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Discovering resting places of pioneers

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SPRUCE SIDING -- It may be the world's cutest church.

It seats just 21 -- barely large enough to hold two families in 1920 when it was built. That includes a one-row balcony and two-seater pews below.

It's got a bauble on top, like all Ukrainian Catholic churches, and, although in need of a paint job, has a cheery, bright-yellow exterior. Its interior is more of a wheat-field gold colour, with a sky-blue ceiling -- the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

The problem is its small cemetery. The church hasn't hosted a mass in almost half a century, say area residents. In that time, the cemetery has reverted to forest. Large spruce and aspen trees grow right out of some graves, and many crosses have rotted and keeled over. Some people blame church authorities for the neglect. But wandering through the overgrown cemetery also feels a bit like walking into a Grimms' fairy tale -- there's a moral tangle here.

The cemetery was brought to public attention recently by Craig Pauls and Vi Hancock, whose idea of a good time is spending Saturdays driving down Manitoba's back roads searching for obscure landmarks.

That's how they stumbled onto the Sadlow Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Ukrainian Catholic church in the community of Spruce Siding (which has a road sign on the Trans-Canada Highway but is not on the map), 100 kilometres east of Winnipeg. They were shocked by the unkempt graves and they began to make inquiries.

"These settlers settled this area. (Now) they have trees growing out of them as if they were nothing," Pauls said.

Tony Mewusch lives nearby and cares for the church. Everyone just moved away, said Mewusch, who mows the church yard, has helped replace three church roofs and has done other repairs over the years. However, he left the cemetery alone in case there might be legal issues.

There are 20 graves in the cemetery -- about the same number of seats in the church. The last person was buried in 1930.

The complaint by Pauls and Hancock prompted Gloria Romaniuk, archivist with the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg, to visit the site.

"It's a beautiful little church," said Romaniuk. "I just loved the little wire fences around some of the graves and it's such a beautiful spot. But (an abandoned cemetery) isn't an anomaly. They're everywhere."

She recently heard about a century-old Anglican cemetery found in southeastern Manitoba. "Every denomination is struggling with this," she said.

As well, the ownership of the land is in question. Usually, churches are built on private or donated land but Spruce Siding's was put on Crown land. A land title was never issued. It raises questions as to whether parishioners had permission to build the church. It means the church rightfully belongs to the province.

Church resources are not unlimited, Romaniuk said. "Someone wanted a church, so they built it. Just because you build it, it's not necessarily part of what can be served," she said. The small but determined group of Ukrainian settlers arrived in 1914. They settled the area along with Russian and Polish pioneers.

Romaniuk began a project earlier this year on behalf of the archeparchy to locate all Ukrainian Catholic burial sites in Manitoba. "A lot of them started spontaneously because someone died," she said.

It's not known what they will do with the information but it will at least be available to people searching for burial sites. The Ukrainian Orthodox church recently completed a similar project, recording 94 parish cemeteries and burial sites in Manitoba, called the Manitoba Ukrainian Orthodox Cemeteries database.

"Nobody feels good about not being able to look after their cemeteries," Romaniuk said.

The province doesn't license religious cemeteries, and has no record on how many non-maintained cemeteries are out there, said Hollis Singh, Public Utilities Board executive director.

But it may be time to review the situation, said Singh. "The issue is being redefined" as rural communities shrink and volunteers age.

"The churches have to look at what's happening and see whether there's a looming problem. Certainly, we're willing to talk with them and look for a solution," he said.

bill.redekop @freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2012 A8

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