela Van Soest

Growing up, Ketchum and her three siblings were longtime altar servers at Holy Trinity Church. Her grandfather Eddie Sokalsi was a server well into adulthood until his son Jim, Ketchum’s father, was “old enough to chase after him”.

Because the church was only used sporadically, the Sokalski family, and others, had a schedule of who would go into the church and turn on the furnace so it would warm enough for Mass the next day.

Ketchum also recalls the fun that she and her siblings had.

“When we were altar servers we would sit in the front row right by the heating vent, and the warm air went up and fluttered our robes!” Ketchum said.

The parish kids would also take turns ringing the bell at Holy Trinity church.

“We would take turns pulling the bell rope and ride it up and down. Sometimes the rope would get tangled and we’d have to go up and untangle it,” Ketchum recalls fondly.

Miranda and Josh Ketchum were married three years ago at Holy Trinity Church.Courtesy of Miranda Ketchum

Many of Ketchum’s family members are buried in the cemetery next door. Ketchum said she’s heartbroken that her one-year-old daughter Ashleigh won’t have the same memories of Holy Trinity Church.

“That’s where our faith started. That’s where we learned to have a relationship with God.”

Rev. Adam Lech, moderator of the curia for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, visited the area after the fire and reported that the destruction was complete, save for part of a brick chimney.

“Everything had collapsed into the basement. I looked to see if there was a tabernacle or anything that could be saved, but there was nothing but ashes. It is sad.”

-With files from Lorraine Turchansky, Grandin Media