Lemko Style

While some ethnologists now consider the Lemkos (Carpatho-Rusyns) to be a distinct ethnic group, they were considered for many years to be the most westerly located of the Ukrainian peoples. They have mostly occupied areas that are today eastern Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and western Ukraine. They generally lived in the Carpathian Mountains region and very few of them immigrated to Canada; although, large numbers immigrated to the United States and took work in the mining industry.

The Lemko style of church architecture is very striking and one can find many examples of it in other regions of Ukraine in addition to the Carpathian Mountains region. That the style made an impression is witnessed by the fact that one can find some examples of it in Canada even though so few Lemkos actually immigrated to Canada. It is stranger still that most of the Canadian churches that I found in this style were Orthodox, because most Lemkos at the beginning of the 20th century were Greek Catholic.

Exhibit of a Lemko church – L’viv Museum of Folk Architecture

Typically, Lemko churches have a somewhat long tripartite floor plan. The most distinctive mark of a Lemko church is that a tower or cupola usually surmounts each of the three chambers, with the tallest being over the narthex (usually on the west side). The central chamber is the widest and its cupola is the second highest part of the roofline. Over the altar (usually on the east side) is the lowest part of the roofline.

The tower over the entrance will frequently be used as a belfry. This might be attributable to the Lemko peoples’ close proximity to many Protestant and Roman Catholic peoples with churches where it is common to place the belfry in a frontal tower of a church. However, there are also plenty of examples of the Lemko style where the church has a freestanding belfry built separate from the church.

A stunning example of a Lemko-style church can be found in the L’viv Museum of Folk Architecture. The church is particularly ornate with layers of embellishment. While this is a fantastic example of western Ukrainian craftsmanship, it unfortunately makes most of the Canadian varieties look pale in comparison.

Nonetheless, a striking example of Lemko architecture can be found in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Orthodox Church (OCA) in Shandro, Alberta. The graceful lines of this church, built in 1913, give the impression of a ship sailing through the prairies. It is something of a statement that the pioneers of the time were able to devote the time and money to create such a beautiful example of church architecture. Russian Orthodox Bishop Tikhon of North America consecrated the original church in 1904. He later became Patriarch of Moscow and is now glorified as a saint.

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Orthodox Church (OCA), Shandro, AB

Another beautiful example of Lemko architecture is that of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church (OCA), built in Sifton, Manitoba in 1928. Sifton was an important centre of religious activity for both the Greek Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Mission. An important Russian Orthodox monastery also had been in the area.

Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church (OCA), Sifton, MB

In some instances, Lemko churches do not have the dramatic roofline that declines in segments from the narthex to sanctuary. The three towers or cupolas may be placed on a more consistent roofline, but nonetheless the tallest is always over the narthex. This can be seen in Patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Labova located in southeastern Poland.

Patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, Labova, Poland

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Sts. Peter and Paul located in Kaleland, Alberta, exemplifies this type of structure. The Kaleland church is also interesting because it was constructed in 1917 of fieldstone — entirely rare for a Ukrainian-Canadian church of any style. The church is also historically interesting because it was one of the first parishes to join the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of Canada when it was incorporated in 1918.

Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kaleland, AB

While it is easy to get the impression that Lemko-style churches are mostly large and impressive, this is not always the case. Arbakka is a tiny community in southern Manitoba in the midst of a region that contains the some of the earliest Ukrainian settlements in Canada. Just east of there is a Ukrainian cemetery with a tiny cemetery chapel that appears to be of Lemko influence.

Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Cemetery Chapel, near Arbakka, MB