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Churches of Saskatchewan

And then a church appeared in the distance, its tin-sheeted dome gleaming in the sunlight. It was the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, in a little ghost town called Smuts. The church had a separate, freestanding bell tower. The first thing immigrants did, after erecting some sort of shelter to get themselves through the winter—often nothing more than an A-frame pit house—was build the church. Each family had to bring a certain number of logs and help with the construction. The church was the primary spot for socializing, maintaining cultural solidarity, and dealing with death, of which there was plenty: scarlet fever, freak spring blizzards, and starvation took their toll on the new arrivals. St. John the Baptist stood in a sea of golden wheat tops dancing in the wind, surrounded by rusting machinery and crumbling farmhouses and outbuildings.

We had lunch at a truck stop in Wakaw, where we tried several kinds of Ukrainian sausage and some cabbage rolls, then continued north to Lepine, which, like Smuts, no longer exists as a town; nevertheless, its seven-domed Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Michael carries on. Two longtime parishioners, Victor Oleksyn and Peter Huziek, were waiting in a pickup to let us in. The interior was dazzling. At the top of the central dome a large eye, symbolizing the Holy Ghost, had been painted. Victor and Peter told jokes and reminisced about visiting the old country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I felt that I was among friends.

We saw many more churches, and then, about eight miles southwest of Fosston, we spotted the distant silhouette of an abandoned one that was Frank's favorite in the entire province. He had discovered it 10 years before and dubbed the unnamed church St. Generic. It was unpainted and derelict but still basically solid. The beautiful roof was intact, though the glass was gone from the windows, and as we unraveled the wire holding the two panels of the front door together, dozens of pigeons flew out; the floor was caked with their droppings. The inside had never been finished, and the year 1949 had been etched into the concrete steps. "It's one of the last old-time-design churches," Frank said. "The congregation moved away, or it was cursed."

Darkness had fallen by the time we reached Fosston. "We've run the sun right into the ground here," Frank declared. We spent the night in nearby Wadena, at the wonderfully hospitable Blue Willow Inn.

The next day we continued east. Forty miles from Wadena, in Rama, there was a small Ukrainian Orthodox church, St. Michael's, whose interior was outstanding. The icons had been painted by a local artist named Paul Zabolotny in 1950, and possessed a powerful simplicity and grace. The rayed door of the iconostasis had a lovely motif of blue grape clusters (symbolizing the blood of Christ); each grape had been cut and colored by hand. The whole church had cost $306 (Canadian) to build in 1936, explained Rudolph Kresak, a farmer who is president of the congregation—as his father before him had been. "The altar doesn't have a single nail," he said. "It's all done with wooden pegs."

In Veregin we stopped to visit the Doukhobors, or Spirit-Wrestlers, a dissident pacifist sect that was persecuted by the czars. Leo Tolstoy greatly admired them and arranged their passage to Canada. His son Sergei went with them. Some of the Doukhobors were later notorious for staging nude protests. Their two-story prayerhouse had elaborately filigreed balconies; it resembled an antebellum mansion in Charleston or Savannah.

The last church we visited was St. Elia Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Wroxton, which is white with green trim and has a large dome and two smaller ones, each perched on a slender octagonal belfry. It was lovely, but the front was boarded up. Frank explained that when a Ukrainian Catholic church loses its members, it is often torn down because the diocese doesn't want the responsibility (and can't afford the financial liability) of leaving it to stand empty. This, of course, puts even more pressure on his foundation's preservation efforts. It is hard to imagine that anyone could think of destroying this building—or any of the many others like it.

Behind St. Elia is an old grain elevator—the two most striking architectural elements of the prairie juxtaposed, both decrepit and yet both somehow also grand. My Saskatchewan journey was coming to an end, and I found myself thinking once again about the fortitude and determination of my fellow Ukrainian émigrés, who came to this empty, endless steppe and built their farms, their churches, their lives. That same determination can be seen in Frank Korvemaker's efforts to save the endangered artifacts of this early-20th-century wave of immigration.


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