The region south of Riding Mountain National Park has been described by historical geographers as possessing the greatest concentration of eastern European-style churches on the North American continent
St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church is situated approximately 12 km northeast of Oakburn in the Dolyny district in the heart of the picturesque, rolling landscape of the province’s South Riding Mountain “pothole” region.
In addition to its outstanding natural beauty, the region has been described by historical geographers as likely possessing the greatest concentration of eastern European-style churches on the North American continent.
St. John the Baptist Church is one of the more outstanding of the region’s many heritage churches. It is also one of the first Ukrainian churches in the province to possess a large central dome that opened on to the church interior creating a spectacular light-filled overhead space.
Previously, domes on rural Ukrainian churches were purely decorative and did not open on to the interior, often for winter-heating consideration. The site is also significant for the adjacent parish hall, constructed in 1939. As is the church, the hall continues to be maintained and used several times a year by the congregation for various events.
Local historical accounts record that construction of a community church was a major priority and struggle for the area’s pioneers. The first group of settlers, some 23 families all hailing from the Halychyna (Galicia) region in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, arrived in the spring of 1899.
They found themselves deep in an isolated heavily forested wilderness without roads or trails, and with very little capital remaining from their long voyage, or opportunity for local employment to earn more.
Economic progress was slow and five years on, many families were still living in small, temporary log houses with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Clearing away the forest, to create room for gardens and small fields was undertaken using basic hand tools such as an axe, shovel and grub-hoe. Most able-bodied men left the district during the summer and autumn months to work anywhere they could, usually as low-paid manual labourers.
During these difficult first few years, just to survive many families were forced to live off wild game, berries and mushrooms. Nevertheless, the pioneers made a commitment to support the construction of a community church, as having a place of worship was almost as high a priority as having food on the table. Raising the pledge money, which ranged from $30 to $60 per family, was exceedingly difficult. Most families obtained cash money by cutting cordwood (firewood) during the winter months and hauling it on sleds 10 to 15 km down the mountain for sale in towns such as Oakburn, Menzies or Elphinstone.
At the time the return was a mere 35 to 50 cents a cord. Some, like Mykyta Moroz, set up traplines to get furs to help raise the pledge money more quickly. Tragically, while out checking his trapline during the winter of 1903-04, Mykyta became lost in a blizzard and froze to death. His grieving wife and orphaned family carried on, and by themselves, eventually raised sufficient funds to buy a bell for the church — which was donated in Mykyta Moroz’s memory.
Construction of St. John the Baptist Church commenced in 1904 and took three years to complete. The church was consecrated on July 7, 1907, the patron saint’s feast day.
It was constructed by local farmers supervised by carpenters, Ivan and Peter Koltusky, using lumber purchased at a nearby sawmill. Only 10 years later, due to a rapidly growing congregation, the church was enlarged, redesigned and refurnished.
Its final form is based on Byzantine-Slavic architectural stylings common to the Ternopil region of what is now Western Ukraine. It possesses a cruciform-shaped plan with a roof dominated by a large central dome and five small banyas (onion domes). The interior of the dome is lighted by four windows that punctuate the supporting “drum” or side walls, and a large crystal chandelier is suspended from the dome’s apex. The interior walls are appointed with fine stencil-work, “faux marble” (wood painted to resemble marble), and stunning iconography by noted Ukrainian Church artist Jacob Maydanyk. It also possesses an elaborately detailed, handmade iconostasis (a screen separating the nave from the sanctuary); and protecting the main altar and tabernacle (usually a mini-replica of the church) is a large ornate quadrangular baldachin (canopy) — an unusual feature for a small, rural church. Visits by ordained priests were rare during the early years and it was said that, when a priest did visit the parish, it was not unusual to see as many as 17 couples waiting to be married and 10 families waiting to have their infant children baptized.
In 1984, the parishioners undertook a series of improvements and repairs, including the installation of electric lighting, heating and ceiling fans; carpeting, exterior painting and foundation repairs.
In recognition of its age, superb design and excellent physical condition, on February 10, 1992 the church site was designated a Provincial Heritage Site under the Heritage Resources Act.
On a sunny, warm July 7 in 2007, the church’s 100th anniversary was celebrated with a mass, delivered to an overflow crowd by a team of clergy, including Metropolitan Emeritus Archbishop Michael Bzdel, CssR.
Following the service the faithful were treated to a heritage program and banquet in the adjacent parish hall.
Currently, the small but energetic congregation is again struggling to raise funds to maintain and preserve the 105-year-old church. The tin-sheathed roof has sprouted several leaks and the entire east wall has come loose from its foundation.
The tin-covered roofs and domes commonly found on early Ukrainian churches pose a serious maintenance problem for many of today’s rural church boards. Expansion and contraction of the metal caused by the summer heat and winter cold frequently results in the tin sheets working themselves loose, and there are few roofers willing to undertake repair work.