Dispatch #8: The Prairie Churches of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota:
A Report for the J.M.Kaplan Fund

Click here for print friendly version

Page 2 of 11

1. Saskatchewan

       On October 10 I flew from Montreal to Saskatoon with Natasha Fotopoulos, a Montrealer who was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church and speaks fluent Russian and takes pictures. I had also gotten an assignment from Travel & Leisure magazine to write up  a four-day tour of the prairie churches between Saskatoon and Winnipeg, and had invited her to take pictures for it. Natasha couldn’t have been a more delightful travel companion. She  brought along a cellphone to mobile-parent with her four kids back in Montreal, and to contact people to let us into upcoming churches without having to stop and look for a payphone (one of these days, I’m going to break down and get one of these things). In eight days on the road,  we drove two thousand miles and saw only a fraction of the churches that are there, but this fraction included most of the most beautiful and important ones. Three preservationists, who are implementing the Kaplan grants, escorted us through their respective jurisdictions. They are all great people, and the whole trip was absolutely fantastic. I have racked my brain to come up with some negative to say that would enhance the report’s credibility (this is how we journalists think), but have drawn a complete blank. 

       In Saskatoon we met up with Frank Korvemaker, the research/restoration adviser for the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, who had taken a bus up from Regina, the capital, with a carton full of slides, literature, and maps. Corvemaker estimates that there are probably two hundred prairie churches in the province, but he has only identified sixty-eight of them. Each trip he takes he discovers new ones. “I’ll pick up a church if I see one, but I don’t go out looking for them,” he told us. “The community has to come to us. We help them get designation and grants that they have to match. But only twenty opportunities to restore churches have come in the last ten years, and we get a hundred applications a year. So the Kaplan money is really welcome. It really expands our capability. A private foundation providing fifty thousand dollars U.S. is unheard of in our province.”

       Frank explained that “Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation is not quite a government agency. We are a crown corporation established by the government, but operated by a board of directors of people appointed from the private sector. We do report to the Minister of Culture, Youth, and Recreation, and the three of us who work for the foundation are employees of its Heritage Unit.”       (Ah, I thought. The Saskatchewanian equivalent of the Ministry of  Youth, Culture, and Sports, which exists in many former British colonies in Africa. I have always taken a special interest in this minister ever since I was kicked out of my seat on a flight from Entebbe to Rome by Uganda’s voluminous Minister of Youth, Culture and Sports, Moses Taylor, in the fall of l987. I  walked up a few aisles and sat down next to a stunning young woman, who ended up becoming my wife. Taylor went on to organized a coup that failed against President Museveni. These are the guys the president has to watch for in Africa, not the minister of the defense, because you aren’t suspecting them and they have a ready source of  teenagers to recruit into the movement. But Manitoba’s ministry was undoubtedly much tamer.) 

       “Our annual budget is $345,000 [Canadian; to convert to US $ divide by two-thirds],” Frank continued.  “Unlike with government departments, our unused funds are not returned to general revenue, and we can receive and distribute as we see fit.” 

       Ukrainians are the second-biggest ethnic group in Saskatchewan, after the Anglos who headed west from Ontario in the l880s. The big Ukrainian migration to the northern plains took place between 1896 and 1913. It was part of  the western colonization program set up by Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada’s prime minister. The railroad to Saskatchewan had been built by l882, and there was all this fertile land, but no one to farm it.  Laurier cut the then territory into “sections” – grids with a north-south road every mile, and an east-west one every two. Every eight miles-- the maximum distance a horse could haul wheat to a grain elevator and get back to its stable the same day-- a town was built. Sir Wilfred offered Ukrainians 160-acre quarter sections for the ten-dollar price of registering them, and in time 170,000 came. They found a landscape remarkably similar to the Ukrainian steppe : dead flat, with rich, readily turned black earth like the famous chernozoem  back home (except that here it is the mud on the floor of glacial Lake Agassiz) and the same types of trees— copses of poplar, oak, birch, and at higher elevations conifers. So they felt immediately at home. The first thing they did, after erecting some sort of shelter to get them through the winter, often no more than a pit house, and putting in their crops, was to build the church. It was a communal effort. Each family had to bring a certain number of the best logs and helped in its construction. The church provided faith, hope, strength, an opportunity for socialization,   and a structure for maintaining cultural solidarity and  dealing with death. Many immigrants died in the first few years, especially children, wiped out by blizzards or epidemics of smallpox or scarlet fever.

       As soon as the immigrants could afford it (picking up on the prevailing attitude that log construction was crude and unclassy, kind of like trailers today) they sheathed the log walls over with clapboards, so unfortunately there are very few exposed-log structures in the northern plains any more. Nothing like the monumental Russian log churches on the island of Kizhi on Lake Onega, for instance. Dovetail construction was very popular with the immigrants, so the corners were square and  the log walls were easily sided. 

       Virtually all of the 170,000 who came were from western Ukraine, from  Halychyna (in Polish Galicia, which some Ukrainians take offense to) and other provinces. The vast majority were Ukrainian Catholics, who are just like the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox except that they recognize the Pope instead of Patriarch Alexis in Moscow, and their cross is the familiar two-piece cristate  one, while the Orthodox cross has a second, shorter horizontal arm underneath (symbolizing the common criminal who was crucified next to Christ and accepted the Lord and was saved) and below it a diagonal arm (symbolizing the other one   who didn’t and went to Hell). Both liturgies are in Church Slavonic and both services are performed by bearded batyushki, but the Catholic one is considerably shorter—an hour or so as opposed to three or more. 

       But  dissident pacifists known as the dukhobors or spirit-wrestlers, who were being persecuted by the tsarist government,  also came to Saskatchewan.  Their passage was arranged by Leo Tolstoy, a great admirer of what he considered their true Christianity; his son Sergei Lvovitch accompanied them. During the Boer War, the Mounties came to forcibly conscript the Dukhobors, and they took all their clothes off. There were more than a hundred other apostate sects that refused to bow to the tsar or follow the rites of the orthodox church. The Molokani, or Milk Drinkers, for instance, neighbors of the Dukhobors in the Crimea, drank milk on fast days when drinking milk was prohibited to the orthodox. They condemned the institution of serfdom and refused to pay taxes or bear arms. I wondered whether any of them made it over. 

        Some of these sects were pretty wild. The khlysti, for instance, went in for group flagellation sessions like the Penitentes in Hispanic northern New Mexico, but this was only a prelude to the orgies that,  after whipping themselves into a frenzy, they proceeded to have. Only by thoroughly debasing themselves and gratifying their basest animal urges, the khlysti believed, only by combating lust with lust, could they die to all sensations of the flesh (this was known as “the mysterious death”) and pass through the mystical transformation known as “the mysterious resurrection,” which gave them the dikvine ability to heal, prophesy,  raise the dead and lead the living to heaven.  The only way to stop sinning was by knowing sin.  The most famous khlysti  was Grigori Rasputin,  whom  Alexandra, the last empress of Russia and the mother of the hemophiliac crown prince Alexis, fell under the spell of.  I made discreet inquiries about the khlysti during our trip, and got the impression that some probably did come over and their racy rites may still be practiced by some of their descendants, but this was not a line of questioning that anybody was comfortable with. It was hardly the image the Ukes we talked to wanted to project. The khlysti would not have built churches, in any case, so they weren’t really in the purview of this Dispatch. But nevertheless, I couldn’t help being curious about them. 

       Another sect, the skoptsi, employed an even more radical strategy for dying to the flesh : they castrated themselves. If any of them made it over, there would presumably not be any of them left, any more than the Shakers, or the Gnostics, another sect resembling the khlysti. (sources : Rural Russia Under the Old Regime, by Geroid Tanqueray Robinson, and a Web search of the word khlysti performed by Natasha). 

      But the main push factor was not religious oppression, but the lack of land in Ukraine. The serfs had been freed in l864, and twenty years later their descendants had multiplied, and the small plots they had originally been given had been subdivided by partitive inheritance to even smaller ones that weren’t  big enough to crop even at a subsistence level.

      Saskatoon is mostly generic modern, Albuquerque north--  malls with price clubs and the usual American chains and outlets.  It has a few nice old residential streets and along the Saskatoon River, which runs through town and is the nicest thing about the place, a few impressive mansions from the teens and twenties, but by the thirties many of their owners couldn’t afford the taxes, so subdivided their land so, as Frank put it, you get nice, crap, nice, crap, as Frank put it. The place to stay is the Bessborough Hotel, the last of the chateau-style hotels built by the Canada Pacific Railroad (after the Frontenac in Quebec City and the Laurier in Ottawa). The style is characterized by hip roofs with lots of dormers, and the Bessborough has a delicacy that the others don’t. But the truth is that there is a whole lot of architectural interest in the northern plains, except the Ukrainian churches are really precious. They and the grain elevators are the only things that stick up in the perfectly flat landscape, the only  relief in the relentless horizontality. 

       We visited St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic cathedral, which has seven domes or cupolas (banyas in Ukrainian) and an elaborately decorated interior but personally didn’t do a lot for me. Next door was the small but apparently very good  Ukrainian Culture Museum (open 11-5 Monday through Saturday, and Sunday 1-5). Also in Saskatoon is the larger Ukrainian Museum of Canada, which puts out a brochure called Ukrainian Culture Sites of Canada. The Ukrainian Catholic churches are catalogued in Ukrainian Catholic Churches of  Saskatchewan,  by Ann Maria Baran and Christian T. Pastershank, Modern Press, Saskatoon, l997. 

       By nine we were heading up Highway 41, where we found our first prairie churches,  in a little ghost-town called Smuts. Frank was bearded and in his mid-fifties, my age, a straight-up guy with a dry, Canadian sense of humor. His father had migrated from Holland to Montreal, and he had married and settled here thirty years ago. “Maybe because I was a flatlander to start with, I love this openness,” he told me. The land we were passing through was so flat that you could see the earth’s curve, as you do at sea. “I  can’t stand forests. I feel hemmed in. And mountains do nothing for me. They block the view and I get dizzy on their roads with steep drops at every bend.”

Continue to Next Page

Back to the Home Page
Visit the Dispatches Discussion Room
Send Comments and Questions to AlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com