The vast majority of Ukrainians who immigrated to Canada settled in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. This influx came in three distinct waves between 1891 and 1954: pre-World War I, inter-war, and post-World War II, with the first wave being the largest. Most of the settlers were from the regions of Galicia and Bukovyna in Western Ukraine and they brought with them a material culture that clearly reflected the peasant lifestyle of those regions.
The first Ukrainian settlers in Canada cam to the Star-Edna district of Alberta, north of Lamont. From that point, they spread east and west along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, encompassing an area now referred to as the east central bloc settlement. In this region, over 100 Ukrainian churches were constructed before World War II, churches which illustrate the importance of a material culture and its transformation in a Canadian context.
The churches of the east central bloc settlement area represent the three major religious denominations to which Ukrainians profess adherence: the Russo-Orthodox, the Ukrainian Catholic, and the Ukrainian Orthodox. However, with few exceptions, there is little difference in the design of the structures housing each of these faiths. In fact, parishes that changed denominations were not required to alter the outward appearance of the churches or their contents in any significant way.
Churches were among the first socially-oriented structures built by the country's Ukrainian pioneers and remain important social focal points among Ukrainian Canadians to this day. Settlers felt the church to be important in their daily lives, a fact illustrated in several ways. First, many Ukrainian communities built churches before it was certain that a priest could be found to serve their parish. Second, in the absence of clergy during the early years following their immigration many Ukrainians readily changed denominations to acquire a priest sooner. Though there were other reasons for converting, the immediate availability of someone who could provide proper, familiar Christian ministration on a regular basis was certainly among the most significant. The first Ukrainians to settle here did whatever they could to maintain continuity with the religious rituals and traditions to which they had been accustomed in their homeland. As closely as possible, they reproduced the style of churches already familiar to them from Ukraine, producing a variety of Ukrainian Canadian church types, from small, log-built structures to larger, frame-built churches clad in a clapboard or stucco finish.
The increasing sophistication of Ukrainian church architecture, construction methods, and craftsmanship mirrored the steady growth and improving material conditions of the Ukrainian community. The earliest structures were simple in scale and design, as the financial means to build more elaborate churches were not yet available and the lack of professional church architects or painters made it difficult to erect complex church designs. As these conditions changed and the Ukrainian Canadian population grew, churches of a grander scale began to appear. By the late 1930s, Ukrainian churches had acquired a level of architectural sophistication that has made them among the most unique and interesting features of the prairie landscape.
All twenty-five churches on this tour were built prior to 1948, and several were constructed before 1910. The vast majority are the parish's second or even third church. Most of the early ecclesiastical structures built by Ukrainians have been demolished to make way for new (usually larger) churches, destroyed by fire, or simply left to the mercy of the elements.
Thus, the selection of churches in the tour highlights a period of Ukrainian Canadian material culture as it existed well after the pioneers had initially established themselves and, indeed, often into the second and even third generations of Canadians.
Those embarking on this driving tour should be aware that some of the route includes travel on gravel roads. In rural Alberta, east-west roads occur at two-mile intervals while north-south roads occur at one-mile intervals. Most of the churches are locked and located on private property and should therefore be viewed only from the road. If, however, you are fortunate enough to encounter the church's caretaker on site, kindly ask permission to enter. What you find will be breathtaking.
Now, in the 1980s, the whole east central bloc settlement area is in decline, due largely to the changing role of the railroad in the region over the last thirty years. The rural churches are maintained by a few of the devoted older parishioners who are either retired or who still make their living from the land. Most of the early pioneers have died, while their grandchildren and great-grandchildren have migrated to urban centres. Thus, it is not unusual for a rural church to be attended and kept up by no more than twelve or thirteen of the faithful, making the long-term future of these parishes uncertain.
The Ukrainian churches that still remain in the settlement area, be they Ukrainian Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox, or Russo-Orthodox, provide more than spiritual comfort and guidance. They offer everyone a special glimpse into Alberta's past and an opportunity to experience one of the province's most magnificent hidden treasures.
Finally, you will note that the spelling of Ukrainian names and places throughout the tour is derived from popular usage.
In 1988, Ukrainians commemorate the millennium of Christianity in Ukraine. The Inventory of Potential Historic Sites, Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, is pleased to participate in this celebration through the preparation of a driving tour of historic Ukrainian churches in east-central Alberta. These churches are a living testimony to a people's dedication to longstanding traditions and remain among the most significant architectural features in the province.
The booklet has been published by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, in association with Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism.
Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism would like to acknowledge the contribution made by Jerry Iwanus as well as the following individuals and organizations: