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Volume 49, Number 4July/August 1998

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Canada's Pioneer Mosque

Written by Andrea W. Lorenz

Canada's first mosque was built on the religious faith and pioneering spirit of a handful of prairie women. From its founding in 1938 to its preservation as a historic building in 1992, the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Alberta has been a source of pride for Canada's Muslim community and a place where tradition could be nurtured and celebrated. The story begins with the arrival of the first Arab immigrants in about 1882.

Most of them came from Ottoman Syria; many were young men fleeing conscription into the Ottoman army. Most were Christians, but a few were Muslims; most settled in the east, but a few headed west. Many became peddlers, and some of them reached the most remote outposts of what was then Canada's western frontier.

"The Syrian peddler was something of an institution in most Western settlements," wrote Gilbert Johnson. "Sometimes on foot, with a pack on his back and a case of trinkets and smallwares in his hand, but more often with a horse and a light wagon in summer, or with a sleigh in winter, he travelled the prairie trails on more or less regular routes.... His arrival often provided a welcome relief from the monotony of pioneer life."

For the peddlers, life was often no less lonely. For many, their goal was simply to earn enough money to marry, settle down and start a family. This was the case for Salim Sha'aban, who was born an Ottoman subject in 1880, landed in New York as a 20-year-old and made his way to Iowa in 1908. He peddled goods from his back until he had earned enough to buy a horse, and in 1910 returned to Lebanon to find a bride. Two years later, deciding that opportunities might be greater in Canada, he left his wife and their first child behind and set out for Alberta. Near Endiang, a trading post about 290 kilometers (180 mi) southeast of Edmonton, he built his family a homestead, and then sent for his wife and son.

For the young Arab woman who landed, tired and bewildered, at the port of Montreal, a long train trip across the prairies still lay ahead, followed by more travel by horse and wagon. The railway link to Edmonton had been completed in 1904, and agricultural settlement existed only in a band 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide on each side of the single railway line. Beyond that, the great prairies were still the land of the Cree, Assinaboine and Blackfoot. The winters could hardly have been less welcoming: One 1907 blizzard drove the mercury down to 48 degrees below zero (-55°F). Yet Larry Shaben, Sha'aban's grandson and a leader of today's Alberta Muslim community, recalls that his grandmother, who lived to be 99, was "fiercely passionate" about Canada, and called it "a wonderful country."

By the late 1920's, a handful of Muslim families were scattered throughout Alberta, earning their livings as fur traders, mink ranchers and shopkeepers. Shaben, now in his 60's, recalls that when he was growing up in Endiang there was only one other Muslim family in town, and his grandparents "knew every Muslim in Alberta."

In 1931, the Census of Canada registered 645 Muslims among 10,070 Canadians of Arab origin, most of them living in the eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Yet the few scattered about the vast Canadian West became close-knit despite distances. Gradually, and often out of concern for maintaining their faith among their children, families began to migrate in toward Edmonton, and soon there were about 20 Muslim families in town.

Lila Fahlman, founder of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) in 1982 and now in her 70's, was a teenager in the early 30's, when the Muslim families began to discuss the idea of constructing a mosque. She explains that it was Hilwi Hamdon, a woman whose vibrant personality "could win anyone over," who catalyzed the effort. Hilwi and her friends approached the city's mayor, John Fry, for a plot of land. "You don't have any money to build a mosque," he pointed out. "We'll get the money," they replied.

Fry agreed to give them the land if they could come up with construction money. They needed $5000, a hefty sum to raise in the depths of the Depression. They went from shop to shop along Jasper Avenue, Edmonton's main street. Whether the shop owners were Jewish, Christian or Muslim, the women asked for support from them all. "It was a very cooperative community then," recalls Lila, and so Canada's first mosque came to be built with contributions from members of all three monotheistic faiths.

Of course, no builder in the area had ever seen a mosque, let alone built one. Nonetheless, the women chose a Ukrainian-Canadian builder named Mike Drewoth and told him, "We want a place to pray." After some discussion Drewoth set about building the best mosque he could: one main room, lofty arched windows, two little rooms for ablutions, an insulated basement for social gatherings and two hexagonal minarets, each with an onion-shaped silver dome topped with a crescent moon. Although it clearly resembled a Russian Orthodox church, the community was elated with its new mosque and members enthusiastically donated carpets and lamps.

On December 12, 1938, the Al Rashid mosque was officially opened by Mayor Fry and I. F. Shaker, a Christian Arab who was mayor of Hanna, Alberta. Guests included the renowned Pakistani interpreter of the Qur'an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali. "It is significant that people of many faiths are sitting friendly together," said Fry.

Over the next three decades, the little mosque became a center of community activity for Arabs of all faiths. Weddings, funerals and 'id ceremonies were performed in the main hall. The basement was the scene of teas and covered-dish suppers. Mothers and fathers would keep an eye out for possible marriage partners for their own children, and the young people who had known only the prairies of Canada would catch a glimpse of how life had tasted and sounded in their parents' Middle Eastern villages.

The mosque had its share of controversy, too. In the early days, the women prayed in the main room behind the men, but one day a green curtain appeared, dividing the room in two. It was a source of much debate, says Fahlman. "Some wanted it open, others wanted it closed," she recalls. In the end, the curtain stayed.

After World War II, Arab immigrants flocked to Canada—nearly 50,000 between 1946 and 1975. A much larger percentage than before was Muslim. By 1980, Edmonton's Muslim community numbered nearly 16,000, overflowing the Al Rashid Mosque. It was time to build something larger, and in 1982, the doors of the old mosque were closed. For the next 10 years it stood empty and unused on its lot next to the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

With the 1980's oil boom, Edmonton's population soared and, in 1988, the hospital moved to expand its parking lot. The mosque faced imminent demolition, and Edmonton's Muslims considered how they might preserve what was now, half a century after its construction, a historic building. A fund-raising committee was formed, but couldn't come up with enough money. Then Lila Fahlman approached the ccmw, then based in Edmonton, and urged the group to take the lead in saving the mosque. Among the ccmw members were Karen and Evelyn Hamdon, the granddaughter and grand-niece, respectively, of Hilwi Hamdon, and Mahmuda Ali, the granddaughter of Mary Saddy, one of Hilwi's original group of friends. "The mosque had a real emotional connection for us," says Karen, whose aunt and uncle were the first couple to be married in it. The group decided to mount its own campaign.

Raising $75,000 to transport the mosque to the city's historical park—the women's first excursion into fund-raising—was only part of the challenge. The rest was to persuade the city's leaders to allow the mosque to be placed there. Edmonton of the late 1980's was no longer a close-knit prairie outpost. "There was definitely some ... how can I put this politely? ... resistance to moving the mosque," recalls Karen. Opponents argued that it was not a "heritage" building, and one writer warned in the Edmonton Journal that "Fort Edmonton Park could be forced to accept an historical intruder."

But in 1991, after three years of fund-raising and petitions, the day finally came when the roof of the Al Rashid Mosque was removed and the building lifted gently off its foundations and onto Lupul's Movers' big flatbed truck. On a moonlit night, the little mosque rolled quietly through Edmonton's sleeping streets and down through the river valley to its new home in the park. Mahmuda Ali and Karen Hamdon followed it in their car, sharing a thermos of coffee, determined to see the mosque safely to its destination.

For almost a year it sat open to the Alberta sky, pigeons nesting among its roof beams, while the CCMW members raised yet more money for its restoration. They needed to get the roof in place before another winter set in.

On May 28, 1992, the newly restored Al Rashid Mosque was officially opened in an emotional ceremony. City leaders paid tribute to the determination of the women who built it and to their descendants who saved it. Today, the mosque stands proudly beside Alberta's historic churches as a symbol of the Muslim strand in Canada's pioneer heritage.

"Now that the mosque is here," says Soraya Hafez, the CCMW's president at the time, "it says that we are here."

Andrea W. Lorenz is a staff writer forOilweek in Calgary. She has a master's degree in Arabic studies from the American University in Cairo.

This article appeared on pages 28-31 of the July/August 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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