Winnipeg’s first Ukrainian Catholic church


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THE year 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of Bishop Nykyta Budka's instalment in Winnipeg as the first Ukrainian Catholic Bishop in Canada.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/01/2010 (4896 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE year 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of Bishop Nykyta Budka’s instalment in Winnipeg as the first Ukrainian Catholic Bishop in Canada.

But little did the early Ukrainian pioneers of the first church in Winnipeg know then that this city would later become the centre of Ukrainian Catholic church development, not only in Manitoba, but in all of Canada.


UKRAINIANS first started immigrating to Winnipeg in 1891. By the end of the century, the numbers were steadily increasing. And so it was that just over a hundred years ago, in 1899, land was purchased on McGregor Street for the first Ukrainian Catholic church in Winnipeg known as St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic church.

The Ukrainians, many of whom came from Austrian Galicia, and what is now part of today’s Ukraine, were enticed by the prospect of free land, freedom of religion and freedom from persecution of all kinds. The early pioneers excitedly sold their land, bundled up their families and travelled by ship and by train to a Winnipeg that was quickly becoming a booming, bustling city with a promising future.

In fact, Christopher Dafoe tells us in his book, Winnipeg: The Heart of the Continent, Winnipeg’s population grew from almost 35,000 people in the middle of the 1890s to almost 150,000 people by 1913. The phenomenal growth was due in large part to the coming of the railway.

Arriving at the old CPR station, with little in the way of possessions and less in the way of money, the immigrants cloaked in long sheepskin coats disembarked, some to travel across the prairies to take up farming in rural areas. Others stayed in Winnipeg, many finding work with the CPR lines that had brought them here in the first place.

Unfortunately, from the beginning the early Ukrainians struggled not only with their inability to speak or understand English but with the harsh climate, farmland of poor quality and the loneliness they experienced in their new land. For a people whose faith was an inseparable and integral part of their culture, there were no churches, no priests and no place to pray, save for the outdoors.

Father Nestor Dmytriw was the first priest to conduct a Ukrainian Catholic service in Canada. Upon his first visit in 1897 to Winnipeg he noted that without a church of their own, the approximately 400 Ukrainians appeared lost and wandered about like gypsies without tents.

Only unmarried priests, who were scarce at the time, were allowed to serve in North America where the Latin rite predominated. The French Canadian Roman Catholics in Manitoba initially encouraged integration of the Ukrainians to the Latin or Roman rite but soon learned the newcomers, although in union with Rome, remained steadfast and faithful to their traditional Byzantine or Eastern rite and were unable to change.

In the late 1890s, Archbishop Adélard Langevin of St. Boniface Diocese grew concerned about the increasing numbers of Ukrainians and their spiritual welfare and began to search repeatedly for unmarried clergy from Eastern Europe, often to no avail.

In 1899, Basilian Father Damascene Polywka, a missionary from the United States, arrived in Winnipeg, staying just long enough to help organize the early immigrants. Together, with about 150 Ukrainian Catholics, they purchased land on the corner of McGregor and Stella, the site of their first church.

The tiny church was completed in 1901 and dedicated and named after St. Nicholas, the Wonder-worker.

Unfortunately, in 1901 the Ukrainians were still without a priest. Archbishop Langevin increased his search efforts, requesting help from the Metropolitan Sheptytsky of Lviv.

Finally, in 1902, at the Metropolitan’s urging, the Basilian Order was able to release three priests to Canada, who soon settled in Alberta.

They were followed later by two Basilians, Father Matthew Hura and Father Kryzanowsky, who settled in Winnipeg.

Father Zoldak, along with Belgian Redemptorist Father Achille Delaere, who educated himself in the language of the new immigrants, also came to minister to the immigrants according to their own rite.

The church was still, however, without a permanent pastor.

It was not until 1904 that Father Hura was installed as the first permanent pastor.

The numbers of Ukrainian Catholics continued to grow and the original church could only hold about 60 people.

Consequently, in 1904 Archbishop Langevin again aided the Ukrainians, this time by granting a loan of $18,000 for a larger church on McGregor Street across from the old one.

In 1912, Canada’s first Ukrainian bishop, Nykyta Budka, was appointed with Langevin’s consent and took up post in Winnipeg. Upon Langevin’s death just a few years later, the Ukrainians remembered the French Canadian "shepherd" for the pains and care he took to provide for their spiritual needs.

Due to the steadily increasing number of Ukrainian Catholics an even larger church was proposed in 1944. After an underground auditorium was completed, however, construction ceased due to the closeness of the Sts. Vladimir and Olga Cathedral.

Undeterred, the parish soon purchased land further north on Bannerman Avenue for a new church, which was completed in 1966. This church, which is the present-day St. Nicholas Church, was designed by the firm of Green Blankstein Russell Associates and is a striking architectural work complete with Byzantine domes and arches.

In stark contrast to the predictable nature of surrounding buildings, the structure rises up from the flat prairie land in a unique arched or rainbow-shaped design built with Manitoba Tyndall stone.

A colourful and vibrant mosaic depicting a welcoming Christ was painstakingly constructed from thousands of tiny pieces of blown glass tiles in Italy and sits above the exterior of the main doors to the church, welcoming those who enter.

The golden oak pews hold about 825 people and an 80-year-old painting of St. Nicholas is located behind the main altar.

A reflection of the strongly held faith of the early immigrants, today there are approximately 134 Ukrainian Catholic parishes in Manitoba. In 2006, about 167,000 Manitobans claimed some Ukrainian heritage.


Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer

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