GRONLID, Sask. — Ukrainian settlers faced many hardships on the untamed Saskatchewan prairie near the turn of the 20th century, but they came together weekly to worship at a small rural church.
St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church had humble beginnings as a five by six metre log building erected in 1916. Families soon filled every quarter section, enabling a second church to be completed by 1938.
Today, the small well-preserved church that was once a focal point for Ukrainian settlers in the district is maintained by a congregation of 22 and a core of dedicated volunteers. Money is scarce so the church shares its priest with 10 other churches.
“When the pioneers first came, the first thing they wanted was a gathering place,” said Steve Arsenie, who with his wife, Mary, attends the nine Ukrainian-English services held here each year.
“You walk into it and feel right away a presence in here,” Mary said of the star speckled domed ceiling representing the heavens, the white walls symbolizing purity and the sacred iconostasis reserved for the priest and church elders.
Religious paintings and stained glassed windows adorn the walls, unique acoustics enrich the hymns and hand embroidered table coverings and vestments date back 70 years.
“Something about it stirs your heart,” she said.
Built in the traditional style, the church features an expansive dome roof soaring to 24 metres topped by a cross and held up by six metre pillars of solid timbers logged in the district.
“One man had a sawmill who sawed all the lumber for it, and all he charged was fuel for running the mill,” said church elder and cattle farmer Jacob Sturby.
Ukrainians emigrated here from southern Ukraine in response to the Canadian government’s offer of $10 for 160 acres of unbroken prairie. Many came from large families with only small tracts of land in Ukraine.
Sturby and the Arsenies said settlers first stopped at an alkali laden, swampy area of southern Manitoba before relocating to the Gronlid district, where there was good water and sufficient bush for firewood.
Sturby recalled regular dances, plays, reunions and fundraisers at the hall across the grid road from the church.
“Within half a mile, there could be two dances in two different halls,” said Sturby of the once bustling rural community dotted with small churches.
“We had talented people,” said Arsenie. “They had nothing else, just a faith in God. They came over here and they had something.”
The church was home to many celebrations. Sturby married his wife, Carol, here to a standing room only congregation. The three-hour services are now one and a half hours.
He later baptized his five children here and buried Carol in the cemetery in the shadow of the church.
For Sturby, St. Mary’s is the embodiment of a strong faith that he credits with carrying him through near death experiences on the farm, which included being driven over by a tractor and kicked by a horse.
The church bells, as per tradition, are housed in a small white building near the front steps of the church. They were used for services but also as a rallying cry for help in the days before high tech communications.
“If you heard the bell ring in the district, you knew there was trouble,” said Sturby.
The church was heated with oil and wood, which volunteers would use to start warming the church the day before services.
A partial basement was later dug to house a furnace. The church has been re-sided and painted, windows have been replaced, the cemetery stones straightened and trees planted. Electric chandeliers have replaced the wax candles that once brightened the sanctuary.
Mary said even the stars were removed, refreshed and reattached.
The church has weathered a few storms. Evidence of a lightning bolt that broke a window can still be seen in the split floor board in the sanctuary. Spring flooding in the basement this year is forcing the congregation to buy a new furnace.
Fundraising efforts have paid for some improvements, but many volunteers have also contributed their own labour, money and equipment.
The church scrapes by on a $12,000 annual budget with an aging congregation in a shrinking community.
The church faces an uncertain future as it looks ahead to marking its 75th anniversary in 2013.