Mariahilf means ‘Mary, help us’
By Frank Flegel
MARIAHILF, Sask. — A cemetery is not the usual location for a mass, but for 29 years Roman Catholics from the Killaly/Grayson district of east central Saskatchewan have gathered at this site to remember and commemorate their ancestors. And for more years than he can remember, retired Archbishop Adam Exner has returned to his boyhood home to celebrate the mass.
The district named a road and erected a cairn in his honour. Exner served as Bishop of Kamloops, British Columbia, Archbishop of Winnipeg, and retired in 2004 as Archbishop of Vancouver, where he still resides. “I come back every year because my roots are here, our roots are here. We remember them and the strong faith they had.”
The Mariahilf cemetery is virtually enclosed in a grove of tall trees that provide shade from the hot July 28 late afternoon sun. It is about 50 yards north of the small fieldstone chapel.
Immigrants from various cultures, but mostly German Roman Catholics, began settling the area in the 1890s. They had great difficulty adapting and decided to call the area Mariahilf (Mary help us). A cairn dedicated to their memory was erected in 1973, with funds from the Saskatchewan government, by descendants of the Flegel family, one of the earliest settlers.
The cairn, with a large cross embedded, sits in a small alcove of trees, site of the early occasional outdoor masses, just north of the Qu’Appelle Valley on highway 47. The original church was built in 1900 a mile north and two miles west of the cairn. Built of fieldstone with a wooden roof, it twice burned down and was rebuilt as a small chapel. It ceased to be used for regular services when churches were built in Killaly and Grayson.
Parishioners of Killaly’s St. Elizabeth Church maintain a special fund to keep the chapel and the cemetery in good repair. It stands as a memorial to the early settlers and is rarely used for any services but a wedding was held in the chapel in June, the first one in 70 years.
Exner’s homily spoke of the legacy left by the early settlers, many buried under the nearby tombstones, and how that faith sustained them. “Let us pray that we can hand off that faith to those who follow us,” he ended his homily.
Following the mass there was a traditional blessing of the sick.
Robbie and Mervin Dohaniuk appeared to do most of the preparations for the annual event, but adamantly said everyone was involved. An old-fashioned wiener roast was held over a fire pit outside the cemetery.