COOKS CREEK: Every time Gerry Palidwor guides people through his home church, he's reminded how unique it is.
"We take it for granted, even our kids who grow up here (wonder), 'doesn't everyone have a church and a grotto?'" says the chair of the parish council of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception.
"You gain an appreciation through the eyes of others. Maybe we do have something special here."
Dubbed the Cathedral of the Prairies, this testament to the passion and design abilities of Rev. Philip Ruh, an amateur architect and professional priest, has attraction attention since its completion in 1952. The adjacent cavernous grotto, a replica of the one in Lourdes, France, was finished in 1970, eight years after Ruh's death.
For many years, the nine-domed church and grotto, located on about 10 acres of land just east of Birds Hill Park, were open daily to visitors. Faced with increasing vandalism, the property is now surrounded by a chain link fence. Visitors are welcome summer weekends from noon to 6 p.m.
About 2,000 folks stop by each year, including visitors to the annual pilgrimage, scheduled this year for Fri., Aug. 16 to Sun., Aug. 18.
"By all means, come in if we're open," says Palidwor, 56, who drops by the church nearly every day.
That's exactly what Winnipeg Roger Tellier did when driving by on his motorcycle on a pleasant summer day.
"We heard about it and we just wanted to come by and see it," he explains. "I've heard about it all my life."
Visitors stopping for a quick tour might be overwhelmed with the sheer size of the church, which measures 35 metres at its peak, or the elaborate faux finishes inside and out. What they might not see is the need for vigilant maintenance and constant repairs to stay true to Ruh's architectural vision.
No major repairs are scheduled for 2013, but Palidwor expects the arched stained glass windows will need new wooden frames next year.
"Pretty much everything we do is $50,000 plus," he says of repairs to the building, listed as a historic site on provincial and national registries, and as a religious attraction at www.travelmanitoba.com.
Add that to the $140,000 the congregation recently spent on replacing the front concrete steps, the cost of the recently renovated kitchen, upgraded drainage around the church, and the new boiler installed in 2004, and that means a lot of donations to chase and perogy dinners to prepare. Palidwor expects the next large project will be repairing concrete foundations and walls in the grotto.
"This is like a 10-year plan. You fund-raise for 10 years before you can get at it," he says of the concrete damaged by years of water freezing in cracks and crevices.
Although it's an architectural curiosity, the church is also home to a worshiping congregation of about 180 families from the surrounding area. The sign outside announcing the 10:30 a.m. weekly Divine Liturgy also proclaims "free admission." Although that line is meant as a joke, the Sunday services regularly attract folks who come to see this particular holy place in action, says the presiding priest.
"We invite everyone to come in for whatever reason," says Rev. Taras Kowch, who also works as a chaplain in a city hospital.
"We want people to feel very welcome. We welcome anyone and everyone. This is God's House."