Fr. Harry Chuckry is the Ukrainian Catholic parish priest for the Interlake area. He presides over 24 churches and is run off his feet on any given Sunday, performing three liturgies (sermons) at three different locales.
His territory runs from about Lockport in the south, to Red Rose, north of Peguis First Nation. Nine of his churches still have regular services. Fifteen churches have a service just once a year.
His churches are virtually all in the Eastern Interlake. That follows the settlement pattern of the first Ukrainians. In contrast, drive up Highway 6 in the Western Interlake and you won’t see a single Ukrainian Catholic church until you reach Lake St. Martin, 250 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
At the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Fisher Branch, with its white stucco exterior and baby blue trim like a playhouse, the average age of the congregation is 80. About 15 people turn out for its once-a-month Sunday service. That’s a fairly typical demographic, said Chuckry.
In the Parkland region, to the north and south of Riding Mountain where there are more Ukrainian churches than anywhere else in Manitoba, turnouts can be as low as five or 10 people for a service. One church in the region closed about five years ago after the last parishioners — "three little old ladies," one church official said — couldn’t maintain it any longer.
"These original churches were built close together so you could travel to church by horse or foot. Now, there’s no need for a church every 10 miles," Chuckry said.
How do many these churches survive financially? Most of them have no indoor plumbing. There’s a paint-peeled outhouse in back.
That removes heating costs. Among Chuckry’s 24 churches, only Komarno, Gimli and Arborg have water and require heat.
That still leaves liability insurance, which costs about $300 a year. They must pay a priest $225 per service. Many don’t have much in the way of building insurance, other than what’s called demolition insurance to clean up after a catastrophic event. There’s general building and yard maintenance, plus fees to support the Ukrainian Catholic church at large.
Another challenge to keeping churches open is a shortage of priests. Chuckry was a math and science teacher for 42 years before he became a priest a decade ago. That’s a familiar story. Half a dozen Ukrainian Catholic priests in Manitoba today are retired teachers. Down the road in Fisher Branch, a retired farmer is priest of the Roman Catholic church.
"Somehow, the Lord calls you," Chuckry said.
We hear rain hitting the dome overhead in the Fisher Branch church when Chuckry makes a surprising statement: more young people go to church in Winnipeg than in rural areas. The reason is there are no programs for young people and young families at these tiny rural churches. It’s a tribute to the stubborn Ukrainian character that people keep these churches alive and so well tended. But the churches aren’t sustainable if they don’t attract young families.
Eventually, one large modern church will have to be built to serve the East Interlake region and its more than 20 existing parishes, Chuckry said. It would be no more than a half hour drive for most people, he said.
"It’s easy to get to one place. Then we would get the numbers of people so that we can do more things like run programs," he said.
It’s been in discussion the past five years but isn’t imminent at this time.
Meanwhile, the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Grifton, north of Riding Mountain near Grandview, is a church on the bubble.
The archeparchy wants to close it, said parishioner Syd Puchailo. Eight to 10 families cover the Grifton church costs.
Grifton was a post office, a school, a road and a church built in 1905. Now it’s just a church. Local legend has it the name Grifton is a variation on the name of nearby town Sifton, which the community looked up to.
"The ones who could spell were usually the ones who named things, and there weren’t many who could spell back then," said Puchailo, a mixed farmer.
The church is down to one service a year and a meeting with church higher-ups was planned for the fall. But there’s a lot of emotion attached with that church which has wonderful artwork inside.
"I feel nostalgia for our grandparents. They hacked through the bush and saved their pennies to put this up. And now the archeparchy wants to take it down," Puchailo said.
He’s not alone with those feelings. A woman from California, Zetta Kuzyk, recently had her request granted to be buried in the church’s cemetery next to her mother, Anastasia Kuzyk.
"The history is here," said Puchailo.
Puchailo says the community can cover the cost of maintaining the church, but the archeparchy wants more. Some parishioner donations are needed to help pay for a cathedral being built in Kiev, Ukraine, that is to be what St. Peter’s Basilica is to Roman Catholics.
"The bottom line is the archeparchy’s not getting the revenue they expect," Puchailo maintained.
Puchailo feels the archeparchy sometimes doesn’t understand how rural people struggle to hold onto what they have.
"You feel disheartened because you’re barely surviving out here," he said. "The church was put up by human beings who did their best with what they had. It shouldn’t be forgotten, especially with the way the world is going."
Mixed messages come from Ukrainian Catholic church leaders. Officially, they say closing churches is not their intent at all.
"The reality is some of these churches have to be consolidated," said one priest.
The travelling committee is assessing the condition of buildings and their viability, and raising with parishioners the possibility of closing. They want parishes to come up with long-term plans.
Fr. Richard Soo, Chancellor of the Archeparchy of Winnipeg, said the archeparchy doesn’t want to close churches — that’s up to parishioners — but said parishes have to attract new members. He added that "the church is not a museum. It’s not our mission to keep open architecturally interesting buildings."
It’s a difficult issue on all sides.
As a congregation shrinks, upkeep becomes a greater issue, perhaps an unsupportable one. Weather damage, always a threat in Manitoba, can be catastrophic.
Dauphin’s big hailstorm was on Aug. 9, 2007. People always boast about the size of hail, like golf balls, like softballs, like small meteorites, etc., but no one was boasting about the damage done by this storm. It was the worst summer storm in a century in Dauphin, the city founded by Ukrainian settlers. Virtually every one of Dauphin’s 3,500 homes suffered roof damage. On some, the hail broke the wood beneath the shingles. Some homeowners are still trying to get roofs repaired more than two years later, and roofers are run off their feet. City of Dauphin buildings alone filed a claims totaling in the $5 million range. Claims on vehicle damage approached $70 million.
Then roofers looked at some of the battered Ukrainian church onion dome roofs. No thanks. Or else the churches would have to pay the piper. The roof of the new Ukrainian Catholic Church of Resurrection cost $600,000 to repair. An outfit from Saskatoon had to come in to fix it. Fortunately, the church was insured to the teeth. It has gleaming new copper domes today that virtually reflect clouds in the sky.
However, most Ukrainian churches in the area are smaller and don’t have that kind of insurance coverage or money to fix their hail-damaged domes. The onion domes are often the most vulnerable part of the churches in terms of water leaks. A Ukrainian Orthodox church in Sifton, now operated as a heritage museum, was also hit by hail and now has a dozen pails and basins and recycling bins spread around the nave and sanctuary to catch the drips.
Sargie Katchur, 79, the volunteer caretaker whose two assistants died "and now it’s just me," says it would cost $64,000 to fix and their insurance covers just 80 per cent. The small town has trouble raising that kind of money.
And it’s just hard to find anyone to do it. Dauphin’s old Ukrainian Catholic Church of Resurrection is a federally and provincially designated historical site. "We’re having a very difficult time repairing the roof. No one wants to climb that roof and put up the big scaffolding," said Terri Genik, one of a committee that looks after the museum.
Father Philip Ruh, a great builder of Ukrainian Catholic churches in the West, designed the church. It has five domes.
The Holy Ascension church in Winnipegosis, another lovely church designed by Ruh, also suffered hail damage in 2007. The average attendance at its three services a month is about 30 people.
While the church has building insurance, it hasn’t found a roofer to repair its leaky domes. The Winnipegosis parish needs a crew from Winnipeg or Brandon that has a kind of scissor-scaffolding to fix them.
"We can’t find anybody," said Jack Ogryzlo, parish treasurer, who was hoping soon to hear from an adjuster trying to find an outfit to come out from Winnipeg.
It’s not just hail churches have to worry about but repairs and restoration as buildings age. The Cook’s Creek church had its roof reshingled in 2001. It cost $90,000. It had its wide, expansive front steps redone. That cost $140,000. It had a new boiler put in for heating. That cost in the $100,000 range.
The congregation is managing. The Cook’s Creek parish had 350 families in 1929. Parish membership dipped to just 50 families in the 1970s, 20 years after the Prairie cathedral was completed. A priest came along and injected energy back into the church by using youth programs to draw in young families. The church is enjoying a revival with about 185 families now, said parishioner Gerald Palidwor.
But if more churches close, they may go the way of the St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chatfield in the Interlake. The Chatfield church was burned down.
That’s the proper way to desanctify a church, explained Natalia Radawetz, curator of the St. Volodymyr Museum in Winnipeg.
"It’s a sacred structure and can only be burned, or, if it’s a metal object, be buried."