EDMONTON, The building is squat and square, made of red brick. It looks, well, like a church -- and indeed, the man who drew up the plans in the 1930s had experience only with churches. But silver domes gleam on this building's twin towers and each one is crowned by a crescent moon.
Inside, there are no pews, no altar: just streams of light from six arched windows and rich Persian carpets on the floor. There is a podium at the front, on which a copy of the Qur'an rests in a gilt box, and an arched Qiblah built into the wall, showing the direction to Mecca [Makka].
This is North America's oldest Mosque. Called the Al Rashid, it was built by the children of Muslim farmers and fur traders, people whose stories don't often make the history books. Erected in 1938, it served the burgeoning Muslim population of Edmonton faithfully for 70 years -- but it's small, just 30 by 50 feet, and eventually it fell into disuse as newer, bigger Mosques were built.
And it was very nearly demolished for a parking lot, until a feisty group of women, Muslims from all ethnic heritages, fought city hall -- and a community they say was at times overtly racist -- to have it declared a heritage building and moved into the Fort Edmonton Park historic site.
The Al Rashid Mosque was saved, but it's still empty most of the time. The women hope that when refurbishment is finished, it can be used on occasions such as the three-day Eid al-Adha celebration, which ended yesterday. And they are enormously pleased to see it settled there in the park, at the end of a row of 1920s shops, a red-brick testament to the long presence of Muslims in their country.
The first "Mohammedans," as white Canada called them then, arrived on the prairies more than 100 years ago, leaving homes in the Middle East and Southeast Asia in search of prosperity, and often fleeing wars and conscription. At first, they farmed or trapped, like so many immigrants; and some opened stores. Mothers were eager to move to town, so that their children could be educated and learn English. By the early 1900s, there was a small Muslim community in Edmonton and fund raising for a Mosque started in the 1930s.
In the Depression years, nobody had much money for the project. All the Muslim families in town contributed what they could; so did Arab Christians, and even a few Jewish families. It was finally finished in 1938, built on a small plot near the centre of town, on land donated by the city.
Once there was a heavy green-velvet curtain that could be pulled out to divide the women's section; it has been folded away. But in one corner stands the wash basin and porcelain jug that the faithful used to wash for prayers, in the days before indoor plumbing. The Mosque became the heart of a community, drawing Muslims from all over -- including those who headed for Edmonton simply because they heard there was a Mosque there.
"Some of my truly happiest memories are here," Evelyn Hamdon said, seated comfortably on the floor on a recent winter day, with five of the other women who fought to save the building. Ms. Hamdon, 45, is an adult-education consultant; her sister Lorrine, 40, an international business consultant, sat nearby. "Do you remember," she asked, "the weddings and the parties, and us washing dishes in the basement?"