The Czech immigrants who first settled in the Prague district brought their religious traditions and other customs with them.
May 12, 2014
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Kevin Midbo has vivid memories of the legendary Prague Picnics held in the Prague District southwest of Viking. "The crowds of people, lines of cars, tables of food and celebratory atmosphere are easily recalled," he writes.
Midbo started attending in the 1960s with his parents Ken and Marion Midbo and his sisters Kathy and Tracy.
However, he was an outsider at the picnics. "I didn't live in the Prague District and we were Lutherans, not Catholic. But we were welcomed, along with hundreds of others, into the picnic fold."
Midbo, now a resident of Nanaimo, B.C., who was raised in Viking, just released an 86-page book on the picnic called Prague Picnic: An Alberta Community Celebrates. It is filled with stories and colourful and not-so-colourful photos, some of which go back to the 1930s.
Even though the annual picnic stopped decades ago, Midbo decided it was worth bringing it back in the pages of his book. After all, the picnic was the highlight of the year for thousands of people over the better part of the 20th century.
People still get together on an annual basis at the small St. John Nepomucene Church, but the event doesn't resemble the picnic. It's an annual Mass and blessing of the cemetery followed by a dinner. This year it will take place June 7.
Organizer Jim Ruzicka, a berry farmer, expects people from all corners of the province and beyond for this year's Mass.
The Prague Picnic was held each year on a Sunday following the feast day of Corpus Christi on the grounds of the St. John Nepomucene Church, close to Ruzicka's house.
The Czechs who founded Prague brought the Corpus Christi procession along with other religious traditions and practices from their homeland, and it was always held on the morning of the picnic. The procession was held at Prague until about 1952.
To learn more about the history of the picnic, Midbo returned to Viking and the Prague District in 2012 and 2013. He spoke to almost 30 people from the area, including Ann McIsaac and Ruzicka, who takes care of the church and the Prague hall.
Ruzicka's grandparents and many other Czech immigrants came to the Prague District in 1904 from Prague, Okla. In the years that followed the arrival of the Ruzickas, Prague School and church were built.
Before there was a church, services were held in the first home of Ruzicka's grandfather, John W. Ruzicka. "I can see how the Ruzicka family has been a faithful steward for Prague Catholic communities and properties over the years," observes Midbo.
The Prague Picnic was launched in 1912 as a community picnic in the orchard of John W. Ruzicka across the road from where the Prague Hall now stands. The hall was built in 1939 and became the focal point for organizing the picnic.
"On the day of the picnic, this building hosted hundreds of visitors as they passed through to share in a community meal with family, friends and neighbours," writes Midbo.
The members of the Catholic Women's League were the organizational heads as well as the cooks for the event. Midbo quotes CWL records saying that in the early years each member was asked to bring four or five fried chickens, four pies, potato salad, bean salad, pickles and three dozen bread and butter sandwiches.
Two ladies made the coffee at home and brought it in cream cans. One time they even brought a quart of deviled eggs and a quart of lemon juice for lemonade. "This was all before the days of fridges and freezers."
ALL PITCHED IN
A 1938 list reveals that the good women of the CWL were also expected to provide fruit salad and at least one cake.
The men of the parish had their specific picnic-related tasks. In the earliest days of the picnic they pulled granaries with horses onto the grounds to shelter picnic organizers and participants, observes Midbo.
"Over the years, many lean-tos were constructed from fresh poplar branches and used to cover the food service area, the bingo area and other booths."
The men also took up ticket-selling and the managing of activities, such as the ball tournaments and some of the games.
The Prague Picnic day for Ann McIsaac, when she was a young girl in the Prague District, began at around 7 a.m., writes Midbo, who interviewed McIsaac during a visit a year ago.
"Early that morning I was sent out to pick all the flowers I could find," she told the author.
"Depending on how early spring was, there were dandelions, crocuses, old-time poppies, iris and lilacs. I put them into a little white box or basket." Midbo includes in the book a full-page black and white photo of McIsaac with a box full of flowers.
"The picnic is what people remember," writes Midbo. "The Corpus Christi celebration was an important event in the faith community at Prague, but the picnic became legendary for drawing so many people from so many walks of life for so many years.
"The picnic, picking up from where the Mass ended, expanded the sense of community, of belonging, of well-being, and of feeling and being included by others."