Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ukrainian churches: The heart of Manitoba's heartland

The magnificent Immaculate Conception Church at Cook’s Creek, exterior and interior, showing the main altar.

The magnificent Immaculate Conception Church at Cook’s Creek, exterior and interior, showing the main altar.

COOK’S CREEK — Even though it’s on the map and its name is on highway signs and even on this story’s placeline, there really is no Cook’s Creek.

It's not a town or village, or even a train stop. It never was. All it ever was is a post office, which today is a store.

And a church. But what a church.

Driving in, when you first spot Cook's Creek Ukrainian Immaculate Conception Church, you almost think you're having a hallucination. You might think you'd stumbled on a lost Disney World.

The building is more castle than church. Ukrainian church cupolas are often described as onion-shaped, but here they are hemispherical, more like ice-cream cones.

Its pale yellow exterior is somewhere between late-day sunshine and a lemon lozenge. A candy colour. A happy church.

Then there's all the baroque curves and shapes running along the outside, and blind arcades encircling the roof line. Be creative, they sermonize.

Inside, the walls are painted the national colours of Ukraine, pastel green and yellow, but also the colours of nature. The ceiling is a sky: pale blue with black stars. Mural-sized religious paintings blot out the walls in front.

Its builder was Father Philip Ruh, a pipe-smoking priest and maker of some of the best moonshine east of Winnipeg. It was a different era. Many fathers and Fathers smoked a pipe, a la Father Knows Best, and made homebrew to keep expenses down. "He was always known for having good stuff," parishioner Gerald Palidwor said, smiling, on a tour of the church.

More to the point, Ruh was the most influential architect of Ukrainian Catholic churches in Western Canada. He combined the Byzantine church architecture of Ukraine with the architecture of the great western European cathedrals to build some 40 churches, mostly in Western Canada. He was to the Ukrainian church what Joseph Senecal was to the Roman Catholic church, and J.H.G. Russell to Presbyterian churches, in Western Canada.

But when Ruh first arrived at Cook's Creek on orders he build his next House of God here, he was underwhelmed, to say the least. There was nothing here. He had just come from building "prairie cathedrals" in Portage la Prairie (since razed) and Mountain Road, north of Neepawa (struck by lightning in 1966). He'd moved beyond making dinky little churches for backwoods parishes, you would think and so he seemed to think.

"What a God-forsaken place this is," he said when he got to Cook's Creek, and wrote the bishop asking if there'd been some mistake. No, this was the will of God, the bishop replied.

So Ruh determined to build his legacy church. He began construction at the worst time, in 1930, just as the Great Depression was starting. The church would take 22 years to complete. It was built with all volunteer labour and parishioners' donations.

That included 20 boxcars filled with cement and thousands of tonnes of gravel and sand, all of it mixed by hand. "Youths were trained to handle saws and levels; men dug the foundation ditches; women hauled rocks; children carried smaller stones," wrote David Butterfield and Maureen Devanik Butterfield in their book, "If Walls Could Talk: Manitoba's Best Buildings Explored."

The church construction took on no debt and was built entirely with hand tools. Ruh forbade any power tools, even a cement mixer. It was nearer God that way. A pulley was the only modern machinery used, he told the Winnipeg Free Press at the consecration Sunday July 27, 1952. That opening service lasted five hours.

And that was just for the church. There is also a grotto next door that Ruh patterned after the famous grotto in Lourdes. Grotto construction began in 1954. It was made with 23,110 bags of cement, 44 tonnes of steel, 6,592 yards of gravel. It wasn't completed until 1970 by the Knights of Columbus, eight years after Ruh died of cancer.

The grotto, with its tunnels, narrow stairs, and lookouts, feels medieval. You can almost hear monks' frocks swishing in its caves. It's a serene, pastoral place to wander, look out from, contemplate. Swallows forever dart through the cave openings, and volunteers forever have to wash away the swallow poop.

Yes, all amazing. But walking about you also notice something odd. You realize the church's exterior brickwork isn't brickwork at all. It's a concrete composite, dabbed with white spots and stenciled over with black lines to make it look like brickwork.

This pattern of imitation is found inside the church, too. The marble isn't marble but a kind of feathered paintwork to make the wooden arches look like marble. The grotto is concrete that has been shaped to look like the natural stones in Lourdes.

This artifice is curious for a church, and more curious considering Ruh shunned power tools for a greater authenticity.

Why did Ruh do this? Why did he feel he had to dress up some materials to look like something they weren't? Is this just found in Ruh churches or other Ukrainian churches as well?

It didn't add up to a Dan Brown mystery but it was a mystery nonetheless as I embarked on a tour of Ukrainian churches in rural Manitoba.


The tall rural Ukrainian Catholic or Ukrainian Orthodox churches break up the monotony of the country side. With the mass demolition of grain elevators since the 1990s, the churches have taken over as sentinels of the prairie.

The Ukrainian churches, topped with their famous hemispherical or onion domes, stand out more than the steeples and towers of Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. They certainly stand out more than the relatively plain Mennonite or Methodist churches, where churchgoers are directed to pay attention to the "word," not the walls.

There is at least one central dome on a Ukrainian church, representing Jesus Christ. There can be any number of smaller satellite domes around it. If it is accompanied by two domes, that forms the Holy Trinity; four extra satellite domes represent evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; seven domes in total represent the sacraments: baptism, confirmation, holy eucharist, penance, holy orders, marriage, and extreme unction (last rites).

Most church's floor plans are cruciform--shaped like a cross laid flat on the ground. The buildings have three chambers with the central chamber the largest and representing the cross piece. Inside the churches, the cross shape is outlined by red carpet that runs up the centre aisle.

The architecture is the Byzantine style the settlers brought with them from Ukraine, employing extravagant colours, shapes and curves. "They are fabulous buildings. They are powerful expressions of the peoples' culture and themselves," said David Butterfield, provincial architectural historian.

"The artwork of the church was always to show some evidence of the kingdom of heaven," one priest explained.

You find it in the smallest 30-seater church like in Gardenton, east of Emerson, and in "prairie cathedrals" like Cook's Creek. Some churches, like the Holy Resurrection Church in Dauphin, now a museum, have virtually every blank space of wall and ceiling painted with ornamental designs and religious figures, called icons. The Dauphin church was brilliantly painted by Theodore Baran of Saskatoon, whose work enlivens over 70 Ukrainian Catholic churches in mostly Western Canada.

Baran wasn't afraid to add his own touches either. In the Dauphin church, his Blessed Mary wears red boots like female Ukrainian dancers. She holds a towel with traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

One prominent painter was Jacob Maydanak, a humourist-cartoonist by trade. Not only did he paint interiors of Ukrainian churches like in Fisher Branch and Olha, but he recruited budding artists like Leo Mol to help. Mol's stained glass beautifies many Ukrainian churches in Winnipeg and the St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brandon. A man named Hnat Sych is famous for the marbling effects he painted on the timber walls of many churches. The churches point to an extraordinary pool of artistic talent among first and second generation Canadian Ukrainians.

Most mural-sized paintings were painted onto canvas and then mounted on the walls and ceilings. But at the Holy Ghost church in Sandy Lake, south of Riding Mountain, another famous church artist, Peter Lypynski, painted his icon right onto the ceiling, a la Michelangelo. The painting is of Mary and her ascension into heaven. She is surrounded by a multitude of cherubs and seraphs, and encased in fleecy, bedding-like clouds.

Lypinski used the method Michelangelo used. He sketched his painting onto brown paper. Then he pin-pricked the outline of his drawing, fixed it to the ceiling, and filled in the holes so the outline stayed on the ceiling. Then he painted the ceiling from a scaffold. It is the most beautiful ceiling painting I saw in any Ukrainian church.

But then you drive a little farther west to Olha, and stop at Olha General Store, where Marion Koltusky, who has run the store for 38 years, has the church key. You ask her to let you into the 104-year-old St. Michael the Archangel Church. She has a made-up sign ready to put in her store window: "I'm just in church with tourists. Be back shortly."

And you walk inside the church and it's time to haul out the thesaurus again because this one now seems like one of the most beautiful churches you've seen. The churches are never cookie cutter imitations of each other.

"There isn't one (Ukrainian church ) you step into where you're not transformed," said Butterfield.

Which makes them very, very hard to close.

I chose rural Ukrainian churches because they tend to be older and more historic than the urban churches. Many rural Ukrainian churches are 80, 90 or 100 years old and more and still in use. You will find them down dusty gravel roads with no highway number. Or you may stumble upon them while horribly lost and trying to find your way back to a main highway.

They've survived. They haven't closed the way many other churches have across rural Manitoba. Many churches of other faiths have been converted into pottery studios and music studios and craft stores and museums and private homes and even condos.

Still, Ukrainian congregations are getting very small and the members are aging. A number of the churches aren't keeping up bill payments to the archeparchy. The Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg has begun a traveling review of these small churches.

What if....? What if the beautiful, small rural Ukrainian churches all held open houses one weekend every summer? People could take driving tours and see inside these beautiful churches, minded by a volunteer or two, and even make donations to support the churches. It could get people to explore an area like the Parkland, outside Riding Mountain National Park, which has the greatest concentration of churches. Why should I be one of the few lucky ones to see so many? Locals might sell local crafts or produce outside the churches to raise additional funds.

The public would also discover all these peculiar Ukrainian place names like Ozerna, Kosiw, Halicz and Zoria. It could be a major event in Manitoba. Summer drives combining history, art, geography and spirituality.

Because this article only scratches the surface of what's inside the churches. For example, many churches will have elaborate chandeliers. One of the grandest is in the old Ukrainian Catholic Church of Resurrection in Dauphin, now a heritage site. It's a 1,600-piece chandelier imported from the former Czechoslovakia.

Then there's all the wonderful old bell towers at most of the churches. Metro Lukie, a cantor for 43 years in Ukrainian Catholic churches north of Riding Mountain, pointed them out to me one afternoon, on a six-church, three-hour blitz exclusively on dust-billowing gravel roads. The bells at some of those churches are so heavy they will lift two or three men off the ground on the backswing, Lukie said.

Some parishioners expressed interest in the idea of an annual open house but priests, in general, weren't sure. One told me that people should come out for Sunday services if they want to see a church. There is also some concern that exposure could leave the churches open to vandalism. The churches are isolated and vulnerable.

No consensus emerged from asking people why Ukrainian churches have survived so much better than other churches. Maybe Ukrainians have been more stubborn. Maybe the churches are just too beautiful to throw away. Maybe succeeding generations have felt a responsibility to maintain these inheritances. From my conversations with Ukrainian Manitobans, there is little doubt that these churches, as much as being religious buildings, also stand as symbols of the struggles and endurance of their ancestors, and how through all their struggles they still managed to build such beauty out of the earth.

What about Ruh and his imitation marble and masonry?

I found it wasn't just Ruh. It is in most old Ukrainian churches. It seems to have been the style to replicate the churches of the homeland, even if you didn't have the materials. It said you don't have to have marble to have marble; you don't have to be rich to be rich.

It also said don't take yourself too seriously. By the end, I had warmed up to this artificial masonry. I started to even regard it as its own art from.

Some of it is fantastically done. In the Mink River Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church, the fake marble is drizzled with red veins that give it an eery effect. You can't help but think, standing where you are, that it represents the blood of Jesus Christ.

"They wanted marble and they couldn't afford marble, and they had to fake it. Lots of Ukrainian and Russian architecture, there's a bit of tradition of this, of making things out of stucco and painting them to look like something else," said Butterfield.

When I asked Chuckry, the Interlake priest, if having the wood paneling painted to look like marble in St.Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church in Meleb made it better, he replied, "Oh, much better. Just wood paneling would look very plain."

But when I asked about the blue Christmas lights poking out of holes in the wood frame of the Dormition of Mary mural at the front, he allowed that "sometimes, there's a going overboard. Fortunately, they're not flashing, like Las Vegas."

Not surprisingly, formally trained architects in Winnipeg looked down on Ruh's work at the time.

Ruh was a self-taught architect. For that matter, he was a self-taught Ukrainian. He was born in 1883 in Alsace-Lorraine, then German territory and now in France. He always regarded himself as more German than French, and later in Canada changed his name from Roux to Ruh.

After he was ordained in 1910, the Roman Catholic Church assigned him to Ukraine. He adapted quickly to the Ukrainian language and culture, and remained in the Ukrainian church all his life. He came to Canada in 1913 and began missionary work in northern Alberta. There he began designing and building many small Ukrainian churches. That was his start.

Neither was he only a designer. He was also a builder and labourer on the churches, and there are many photos of him pushing a wheelbarrow.

You don't have to go outside Winnipeg to see a Ruh church. One church is Holy Eucharist at the corner of Munroe Avenue and Watt Street in East Kildonan. Its stained glass windows were made by Leo Mol. Ruh designed 10 churches in Manitoba.

Today, Ruh's gravesite is memorialized with a special place of honour, surrounded by spruce trees, in the cemetery next to the Cook's Creek church. His right-hand men in church construction, master builders Mike Sawchuk and Michael Yanchynski, are buried beside him.

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