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Filip Vanicek grew up in the lap of luxury. He and his family enjoyed a country estate and an ornate, five-storey building in the heart of Prague where they lived, along with much of his extended family.

“Our family were academics and lawyers,” he said. “My childhood was phenomenal, absolutely fantastic — until the Russians came.

“We were perceived as the enemy of the people because my family was wealthy. We were seen as a threat to the communists. When they came, they just took everything.”

The estate, the Prague home, and many other family properties were no longer in the hands of the Vaniceks.

Many people were denied the opportunity to study at universities, but they were permitted to attend community colleges. That’s why both Filip’s parents, Peter and Jana, became engineers.

Czechoslovakia, in central Europe, was a democratic state until it was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938. After the war, the Soviet Union was determined to dominate the ring of countries between it and Western Europe, and Czechoslovakia became one of many Soviet-dominated nations. 

Communism was hard on the bourgeois Vanicek family. Filip’s grandfather ran his own law firm and was a generous patron of the arts, but under communist rule, he was sent to a concentration camp, and after he was freed, was put to work in a brick factory.

While it remained under the thumb of Moscow, the Czech leader, a reformer named Alexander Dubček, permitted a few freedoms. This brief period of liberalization in 1968 became known as the Prague Spring. 

“We had our own version of perestroika, the loosening up of the political system,” said Filip. “People were allowed for a very short time to come and go, to publish and travel.”

And it was his father, Peter, sensing the new freedoms would not last, who chose to travel to find a place the family could thrive outside Moscow’s grip.

Filip’s great uncle was the president of Sorbonne University in France, and invited his nephew to join him there.

“My dad didn’t want to go to France. He wanted to go to England. He went there and got a job.”

Jana, Filip's mom, and the children remained in Czechoslovakia for the time being, but while they still could, the family joined Peter in England with the promise that if it didn’t work out, they’d return home.

Just a few weeks later, in August, Soviet tanks rolled into the country and put a stop to it all. It would be another 20 years under unrelenting Moscow rule until the Berlin Wall fell. 

“In England, we watched the Russian tanks roll into Prague,” said Filip. “We didn’t have to escape. We were already gone.”

Filip laughs at the memory of his 18 months in England — a proper little boy wearing short pants, a tie, blazer and duffle coat to school. 

“By then we were good little English school boys,” he said of he and his brother, Stephen.

Peter got a job at the Brighton Observatory. He happened to meet Angus Hamilton, who was head of surveying and mapping with the Canadian government’s Department of Natural Resources. (Angus was also a warden in the Parish of Douglas and Nashwaaksis during his long life.)

“He offered my dad a job in Ottawa. We came to Canada in 1969.”

The family arrived in the fall, enchanted by the blazing glory of autumn leaves, and enjoyed their first Halloween.

“After that, we didn’t want to leave,” he said, though his mother was not convinced it was the place for her. She pined for her family left behind.

While in Ottawa, Jana gave birth to his sister, Anna. 

But the family’s time in Ottawa was limited. In the early 1970s, Angus was offered the prestigious job of setting up the Surveying Engineering department at the University of New Brunswick, and Filip’s father, with a PhD in surveying engineering, was an obvious choice to become a professor.

So the family moved to Fredericton, where they have been ever since. They became Canadian citizens in 1972.

“We loved Ottawa,” said Filip. “But you come to a new community, you make friends. We integrated very quickly.”

Jana found her own career in Fredericton. A structural engineer, she was hired by ADI, and became a bridge designer with the Department of Transportation. 

Filip graduated high school and earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science from UNB. From there he moved to Toronto and earned a Masters degree.

It was in Toronto that Filip was taken with the idea of working with his hands.

“I didn’t want to just work with my brain,” he said. “So a friend of mine and I went into real estate.”

This was the 1980s and the Toronto housing market was on fire. They bought a house, fixed it up, and then sold it. Then they bought another, and another, and many more over several years.

“But my nose was telling me, this bubble’s going to burst,” he said. “I was going to take my money and walk away.”

That’s just what he did, returning to Fredericton, while his friend, a fellow Czech, stayed and lost millions. Filip has continued in real estate here, buying, improving and renting properties.

Two things happened in the late 1980s:  Filip met Marianne, his future wife, and the Berlin Wall fell. 

Filip had been born into the Hussite faith, the first reformation church that preceded Martin Luther by 100 years. It came about as part of the Bohemian Reformation.

“When we came to Canada, the closest thing was the Moravian Church,” said Filip.

He later joined the United church, but seeking a more structured worship, he began attending Christ Church Cathedral in the late 1980s.

At about the same time, Marianne left her Baptist roots for her mother’s family denomination, Anglicanism. Both were confirmed in 1988 by Dean John Wright.

In 1989, communism was all but dead in Eastern Europe. 

“The next thing I hear, my partner [from Toronto] is working in President [Václav] Havel’s office — the presidential office! He had 350 people working under him!

“He said ‘come and see what’s going on,’” said Filip. “When I arrived at the Prague airport, there was a limo waiting for me.”

Filip quickly learned that restitution of former properties was taking place. The process was long and complex, and he was back and forth from Fredericton to Prague many times. Then Marianne joined him, and with her Bachelor of Education degree, was able to teach for the American State Department at an international school. 

“We had a wonderful life there,” said Filip. “Prague in the 1990s was like Paris of the 1920s. We met Bill Clinton, Romeo LeBlanc, and even saw the pope.”

They found an Anglican church and count some parishioners there as lifelong friends.

“In a different country, the best way to meet people is to attend church,” said Filip. “It’s a wonderful way to find friends.”

After his hard work of reclaiming the Vanicek properties, they were able to live in his childhood home in Prague and enjoy the estate on weekends. But after 45 years of the communists holding the family properties, with no maintenance done on them, he had to let some go. Several, though, remain in the family.

The couple married in 1995 in Fredericton, and it was later that they decided if they wanted children, those kids would probably have a better upbringing in Fredericton.

“Although we had a perfect life in Czechoslovakia, when we had kids, maybe living in a place where the neighbourhoods had no fences and the kids have free rein of everybody’s back yard would be better.” 

That’s exactly what they found on Wright Street, tucked between Smythe and York streets. A neighbour would flood his backyard so kids could skate in winter, kids played outside from morning to night, and there was never a threat or an issue.

“There’s a certain beauty in that,” said Filip. “There was a degree of village-ness about it — a village raising our kids.”

Filip recalls Bishop Harold Nutter with great fondness. 

“He was a very big influence in our lives,” he said, adding he had the perfect personality to be a great bishop. 

One time they had the Nutters over for a lamb dinner, and Caroline was a toddler at the time. She was crawling under the table when, all of a sudden, Harold let out a shriek.

“My two-year-old daughter had bitten him on the calf!” he said. “He joked that instead of leg of lamb, we had leg of bishop. He was always full of humour.”

The Vanicek children are pretty much grown up. Sebastian, 22, is in medical school in Scotland. Caroline is 20 and a student at UNB studying math and physics. 

Christian is 17, about to graduate from high school and plans to study history at the University of Kings College in Halifax in the fall. Christian is also the Cathedral’s organ scholar under the direction of organist Thomas Gonder, and the organist at St. Peter’s.

“All the children were servers,” said Filip. “All were in treble choir and choir school too. They all went to Sunday school.”

Marianne teaches at Bliss Carmen Middle School. Her parents are Dalton and Sheila London, who worship at the Cathedral. The children are fortunate to have their Vanicek grandparents nearby in Fredericton as well.

Filip and Marianne have taken their children to Prague nearly every year, and they love it. Christian loves the soccer, Sebastian the old architecture.

Filip’s brother, Stephen, lives on Hornby Island, B.C. and works in movie stage design. His sister, Anna, lives on a 17th century farm in Burgundy, France.

Filip and Marianne attend St. Peter’s to support Christian’s playing, but Filip thinks they’ll return to the Cathedral once he’s in university in the fall.

It’s been almost 56 years since the Vanicek family slipped out of Czechoslovakia just before the Russians stormed in. Knowing what that communist occupation did to his family who remained is proof enough that God’s hand guided them to a better path which has brought them to our diocese.

Photo captions:
1.  Filip and Marianne became engaged on this boat trip on the Vltava River in Prague.
2.  Marianne and Filip Vanicek in their house in Fredericton. Filip is in the real estate business, while Marianne is a middle school teacher.  McKnight photo
3.  The Vanicek family's country estate outside Prague.  This and all other Vanicek properties were confiscated by the state when the Russians invaded in 1968. Filip worked tirelessly to get them back in the hands of his family after communism fell in 1989. They still enjoy the country estate. 
though due to a lack of maintenance during the communist years, several properties had to be disposed of.
4. Filip, foreground, with his siblings, Stephen and Anna.
Submitted photos


Dr Dalton and Sheila London 28 days ago

We are very proud to have Filip as our son-in-law. We thank God for him as the husband of our daughter and father of our wonderful Vanicek grandchildren, anchoring all three of them in the Church.

Scarlet Abric 28 days ago

Wow what an amazing family story

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