A team of three faculty members from the University is urgently documenting the Ukrainian churches of the Canadian prairies. The team members, John-Paul Himka, Frances Swyripa and I, Natalie Kononenko, began this work 8 years ago. We dedicate a month every summer to traveling from church to church, documenting not only the exteriors, but also every item within each church and on its grounds. I conduct interviews with church members to capture a picture of church life. During the winter months, while we are teaching, we process our data and will soon open a photo database and an audio website.
The Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Foam Lake Saskatchewan. Churches in larger municipalities continue to do well
The small but still very active church of The Dormition of St. Mary south of Sheho, Saskatchewan
Our work is vital because the Ukrainian churches of the Canadian prairies are a unique cultural phenomenon. The area stretching across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba is the largest colonization of post-Byzantine sacral culture in the New World. Beautiful little churches and some larger ones, topped with their emblematic onion domes, are a cherished part of the prairie landscape. The churches are beautiful inside as well as out. Many, the Bukovinian churches in particular, have stunning woodwork. Icons range from primitive ones painted on wood to sophisticated works executed by professional icongraphers. As beautiful as these churches may be, as precious as they are to the people who attended and attend them, many, if not most, may soon be gone. Our project is most urgent because, as hard as we work, we are unable to keep up with church closures and church burnings.
The church of the Holy Ascension in Westbrook, Saskatchewan. Next to the church is a hall. Because government settlement requirements caused Ukrainian to live far apart, events such as weddings could not be held in the home. Most churches have a hall for group functions
Where did all of these churches come from? Why are they such treasures? Why are they now disappearing at an alarming rate? Canadian history can answer these questions.
The St. Elias church in Wroxton, Saskatchewan. Wroxton was once a prosperous town where farmers went to purchase equipment or repair it and to buy what they could not produce themselves, such as sugar and salt. With the improvement of roads and with more people owning cars and trucks, all of the Wroxton businesses have moved to the city of Yorkton. People moved as well. The church is now abandoned. The congregation is looking to sell the building to another church group so that it can be used
Ukrainians began coming to Canada almost 125 years ago. In fact, the year 2017 will be the 125 anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. There have been 4 waves of Ukrainian migration. The first settlers came in the period from the late 1800s to the beginning of the First World War. They were primarily economic migrants, looking for a better life. They were working people, mostly farmers who homesteaded and continued to farm in Canada. Some took jobs in construction, on the railroads, in mines, and clearing forests, hoping to earn enough money to buy their own land. Immigration was slowed by the war, but then resumed at war’s end. The second, or interwar, wave of immigrants was similar to the first. The Second World War also affected immigration to Canada adversely. When a new wave of immigrants came after the war, they were different from their predecessors. Most were refugees who had been city dwellers and they came for political reasons. The fourth and most recent wave has been the one that started arriving after Ukraine declared independence.
The Ukrainian church in Meath Park, Saskatchewan. The town of Meath Park experienced a fate similar to that of Wroxton. This church was sold to another faith, but was never used. It is now decaying and has been vandalized
The first two waves of immigrants are called the Pioneers. They settled all over Canada, but were particularly concentrated in the central and western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Ukrainian Pioneers were initially very poor. With hard work they prospered. One of the first things into which they invested their money was churches. They hired architects and woodworkers and donated countless hours of their own labor. They brought icons and crosses with them from Ukraine. They commissioned outstanding painters such as Peter Lipinsky and Theodore Baran. They decorated their churches with exquisite embroideries, fine woodwork, intricate stenciling on the walls, and carefully wrought chandeliers. The number of churches that they built is truly astounding.
The Church of the Holy Ghost in Plainview, Saskatchewan, exterior and interior. This church has been left to decay. Pigeons have gotten into the church and it is now covered with excrement
The abundance of Ukrainian churches has, in a sense, been their downfall. When Ukrainians first arrived, they settled on quarter-sections, 160 acre plots of land. When farming was not mechanized, this worked well. However, as Ukrainian prosperity increased, as mechanization came to Canada, as roads improved, farmers bought up larger and larger tracks of land. Their sons and daughters moved to cities for education and for jobs. The rural population dwindled and is continuing to do so. There are simply not enough people to support all of the lovely little churches across the prairies. Churches that had one hundred and more members in the 1950s and 60s now have ten or less. The rural churches especially are no longer viable. This is why our team struggles to document them and to preserve at least a photographic record of this important aspect of Ukrainian Canadian life.
A church near Goodeve, Saskatchewan in the final stages of decay. Only the cemetery is in good condition
In the course of my work I have learned a great deal about the importance of the churches to Ukrainian life. I have learned that objects matter, especially to people who have been forced to migrate to a new land. I have learned about ritual and how people use it to adjust to life in a new country. In subsequent articles, I will share these stories.
One way to deal with churches that are closed is to desanctify and then burn them. The ashes of the church are buried and the cupola is used to mark the location of the ashes and the former location of the church. This cupola is located near Rama, Saskatchewan