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Churches of Saskatchewan

There are pockets of transplanted old-world culture in North America that remain more or less pristine. The best known of these is in northern New Mexico, in whose little mountain villages the Spanish of Cervantes can still be heard. Similarly, the English of hillbillies in the Ozarks can be more Elizabethan than anything now spoken in the British Isles, and in Central and South America descendants of escaped slaves have retained their West African cultures more faithfully than those who remained in their ravaged homelands. Visiting these holdouts against modernity is inevitably a poignant experience, especially when the immigrants exhibiting such cultural tenacity are your own people. My grandparents were Russians with deep roots in "Little Russia," or Ukraine. They made new lives for themselves in New York and Baltimore after the revolution in 1917. Other Ukrainians—a huge number of them—emigrated to the majestically stark plains of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada, where, among other things, they built distinctive onion-domed churches. Today these hauntingly beautiful buildings are increasingly desolate, some of them even abandoned. Driving through the region recently, I felt ever more nostalgic as I saw this deliberate re-creation of my lost motherland on the northern prairie.

The Ukrainian Corridor, as it is called, runs for 700 miles between Saskatoon and Winnipeg, roughly parallel to the Yellowhead Highway. The people here speak English with a Ukrainian accent, and every few miles a Ukrainian Catholic or Orthodox church appears prominently. The interiors of the buildings are decorated with lovingly stenciled folkloric motifs, hand-painted icons, and handcrafted iconostases (screens festooned with religious imagery) and tabernacles. There are hundreds of these treasures of North American rural architecture. Most were built between 1896 and 1913, when the government was offering 160-acre "sections" in the central prairies for $10 (Canadian) and 170,000 Ukrainians arrived to homestead on them. The descendants of the original settlers have largely moved on to cities and other more promising locales. The rural communities the churches served are dead or dying, and many of the congregations are down to a dozen people, or held their last service some time ago, leaving churches empty, unmaintained, and fast returning to the elements. To see these places of worship—the products of such love and devotion—in decay got me thinking about immigration, how we all came here, what we'd lost, what we'd left behind.

I had flown to Saskatoon to meet the man who would be my guide: Frank Korvemaker, an adviser to the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation. The foundation was established in 1991, and Frank has been involved in its preservation and restoration efforts from the beginning. There wasn't much to see in Saskatoon itself, apart from a few stately mansions along the river built in the teens and twenties, and the Delta Bessborough (which is where you want to stay), a château-style hotel built by the Canadian National Railway. Other than that, the town is typically modern—malls with price clubs and the usual American chains and outlets. We headed up Highway 41 into a dead-level steppe with rich, black earth that was entirely under cultivation—mostly with Durham wheat and flax—except for the occasional copse of poplar, birch, or oak. It was just like the landscape the Ukrainians had left behind: endless, visually soothing big-sky country. "I love this openness," said Frank, who's a straight-talking guy with a wry, Canadian sense of humor. "Maybe it's because I'm a flatlander to start with," he continued—Frank's parents emigrated from Holland—"but I can't stand forests. I feel hemmed in. And mountains do nothing for me. They block the view."

It was beautiful: every so often the sun broke through a cloud bank and lit up a golden field. The flax had been swathed—cut, bundled, and lined up in rows—just as it had been on my family's Ukrainian estate 100 years ago. Indeed, my grandmother's English governess, a woman named Frances Whishaw, wrote a novel, Rolling Flax, or, Summer Days in Little Russia, which included precisely such bucolic scenes. Every mile or two we passed farm compounds protected against the wind by stands of trees and bordered by ponds crowded with ducks, pelicans, and other migrating waterfowl. The sky was filled with skeins of honking snow geese.

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