The Early Period of Ukrainian Church History in Canada

Early “Ruthenian” immigrants to Canada
(photo courtesy of the National Library and Archives of Canada)

The first period of Ukrainian church building in Canada begins at the time Ukrainians initially started to come to Canada in large numbers at the end of the nineteenth century. For this discussion, assume that the “early period” ended in 1918; however, the first wave of Ukrainian immigration was actually halted by the outbreak of war in 1914. About 62% of this first wave located in the Prairie Provinces.

Immigrants with a typical Ukrainian house
(photo courtesy of the National Library
and Archives of Canada)

Most immigrants came from an area that is now primarily western Ukraine. However, few of the early immigrants would have called themselves Ukrainian and no place was called Ukraine on a map of Europe then. Many called themselves Galician or Bukovynian since they came, for the most part, from the Austro-Hungarian provinces of Galicia and Bukovyna. Still others called themselves Ruthenians and some would have called themselves Poles.

St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church
(erected 1898-1899), Gardenton, MB
St Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church (erected 1898),
now at Trembowla Historical Site
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church
(Jaroslav), erected 1903 near Yorkton, SK
Holy Trinity Orthodox Sobor (OCA),
Winnipeg, MB (erected 1904)
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church (OCA),
Star-Edna, AB (erected 1913)

Those from Galicia were mostly Greek Catholics and those from Bukovyna were Orthodox. Ukrainian churches in the old country looked very similar regardless of whether they were Catholic or Orthodox and similarities continued during the construction of new churches in Canada in the early period.

There are some pioneer churches existing on the prairies that have changed little over the years and there are also some archival photographs that together give us an idea of how churches must have looked in those early days.

At the turn of the last century, most Ukrainians on the prairies constructed churches of logs with thatched roofs and decorated them using volunteer labour. Parishioners often handcrafted many of the articles required for their church. As funds became available, they replaced the thatch roofs with shingled roofs and covered the log walls with wooden siding. Many such pioneer churches have changed little since then. The early Ukrainian churches had no pews; although, this was more because one traditionally stands in an Eastern Rite church rather than because of the expense involved.

There were rare cases, such as Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (1904) in Winnipeg‘s North End, where Ukrainians erected substantial churches. Holy Trinity was a Russian Orthodox Church and would have received financial assistance from the Russian government but the initial parishioners were mainly Ukrainian.

Most city churches from the early period have not survived. For example, Sts. Vladimir and Olga Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Winnipeg is the third church for this parish, since each of the two previous structures needed to be enlarged because of the growing congregation.

Another substantial sized church from the period is the church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Dickiebush, Alberta. In this instance the church is entirely rural with not too much other than farm fields around it. Built of logs between 1909 and 1914, the church represents a Ukrainian pioneer community with a genuine sense of vision.

While the first Ukrainian parishes built similar structures regardless of whether they were Catholic or Orthodox, the churches in Canada began to differ from those in the old country from the beginning. Building materials were not always the same. The styles of the local Roman Catholic and Protestant churches influenced Ukrainian church designs. The Canadian climate required some architectural adjustment. Few Ukrainian immigrants had significant experience in church building and few understood the theological significance of church architecture. But the immigrants were eager to have churches and many were built well before a priest was available.

While there are a great many of these original pioneer structures existing today, there are also many cases where a second or a third church would be built to replace the old one either because the first church was too small or because it burned down. For example, Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church may be the oldest Ukrainian parish in Canada, but the church itself only dates from about 1913 because fire destroyed he original structure. In reading the histories of early Ukrainian-Canadian parishes, such as those found in Anna Maria Baran’s books, it is curious to see how many churches in the early period burned down.

There are hundreds of Ukrainian churches dotting the prairies. In the old country, farmers lived in villages and worked their small plots of land in the surrounding area. However, under the terms of the Canadian homesteading agreement, homesteaders were required to live on the land allotted to them. Since only two homesteads were initially allotted per section (square mile), Ukrainian settlers were spread over a vast sparsely populated area.

The pioneers usually built churches smaller than what they were used to. Given that this was a time when a Ukrainian farmer was considered lucky enough to have an ox, let alone a horse, the settlers rarely traveled long distances. Often, it hardly mattered that the first church in a community could only accommodate 60 standing people. Under such conditions, no one ever expected large congregations. A good example of such a church is St Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church built near Valley River, MB, in about 1898. The church merely measures about 4 by 5 metres (12 by 15 feet). It was eventually moved to the Trembowla Historical Site and Museum where it is part of the museum complex.

Churches in the old country villages were almost entirely dependant on the peasant class for maintenance. Stone churches in the villages were too costly; however, this led to the development of utterly splendid wooden churches that are still the pride of western Ukraine to this day. The wooden country churches were subject to extreme weather conditions. The walls, with their joints and crevices, were not suitable for the application of frescos or mosaics so churches were often decorated with individually framed icons.

When the first Ukrainians came to Canada, they built wooden churches based on their memory of church architecture in their homeland. Albeit, the results were not always as spectacular as in the old country since the pioneers lacked both finances architectural guidance. The emphasis on many smaller, individually framed icons continued to a great extent in the period of the first few decades of settlement.

The first icons to decorate their new churches were likely icons that families brought with them when they immigrated. Much of what was brought from Europe would have been what some modern iconologists call the “degenerate period”, which is to say such works would have strayed from genuine Eastern Rite prototypes and had distinctly Western Church elements.

Individually hung icons in St. John Suchava
Ukrainian Orthodox Church near Insinger, SK

There were few parishes with access to Eastern Rite icons. At that time, Canada was almost entirely populated by Roman Catholics and Protestants with very few other religious faiths. There are, however, several pioneer churches that have examples of lithographs from pre-revolutionary Russia and these most likely were acquired by the Russian Orthodox priests that served Canada in the early period. Such lithographs are not often found in the Catholic churches of the period but in rare instances they can be found in Ukrainian Catholic churches as well.

There were almost no people capable of painting Eastern Rite icons and few religious supply stores could provide lithographs in the Eastern Rite tradition. Although, an increasing demand for this type of iconography eventually led to religious supply stores trying to fill that demand. Art generated for a Polish Roman Catholic audience would have had some appeal Ukrainian-Canadians who may have seen similar pictures in the old country. The first Ukrainian-Canadian to open a church supply store did so in Winnipeg near the end of this period.

Polish style icon from St. Elias
Orthodox Church (OCA) near Rein, SK

There are few records of icon painting in Canada prior to World War I and there was little incentive for trained iconographers to travel to Canada during that period. The first notable Ukrainian iconographer, Peter Lipinski, arrived in Canada just prior to the First World War and settled in Edmonton. Jacob Maydanyk, who operated the Providence Church Supply Store in Winnipeg, had also begun to assemble a few iconographers around that time—himself included—that could fill the growing need for iconography.

Some of the few priests in Canada may have tried their hands at painting in the early period but, given the shortage of priests, one may assume that they had their hands full just ministering to their flocks.

One can find artefacts from early churches suggesting that there might have been cases where some parishioners tried their hands at icon painting as well. As an example, there is a processional cross from Holy Trinity Bukowinian Orthodox Church in Ottawa that clearly appears to be rendered by an amateur. By examining old parish photographs, it appears that the cross was used until sometime in the 1920s after which it was replaced by two processional crosses that were sensitively rendered by somebody who clearly had experience in painting. An elder of the parish told me that the newer of the two crosses came from a monastery; although, he did not know where it was located.

First processional cross likely acquired before 1918,
Holy Trinity Bukowinian Orthodox Church, Ottawa
Second processional cross acquired in the 1920s,
Holy Trinity Bukowinian Orthodox Church, Ottawa
First processional cross, detail of Christ
Second processional cross, detail of St. John the Apostle