Travel + Leisure profiles early Ukrainian churches in Saskatchewan
PARSIPPANY, N.J. - In an article titled "Keeping the Faith," which appeared in the August issue of Travel + Leisure, Alex Shoumatoff draws attention to the simplicity and beauty of the early Ukrainian churches of the Canadian Prairies, which, since their construction in the 1890s by Ukrainian immigrants, have become increasingly endangered, with some no longer in use or abandoned, and about to be torn down.
The author starts his journey in Saskatoon, traveling northeast on Highway 41, the so-called "Ukrainian Corridor, which runs for 700 miles between Saskatoon and Winnipeg, roughly parallel to the Yellowhead Highway" ...[where] ... people ... speak English with a Ukrainian accent, and every few miles a Ukrainian Catholic or Orthodox church appears prominently." Subsequently, he heads south to Highway 5 and continues east toward Veregin.
Mr. Shoumatoff is accompanied on the trip by Frank Korvemaker, an adviser to the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, which was established in 1991 for the enactment of preservation and restoration efforts.
Heading out of Saskatoon, the author observes that the landscape, "dead-level steppe with rich, black earth that was entirely under cultivation, mostly with Durham wheat and flax ó except for the occasional copse of poplar, birch, or oak - was just like the landscape the Ukrainians had left behind: endless, visually soothing big-sky country."
He goes on to note that, given the flat land, "These simple and beautiful churches, with their distinctive onion-domes are visible and prominent on the open expanse of the plains."
These churches not only constitute a distinctive architecture, but they have come to be considered "treasures of rural North American architecture."
The author goes on to explain that "The first thing immigrants did, after erecting some sort of shelter to get themselves through the winter - often nothing more than an A-frame pit house - was build the church. Each family had to bring a certain number of logs and help with the construction. The church was the primary spot for socializing, maintaining cultural solidarity, and dealing with death, of which there was plenty; scarlet fever, freak spring blizzards and starvation took their toll on the new arrivals."
Referring to the hundreds of early Ukrainian churches on the plains of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the author writes that "most were built between 1896 and 1913, when the government was offering 160-acre 'sections' in the central prairies for ($10 Canadian) and 170,000 Ukrainians arrived to homestead on them."
He goes on to note that "The descendants of the original settlers have largely moved on to cities and other more promising locales. The rural communities the churches served are dead or dying, and many of the congregations are down to a dozen people, or held their last service some time ago, leaving churches empty, unmaintained and fast returning to the elements."
Among the churches visited in the province of Saskatchewan are St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, in the town of Smuts (population: about 10); the church's free-standing bell tower is described as standing "in a sea of golden wheat tops dancing in the wind, surrounded by rusting machinery and crumbling farmhouses and outbuildings."
The seven-domed St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Lepine, "which, like Smuts, no longer exists as a town, but the church carries on." At this site, the travelers are escorted by two longtime parishioners, Victor Oleksyn and Peter Huziek, who are described as "[telling] old jokes and reminisc[ing] about visiting the old country after the collapse of the Soviet Union," with the author interjecting that he felt that he was among friends.
St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Rama, 40 miles from Wadena, is striking in its overall "powerful simplicity and grace," as well as an outstanding interior, with icons painted by a local artist named Paul Zabolotny in 1950. Reference is made to Rudolph Kresak, a farmer who succeeded his father as president of the congregation, who explains that the church had cost $306 (Canadian) to build in 1936.
St. Elia Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Wroxton is no longer in use and may be torn down. An old grain elevator at some distance behind the church, evokes for the author "the two most striking architectural elements of the prairie juxtaposed, both decrepit and yet both somehow also grand."
An explanation, provided by Mr. Korvemaker, states that "when a Ukrainian Catholic church loses its members, it is often torn down because the diocese doesn't want the responsibility (and can't afford the financial liability) of leaving it to stand empty. This, of course, puts even more pressure on the foundation's preservation efforts."
The last stop is at an abandoned church about eight miles southwest of Fosston - "unpainted and derelict, but still basically solid," with the year 1949 etched into the concrete steps.
* * *
Interestingly enough the author, whose tour is undertaken as "a tangible link to his family's immigrant past," refers to his grandparents, who emigrated to the United States after the revolution, as "Russians with deep roots in 'Little Russia,' or Ukraine," while simultaneously speaking of his "fellow Ukrainian émigrés."
At the journey's end, the author finds himself "thinking once again about the fortitude and determination of my fellow Ukrainian émigrés, who came to this empty, endless steppe and built their farms, their churches, their lives."
Under a rubric supplying additional information, there is a reference to the Ukrainian Museum of Canada, 910 Spadina Crescent E., in Saskatoon; website: http://www.umc.sk.ca.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 9, 2003, No. 45, Vol. LXXI
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