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It was twice a work of wonder —but Sifton’s marvellous Russian Orthodox Church suffered a cruel fate

Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church was a source of great pride when 
it was constructed in the 1920s and renovated this century, but was tragically lost

When it was dedicated in August, 1928, an overflow crowd of more than 500 people packed Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church in the small village of Sifton to marvel at the architectural wonder.

The church was designed by Bishop Vladyka Arseny in 1926, with assistance of priests and monks under his charge, and was constructed by Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox parishioners from the Sifton area.

It featured a design that was unique among eastern rite churches in Manitoba as it was the only known example to have the bell tower incorporated into the main body of the church. Bells for eastern European churches were traditionally located in a separate free-standing structure — a legacy of centuries past when they also served as watchtowers against raiders that frequently threatened villages and towns in what is now southern Russia and Ukraine. Attached bell towers were normally found only in large imperial churches.

Another unusual feature of this church building was the three baynas (domes), each of a different shape and height. The church was included in a 1934 calendar portraying the “12 most beautiful buildings in Canada.”

Holy Resurrection Church was the third of three major mission structures in Sifton commissioned by Bishop Arsney. The first, an orphanage constructed in 1905, was destroyed by fire in 1924. Its replacement, the Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Monastery and Seminary, built on the same site, was constructed in 1926 along with the church. The seminary was active until the late 1960s and graduated a number of Russian Orthodox priests who went on to serve in parishes across Canada and the United States.

Focal points

Both the church and seminary were the focal points of many grand religious pilgrimages, which included huge processions through the streets of Sifton accompanied by chanting monks, burning incense and ringing bells. The empty former monastery was destroyed by fire during the early 1980s.

Regular services at Holy Resurrection Church ceased during the mid-1980s, due to an aging and rapidly declining congregation. For many years afterwards, the building remained under the care of a dedicated elderly volunteer. As the largest and most attractive of only four surviving Russian Orthodox churches in Manitoba, it was a much loved and frequently photographed landmark.

But it also drew visitors of another sort.

In 2003, the church was broken into and vandalized. Combined with a badly cracked and decaying foundation and increasing natural deterioration to the building’s exterior, this brazen act of vandalism prompted local discussion that the building would be better off demolished rather than to fall victim to further acts of sacrilege.

However, under the passionate leadership of a new resident to Sifton and ardent admirer, Montreal-born Dot Connolly, a restoration project was initiated. The restoration committee made an application to the RM of Dauphin to designate the structure as a protected municipal heritage site under the Heritage Resources Act, which was granted in March 2005.

Fundraisers

The committee then began organizing fundraisers, including perogy and bake sales and holding community concerts. After incorporating and obtaining charitable status, the committee sought grants to help raise the estimated $100,000 required for a restoration. The project attracted considerable outside interest and received funding from the province, the Thomas Sill Foundation of Winnipeg, and the J.M. Kaplan Fund of New York, among others, and in addition to local contributions of funds and volunteer labour.

The Orthodox Church of Canada also embraced the project. In 2004, it reinstituted an annual summer service and pilgrimage, and attracted a visit and the personal blessing from the highest Orthodox authority in Canada — His Grace, Seraphim, bishop of Ottawa and archdiocese of Canada.

As well, the Bishop Arseny Archives in Saskatoon provided a loan of artifacts and publications used to set up a museum display in the church, and a summer student was hired under the Young Canada Works program to provide tours and undertake basic site maintenance. By the summer of 2010, all major restoration work had been completed — including lifting and moving the structure off its crumbling foundation, building a new full basement, repairing and painting the exterior wood siding, and installing a new cedar shingle roof.

These efforts inspired a 2007 documentary by Prairie Public Broadcasting from Fargo, N.D. entitled “Prairie Churches,” which devoted a major segment to the church and its restoration.

The residents of Sifton and area were understandably proud of their achievement, but would not have long to savour it.

On the night of Sept. 8, 2010, a fire of “unknown origins” broke out and within minutes the newly restored church was completely engulfed in flame and destroyed — to the dismay of all who worked so hard to restore and preserve it.

Currently, all that remains of Bishop Arseny’s once-thriving and colourful Russian Orthodox mission in Sifton is a large solitary Orthodox cross located in the now empty former churchyard. Additional information is available online at www.archdiocese.ca/e…/sifton/Sifton%20Museum%20pamphlet.pdf and www.ndstudies.org/media/prairie_churches_manitoba_prairie_churches_project.

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