Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The First Mosque in Manitoba: The Hazelwood Mosque at 247 Hazelwood Avenue

Article by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.
Thank you to Tasneem Vali, Laila Chebib, and Jameela Inayatulla for their assistance with this piece.
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

A new piece of Manitoba history is planned to join Doors Open Winnipeg - the first mosque built in Manitoba. Located at 247 Hazelwood Avenue, the Hazelwood Mosque is a testament to the hard work and determination of its congregation. Just in time for Islamic History Month, here is our visit to the mosque!

On August 24, 2015, Summer Students Rushika Khatkar and Laura McKay were graciously hosted and given a tour of the Hazelwood Mosque by Tasneem Vali, Office Manager at the Manitoba Islamic Association, as well as Laila Chebib and Jameela Inayatulla, founding members of Manitoba Islamic Association and the mosque. 

The Chebibs were also among the first Syrian immigrants to the area, with Laila arriving in approximately 1958. Her husband Dr. Farouk Chebib was among the early computer programmers at the University of Manitoba and eventually became a professor there. Jameela joined the Manitoba Islamic community in 1968. Both had many memories of the early days of the mosque to share with us. 
First Eid, 1976 Men's Section. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
First Eid, 1976 Women's Section. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
Muslim pioneers began arriving in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba in the early 1900s, primarily from Turkey and Lebanon. Unfortunately, the community has been unsuccessful in tracing them before the 1950s, although research continues.

Artwork donated to the mosque in 1975. Artist details below.

The Manitoba Islamic Association came first, incorporated in 1969 to enable the organization to raise funds to build a place of worship, starting with two donations for a total of $200. The fundraising efforts then began in earnest - dinners were held at the Ramada Hotel, they participated in Folklorama and the University of Manitoba's Festival of Life and Learning, and baked goods were sold after prayer times, as well as at an "Hajje Baba" booth at the Red River Exhibition. 

Some of the mosque's beautiful artwork.
Letters were written to numerous Muslim governments, requesting financial assistance. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was the only one who answered, with a $25,000 no strings attached donation that as seed money for the mosque. 

Mosque construction, the foundation hole. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
Mosque construction, the dig. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
At this time, the main source of immigration in the Muslim community was young professionals or grad students seeking to complete their education at Canadian universities. The congregation consisted of approximately 100 people, and until the mosque was completed in 1976, prayers were held in the basements or more often in the apartments of various members of the community. The community was made up of both Shia and Sunni Muslims, although the mosque's congregation is now primarily made up of Sunni Muslims.

Mosque construction, the foundation. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
Mosque construction, foundation from the parking lot. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
Construction on the mosque began in 1970, but due to lack of funds, the construction was not completed for nearly six years, with the mosque officially opening in 1976. Part way through the project, the contractor went bankrupt, leaving the rest of the building to be slowly completed by the hands of the members of its congregation. As context, this was also right around the time that Winnipeg was unified into Unicity, gathering in the surrounding communities under one umbrella.

Mosque construction with congregation member Dr. Hyder. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.

Mosque construction. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
The total cost of the mosque's construction was approximately $80,000, including the purchase of the land. To give you a sense of how much money this was, the ladies told me that they remember the Ramadan Fitrah (a sort of traditional tithe, with a specified amount paid for each member of the family) being 50 cents in 1978. The Fitrah this year, by comparison, was $10. Although this amount is based on the cost of one meal and thus fluctuates with the price of wheat, it gives you a pretty good idea of how much more the building would cost to build today.

Almost there! Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
The completed mosque, open for the first Eid in 1976. Photo courtesy of the late Khaleel Baksh.
Initially, the neighbours weren't big fans of the mosque built in their community, but inviting them to visit, along with other courtesies has encouraged tolerance and understanding on both sides. For example, the ladies told me that flyers are put on doorsteps and tucked into mailboxes after Ramadan to thank the neighbours for their patience during the period of fasting and celebration. 

The mosque is very simply built, with one main area called the musahallah, the sanctuary where people pray. The carpet in this particular musahallah has thick stripes to signal the rows in which people should sit, since there are no pews or chairs to guide them. Markings of some variety are common to most mosques for the same purpose. 

The musahallah is sometimes segregated with a curtain or partition or by men and women each taking a side, but this depends heavily on the preferences and home cultures of the congregation. I'm told that the partition in the Hazelwood mosque was introduced in the early 80s by well-meaning members of the congregation and its use is only really upheld if there are a large number of attendees to prayer. 

A small alcove in the wall, facing towards the shortest distance to Mecca, is called the mimbar and is where the leader of the prayers takes his or her place. An imam, or religious leader is not necessary to lead prayers and if one is not available than the most knowledgeable member of the congregation in the readings of the Quran fills that role. I was told that a woman may lead prayers for an exclusively female congregation and a man may lead prayers for both genders.

The decoration above this particular mimbar translates from Arabic to "God is Great" or "God is the Greatest". 

When the mosque was first built in 1976, it was thought that the shortest distance to Mecca was facing southwest. This later changed when it was realized that the distance over the North Pole was in fact shorter, causing the mimbar to be moved to its current location, facing northeast.

Classroom space in the basement. Photo courtesy of Laila Chebib.

Photo courtesy of Laila Chebib.
The basement of the building has classroom and kitchen space where classes are held on the Quran for children as well as the men and women of the community. Originally, it was also a space where children could be taught how to read and write in Arabic, as this was the mother tongue of many when the mosque was first built. 

Photo courtesy of Laila Chebib.

Photo courtesy of Laila Chebib.

Using the basement space. Photo courtesy of Laila Chebib.
Feeling a little ignorant? I know I did! Here's a handy link to help you touch up on your knowledge of Islamic beliefs and practices. There's even a documentary about the first Muslim immigrants to Canada!

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