Scouting Rovers Travel to Czech Republic to Restore the Faith

The remains of a Catholic church stand alone in a quiet valley in the eastern part of Czech Republic, decaying from years of neglect. For 10 Canadian Rover Scouts, this was the focus of a service project they undertook in May. Altwasser or Stare Voda church restoration project

Rover Keith Emond of Brooklin, Ontario was one of them, paying his own way to the central European country to lend a hand. As a philosophy student at University of Toronto, Keith reflected on how such a project can impact your perception of life and the world. For him, things will never be the same, now that he has seen first hand the atrocities in other parts of the world.

The mission was organized by Leader Brian Wick and included a delegation of Rovers (aged 19 – 25) from Whitby and Windsor. Mr. Wick learned about the derelict church on a visit to Prague in 2004. The church is located 250 km east of Prague near the city of Olomouc.

The area surrounding the church was converted into a military training zone by the Russian occupants following World War II.  Of 22 villages that were evacuated, the church is the only remaining structure. All other structures had decayed as a result of military exercises and have become overgrown by the forests.

Over the years, solders training in the area had bombed and pelted the buildings with bullets, accelerating the destruction of the old brick buildings. Evidence of this is clear when visiting the church and analysing it’s interior walls. Just over the next ridge, flares signal military exercises being conducted around the church. Pop, pop, pop go the guns as soldiers conduct skirmishes.

Stare Voda (or Old Water) was established in 1703 and through the decades was expanded to the impressive cathedral that stands today. The structure was surrounded by 160 homes and businesses catering to about 700 residents prior to 1945. A short walk downstream from the church is spring-fed monument to Saint Mary. The water is still clean and provided drinking water for the project days.

The outside of the church has had major repairs completed including installation of windows, re-hanging of doors and re-plastering and painting of the walls and bell towers.  Inside, the 60 m vaulted ceilings of the church still display faded frescos. There is a constant rain of plaster dust as the building continues to deteriorate. The alter and vestibules are void of artefacts, long replaced by graffiti painted on the walls. Following decommissioning of the church in 1945, icons and artefacts were redistributed to churches outside the military training zone.

It is a sad story with hope for the future. The Scout Association of Czech Republic secured and $3 million dollar grant to restore the church as a memorial to the 22 villages it represented. During this spring’s work project Scout volunteers came from Canada, Poland and Holland to pitch in.

Work completed by the Canadian Rovers included a stone staircase to the remains of a cemetery, clearing brush to expose a reflecting pond adjacent to the church, clearing of surface silt from the remains of a school building exposing some impressive columns, and reconstruction of a floor to the bell tower of the church.

Keith Emond working with Polish leader on stairs to cemetary.The work needed to save the church is extensive and will require thousands of hour work over the next few years. Hopefully the Rovers who went will return to lend a hand again.

While working on the project, a German man approached to ask about the work. He was travelling with his wife and her mother who lived in the village over 60 years ago.  She was overcome with joy to see that someone was doing something to erase a dark
part of history.  It is a humbling moment to hear that something you are doing has that affect on people.

Other volunteers provided food for the workers. In traditional Czech style, meals included goulash with dumplings, sausage, pate on bread and a variety of soups.

When you go to a foreign place on holiday, you are usually protected from the reality of what is there. This was a chance for the Canadians to really appreciate the Czech people and culture and to lend a hand in the reconstruction project. The church is no longer a passing site, but becomes part of you as you have made an impact on it. The reality of what war does to a place cannot be felt in Canada as it can in place like this. To stand near the church and realize the silence that was once a quaint village can be very humbling. Remembrance Day for these Rover Scouts will have a different meaning next Novermber.

For each of the participants, the $1423 it cost out of their own pocket was well worth it. The interaction with different cultures, language, landscape and people help put a new context on to the history that surrounded them. Each went with a different purpose in mind, but all returned with the same experience, one they will remember for many years.

The Rover program is the senior section for youth in Scouting. Their motto is “Service” so it is normal for them to get involved in such a project.

For more information contact:
Scouts Canada - 57th Windsor Rover Crew:  Iain Tait
Scouts Canada - 1st Whitby Crusaders Rover Crew:  Brian Wick

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