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A Matter of Remembrance

On Tuesday, November 30th I walked, once again, up to the Coleman Catholic Cemetery to pay my respects.  There are dozens of special souls buried there to whom I have a close connection to, including my beloved brother Alex.
That day I specifically went straight to a marker on the north side where the remains of Joseph Louis Sikora have lain for 71 years now. Joe’s marker is the signpost for a story that touched me 16 years ago and its heartbreaking significance has never left me. I have visited him often and this anniversary visit was more important than most. Since 2007 Joe’s marble cross has had a Knights of Columbus rosary, symbolic of his faith, draped over it and is directly connected to how he died.
Sometime in the last couple of months, someone chose to remove this important and sacred string of onyx beads from his cross. I cannot imagine why anyone would do this. I decided it must be replaced and I laid a family keepsake rosary made of giant wooden beads around that marble cross, in its place. There is such an important story behind the rosary and its significance, one that I would like to share, first by painting a picture for you of who Joe Sikora was and how he wound up dying in the McGillivray Mine.
Joe Sikora Jr. was born in Coleman, Alberta on June 27, 1926 and was the oldest child of Joseph & Mary Sikora. Joe's mother died on August 4, 1940 when he was 14 years of age. Mary was only 36 and died giving birth to a son Michael, who was also lost.  Responsibilities immediately made Joe older than his years, when, along with his younger sister, Mary, he became caregiver to a little brother, John.
In March, 1941, his father remarried Helen Osiowy and she and her four children moved into their house and became part of his extended family. That summer, just after turning 15 years of age, Joe completed eighth grade and following in his father's footsteps, began working in the McGillivray Mine. He continued to live at home and assumed many roles as the oldest of a large, blended family.
Joe is remembered as a helpful and caring family member with a quiet and gentle personality. It is said he was generous and often surprised others with gifts. One-half of the income he earned went into the family bank account.
Joe spent a lot of time outdoors; he was an avid fisherman and hunter. Joe's favourite sport was boxing and his middle name, Louis, was taken after the famous boxer Joe Louis. He enjoyed using his camera, learned to develop his own film and was the photographer for many of his family photographs.
Joe was a devout Catholic who practiced his faith fervently. He was a member of the Catholic Youth Organization, the Holy Name Society, and the Knights of Columbus. He was a faith-filled man who always carried his rosary in his pocket – the significance of which I will return to later. Father Anderson, who was the Pastor of St. Anne's Church in Blairmore at the time of Joe's death, wrote at great length in their parish bulletin about Joe's "sterling worth" and "strong and shining example."
On Thursday, November 30, 1950, Joe left home in enough time to walk  across Bushtown and then along the Miner’s Path up Nez Perce Creek (about 2 miles) to the McGillivray Mine before beginning the 3:30 afternoon shift. There he met his partner, George Raipos. George, who was 48 years old, lived alone in an 8 x 12 foot house on a small property in Bushtown. He had no relatives in Canada and was supporting his wife in the Zupa region of Czechoslovakia.
At approximately 8 p.m. that evening, Joe and George were working in Room 75, Level 5, when a sudden gas "bump" occurred. (A bump is a sudden movement in the strata that can produce an outburst -- a sudden and violent ejection of coal, rock and gas from the coal face.) George, who had been working at the coal face, was buried by the fall of rock and coal. Joe was several feet back from the coal face and was not involved in the explosion. Joe immediately ran for help and reached Norman Tomala and Louis Kratky about 70 feet away at the next crosscut. Louis Kratky told Joe and Norman to go get help while he quickly started to remove the check boards. Joe had the opportunity to flee the danger area, but focused instead on his fallen comrade. He turned and ran back to where George was buried and single-handedly started to try to dig him out.
A few minutes later, a second bump occurred and the tunnel caved in about 15 feet from where George was buried. Joe was entombed in a small enclosure, trapped hundreds of feet underground and two miles from the main entry. Beginning that night, under the direction of the mine manager, three rescue teams of 20 men per team immediately began working around the clock in 8-hour shifts to try to reach George and Joe. Work at the mine was suspended while many family and friends waited at the pit mouth for word about the trapped miners. The solemn work by the men on the rescue teams continued all day Friday and then into Saturday. About 5 o'clock on Saturday evening, -- about 45 hours after the accident, rescuers recovered Joe's body. George's body was recovered the following evening at about 7 p.m.
On Monday, December 4th, following the preliminary inquest, the bodies were identified and released for burial. The inquest concluded on Tuesday, December 5. The coroner listed the cause of death for George as head injuries and Joe's cause of death was listed as asphyxiation.
Joe was just 24 years old when he died. The funeral mass was con-celebrated by Fr. Sullivan, the Pastor of Holy Ghost Church, and Fr. Anderson of Blairmore. Rev. Vallieres of Calgary was Deacon and Rev. Holland of Bellevue was Subdeacon. The entire community attended the funeral and the church was packed. Fr. Sullivan's tribute to Joe at the service struck a responsive chord and everyone was moved to tears.
Joe's funeral was held at 10 o'clock in the morning and he was laid to rest next to the grave that holds his mother cradling a baby brother, Michael, in her arms. George Riapos is in an unmarked grave. Bill Petrunik, a miner who witnessed Joe's body being removed from the mine, spoke about seeing tear streaks through the coal dust on Joe's cheeks.

The family was devastated by Joe's death, and their family life was shattered. With a husband and a second son already working in the mine and four young boys growing up, Helen felt that losing more family members to death in the mine was inevitable. Determined to escape the constant threat and heartache of further loss, a year and a half later, in 1952, she packed up the kids and moved to a farm in Glenavon district in Saskatchewan.
As to the significance of the rosary, here are the words written by Joe’s step-sister Agnes Fuchs some years later at a presentation at the Bellevue Mine. It read as follows
“And we know what Joe did in the total darkness of the mine when he knew he was going to die:
He fell to his knees.
He pressed his shoulder against a rib.
He reached into his pocket.
He took out his rosary.
And he began to pray.
Two days later, when the rescuers found him,
He was still kneeling.
He was still leaning against the rib.
His rosary was still in his hands.”
 
Author’s Note: A Matter of Commemoration
Next week I will take Joe’s story forward and share the remarkable account behind the hard work and perseverance it took to get him awarded, posthumously, the CIM Medal of Bravery in 2007. Coincident with that I will also tell you about a plan I have been working on to acknowledge every single miner lost in the Crowsnest Pass, by name. The total is a heart breaking 492.  In the McGillivray Mine 58 men were lost, including, Joe Sikora and George Riapos. At each former mine site in an appropriate spot, a plaque will be posted for all to see and remember.  Every single miner deserves acknowledgement.

Wooden rosary used to replace the original

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A young Joe, his father Joe Sr., holding baby John at Mary's funeral

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Joe Sikora in his prime

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Wooden rosary used to replace the original

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