There are two types of Ukrainian churches in Manitoba: Ukrainian Catholic, which acknowledges the Roman Catholic pope as its head; and Orthodox, which considers its head the Archbishop of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The archbishop does not wield nearly the power that the pope does.
Ukraine accepted Christianity as its official religion in 988 AD from Constantinople. That is the Ukrainian Orthodox church of today, although it was known as Greek Orthodox originally. In 1596, some Ukrainians joined with the Roman Catholic Church to form the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
There are not stark differences between the religions, including their services and rites and architecture. In fact, most people queried in either religion were hard-pressed to come up with many differences, except that the Orthodox services tend to be longer.
One way to easily distinguish the two types of churches is by their crosses. The Ukrainian Catholic cross atop its domes is just the regular pole stake and one cross piece.
The Orthodox cross you see on top of domes has three cross-pieces, with the bottom crosspiece running at a diagonal. A good example is the Ukrainian-Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral on Main Street beside St. John Park in Winnipeg. Notice the crosses next time you drive by.
But half a century ago, small religious differences could be deep dividing lines.
That was the case in Sandy Lake, a Ukrainian settlement and beach community just below Riding Mountain, west of Highway 10.
There, settlers built two grand churches, one Ukrainian Catholic and one Ukrainian Orthodox. Sandy Lake was never that large a community, and today numbers about 400 people, except in summer when cottagers arrive. One knowledgeable observer said it was like having two Cook’s Creeks at opposite ends of the street.
"At one time, Ukrainian Catholics didn’t even associate with the Orthodox parishioners," explained Joyce Coulson, a Ukrainian Catholic in Sandy Lake.
There were two stores in the small town, one run by a Ukrainian Catholic and one by a Ukrainian Orthodox. People patronized the stores based on their religion.
"You never went to a funeral or wedding in the other church," Coulson said.
That was 50 years ago. Now, most of that has disappeared, although some divisions still exist among the older set, some members of the Orthodox parish said. But could the Orthodox and Catholic churches ever consider joining into one large congregation? Not a chance.
Today, there are about 250 Ukrainian Catholic churches and 61 Ukrainian Orthodox churches in Manitoba.
Some practices of Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox churches include:
- Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox parishioners use the thumb and first two fingers pressed together to make the sign of the cross. Roman Catholics use the whole hand.
- They make the sign of the cross from right to left; Roman Catholics from left to right.
- They use leavened bread cut into cubes as the host, whereas Roman Catholics use a wafer. The host is representative of the body of Jesus Christ. One takes the host for forgiveness of one’s sins.
- In the older Ukrainian churches, when you face the altar you are supposed to face east. In other words, the main doors to a Ukrainian church always face out to the west. Some older churches adhere to this practice so strictly that the church is at an angle to roads and nearby buildings.
- Ukrainian churches don’t allow musical accompaniment, but some churches bend that rule today. Most church services in rural churches are conducted half in English and half in Ukrainian.
- There were no pews in the early churches. Everyone stood. Also, Ukrainians say liturgy, not mass like Roman Catholics. It essentially means the sermon.
- An icon (painting) of Jesus is always on the right front on the inside of the church, and one of Mary is always on the left front. Red is the colour for Jesus, blue for Mary.
- Ukrainian priests can be married, although they must marry before they are ordained.
A few Ukrainian settlers started arriving in Manitoba in 1891. but it wasn’t until 1896 that the first large group of 27 families landed. They began settlements in southeastern Manitoba, starting towns like Tolstoi and Stuartburn. The St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Gardenton, built in 1899, is the oldest Ukrainian church in Manitoba and is a designated historic site. Settlement began in the Dauphin area in 1897.
More Ukrainians arrived and clustered in certain areas: southeastern Manitoba; Winnipeg’s North End and Transcona (in 1916, 200 Ukrainian families made up a third of Transcona’s population, with nearly all wage-earners employed by the railways); the East Interlake; and around Riding Mountain.
About 167,000 Manitobans, 15 per cent of the population, claim some Ukrainian heritage, according to the 2006 census.
From the moment they arrived, the first priority of Ukrainian newcomers was to build their own churches. They would often put up temporary shelters for themselves, build the church, then get back to constructing permanent homes.
The churches were their daily social and spiritual bread. The newcomers gave their physical labour and more than just tithe from meagre earnings. To build the Grifton church, a farmer donated several acres of scenic land along Drifting River, at a time when farm holdings were quite small. To build the Holy Ghost church at Sandy Lake, farmer Jacob Prokopchuk put up his land as collateral.
A prime example of sacrifice made by settlers is the church at what’s called Mountain Road, another place on the map named for an extraordinary church designed and built by Philip Ruh. Mountain Road is a place name north of Neepawa along a scenic drive connecting Highway 5 and 10.
Parishioners built their church in 11 months in 1924 to 25. The parishioners, largely farmers, each put at least 50 days of volunteer labour into construction. Some worked up to 200 days. Each family had to donate at least one horse-drawn wagon load of gravel. They cut and hauled timber from nearby Riding Mountain, not yet a national park.
Once completed, St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church was the largest wooden structure in Canada. It was nearly 40 metres to the top of the highest cross or five times the height of a typical hip-roofed barn. It had six entrances, 17 doors, 130 windows. It was supported by 40 wooden columns. It was larger even than the Cook’s Creek church.
"They didn’t have to build that high or that big, but the parishioners were so excited about it," said Louise Kostenchuk, who was married in the church. The parishioners were very proud of it. The church attracted attention across North America. Tourists came to see it from as far away as South Africa, Norway and the British Isles.
"These old churches were the one place where people tried to make a statement," said architectural historian David Butterfield. "They are phenomenal expressions of a community’s faith in the future and determination to honour its past."
George Kostenchuk, Louise’s husband, remembers Friday, Aug. 19, 1966. It was just after lunch. "There was just a little cloud in the sky. There was just a single lightning bolt. And it struck the church."
Jim Kolesar was working his field that day. "It was just drizzling rain a little bit. I was cultivating across from the church and was starting to get a little wet. There was no cab on the tractor in those days. So I stopped beside one of the granaries, and I was standing in the doorway of the granary to keep out of the rain," he recalled.
What he saw next was astounding. Lightning hit the church’s highest peak, the top of the cross, and drove it down through the church’s main dome. Then it blew a patch of shingles about 0.2 square metres off the dome, apparently where the lightning exited, Kolesar said. The shingles landed less than a metre from the church.
Smoke started to rise from the dome. Shortly after flames began to eat their way through the dry timber like a starved lion. Within two hours, the largest wooden building in Canada was in ashes.
Everyone turned out to watch helplessly as their dream church burned down. There were some tears and holding onto each other, but mostly people were just numb.
"That was the heart of the community. Everything revolved around that church," said Louise Kostenchuk.
While a modest little church has replaced it, the original Mountain Road church still has an emotional hold on people. A local history was published in 2004 called Looking Back: A History of Mountain Road, 1904-2004, and it’s mostly about that church, which hasn’t existed for 43 years.