Touring the endangered Ukrainian churches of Saskatchewan, Alex Shoumatoff finds beauty in unexpected places—and a tangible link to his family's immigrant past
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.
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.
Take Highway 41 northeast from Saskatoon to Wakaw; from there, head south on Highway 2 or 20 to Highway 5 and continue east toward Veregin.
WHERE TO STAY
Delta Bessborough DOUBLES FROM $80. 601 SPADINA CRESCENT E., SASKATOON; 306/244-5521; www.deltahotels.com
Blue Willow Inn DOUBLES FROM $32. HWY. 35, JUST NORTH OF WADENA; 306/338-2566; www3.sk.sympatico.ca/earl001
WHERE TO EAT
Country Crossroads Great assortment of sausages, plus borscht, pierogi, and cabbage rolls. LUNCH FOR TWO $14. CORNER OF HWY. 41 AND HWY. 2, WAKAW; 306/233-5551
Ukrainian Museum of Canada 910 SPADINA CRESCENT E., SASKATOON; 306/244-3800; www.umc.sk.ca