The story of Safatova Gora, part 3

A Doukhobor barn at Bogatyi Rodnik village site, 2008. Courtesy Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

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Miracle of the drought

In the late Teens and early Twenties, a severe and prolonged drought struck the foothills.  Abnormally low rainfall combined with elevated temperatures and drying winds devastated the ranches and farms of the Cowley and Lundbreck district, resulting in crop failures, feed shortages, starving cattle and dust storms as topsoil was blown off cultivated fields.

The hardships of dryland farming, combined with low post-war wheat and cattle prices and high feed prices, drove many settlers to abandon their farms and leave the district.  Those who stayed purchased straw for their livestock from the Doukhobor colony, as there was no hay.  The drought continued to worsen, and by 1920, the Doukhobors had to bring in 75 rail carloads of straw from the Community settlements in Saskatchewan to sustain their own herds.

In these dire circumstances, the local Blackfoot Piikani Nation performed a rain dance ceremony, consisting of fasting, drumming, singing, dancing and feasting, to invoke the Creator to bless the Earth with much-needed rain.  When their efforts led to no avail, the Piikani people approached their neighbours, the Doukhobors, whom they held in high regard, and implored them to pray to God for rain.

Moved by their request, the Doukhobors convened a mass sobraniya (‘assembly’) at their Community central office in Cowley, attended by all the members of the colony.  After some deliberation and discussion, they resolved to trek to Safatova Gora, where they would pray for relief from the widespread drought.

Thus, several hundred Doukhobors set off on the 12-mile journey by foot from Cowley, through Lundbreck, to the sacred hill.  At the outset, there was not a single cloud in the sky.  As they trekked, they prayed and recited psalms seeking God’s intercession.  Some went barefoot out of religious conviction.  After six long, arduous hours, when the trekkers reached Safatova, clouds began to appear on the western horizon.  Heartened by this sign, they cast off their footwear and ascended the hill to the holy grave, where they prayed, earnestly and humbly, entreating God for rain.  As they did so, clouds gathered and darkened, piling higher and higher above them.  But after several hours of prayer and supplication, there was still no rain.  Weary and dejected, the Doukhobors made ready to depart.

No sooner did they begin their descent, however, than the sky opened up, pelting them with thick, heavy rain drops.  The rain quickly became a deluge as the Doukhobors, relieved and overjoyed, slipped and slid down the muddy hill.  By the time they reached the bottom, it was raining so hard that the ground, saturated with water, became a thick, sticky gumbo, almost impossible to cross.  Many had difficulty pulling their feet out of the mud and some became quite stuck.

It rained without stop for the next six to nine hours.  Not since 1915 had there been a downpour so heavy and extending over so wide a stretch of territory as that day.  Almost the whole province was covered, ending the drought, filling the rivers and reservoirs and reinvigorating the land with valuable moisture.  That day, Petushka wired the Calgary Herald from his office to advise that the heavy rain in the Cowley and Lundbreck district “practically assured the crops”.  The date of this event was June 29, 1922 as reported by the Calgary Herald.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also Petrov Den (‘Peter’s Day’), one of the most important Doukhobor holidays.

Many called it a miracle – others called it an answer to their prayers – and it seemed that it was both.  For the Doukhobors, something spectacular happened up on the hill; something so extraordinary that it hardly seemed true.  After years of drought, God heard their prayers from the hilltop and sent the rain!