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Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada has new metropolitan

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He turned to the church after a failed singing career, but now damaged vocal chords have robbed Archbishop John of his role in leading a Winnipeg-based Orthodox Christian Church.

Last month, after five years in office, Archbishop John retired as metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. He will be replaced by Archbishop Yurij, bishop of Toronto and the Eastern Eparchy, who was elected to the position during the denomination's sobor, or general council, which took place in Winnipeg in July.

Traditionally, bishops in the Eastern rite, which includes the Orthodox, are called just by their title and first name.

Born Ivan Stinka in Buchanan, Sask., just northwest of Yorkton, the former public school teacher once aspired to stardom in the country-western world, but never hit the big time.

"I even quit teaching so I could be a country singer, but the funny thing is I never made it to Nashville," says Archbishop John, 75, who now carries the title metropolitan emeritus.

"It's as if the Lord said it wasn't meant to be."

He lost his voice two years ago after surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm.

He attributes his health issues as the impetus for his departure, which he describes as "forced."

"If there are meetings that take place, I'm not asked to attend," he says in a whisper during an interview in his office, located just down the street from Holy Trinity Metropolitan Cathedral, which he is packing up to vacate at the end of the month.

"According to the bylaws, if there are any meetings, the Archbishop should be present."

Church officials are quick to say that the former metropolitan was not pressured to resign, but retired because of medical issues.

"His health forced him out of office," says Rev. Eugene Maximuk, communications director for Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada.

Winnipeg is home to about 1,200 Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, spread across five parishes, and the denomination has a membership of about 10,000 across Canada.

Archbishop Yurij takes on the office of metropolitan as a relatively young man at age 59, having already served 22 years as a bishop. Previously a music teacher and choral conductor in his hometown of Hamilton, he says that experience of reading multiple lines of music while leading a choir will help him in his new role.

"It helps you analyze the situation you're in and notice all the little details you might not ordinarily see," says Archbishop Yurij, born George Kalistchuk, who spent four years before his 1988 ordination co-ordinating the recording of 35 Ukrainian choral concertos.

"It's the little things that stand out that catch your attention," he says in a telephone interview from his Toronto office.

"In the churches, you have to prioritize."

His immediate priority after taking office in November is to research the feasibility of setting up a small monastery in Canada, probably in southern Ontario.

"One feature of Orthodoxy is monastic life. We have in the past tried to establish a monastery. The sobor turned its attention to doing that again."

Both archbishops agree that the most critical issue for their denomination is making it relevant to their members and reaching out to those who have drifted away from their Ukrainian Orthodox roots.

"Membership is falling. We would like it to rise," says Archbishop Yurij.

"It's a question of doing more missionary work and for priests to have greater contact with people and trying to get more people involved. Everyone needs to be a missionary in their own way and try to be welcoming."

From the outgoing metropolitan's perspective, it may be time to move beyond the Ukrainian language and assume a more neutral identity.

"We were quite staunch in maintaining the language. Now we have to open up," says Archbishop John, reflecting on changes in the church during his 37 years in the priesthood, including 22 as bishop.

"There's some who complain, 'Why is it Ukrainian Orthodox? It should just be Orthodox,'" he adds, giving voice to dissenting opinions within the church.

"I think it would be good (to change the name) because it's an outreach to all."

For Archbishop Yurij, taking on the role of metropolitan also includes reminding his flock of the importance of faith and belief in God.

"We live in a very materialistic age, we have lots of opportunities and we can forget there is a spiritual world and this one will end but the spiritual world will continue," he says.

"You will have a distorted view of reality if we leave God out of it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2010 H13

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