(This is the full, the complete, unexpurgated “twenty-three-thousand-plus” Dispatch, more than seven times longer than the report the Kaplan Fund commissioned. But there was so much of interest that I wanted to do it full justice, because few people are aware of the amazing churches in the northern plains of Canada, and they are going fast, and this may be the only detailed treatment they get. Which is the “raison d’etre” of the Dispatches. This Dispatch is written in the leisurely manner of a Victorian travelogue in which everything of interest in the passing scene in noted. But in fact, being on a crash delivery schedule with the Rwanda book, I could only take a week on it. There was little time to savor the wonderful memories of this trip, or to “love” the writing, as the New Yorker’s legendary Mr. Shawn used to put it.).
There are several pockets of pristine transplanted Old World ethnicity in North America. The best-known is northern New Mexico, in whose little mountain villages the Spanish of Cervantes is still spoken. In remote hollers (hollows) in the mountains of Kentucky and the Ozarks there are hillbillies whose English is said to be more Elizabethan that anything being spoken in the British Isles today. Similarly there are several populations of escaped slaves, or Maroons—in Belize, Jamaica, and Colombia– whose African culture is purer that than of the communities in West Africa they were captured from.
But the Ukrainian pocket in the northern plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and North Dakota was new to me. I heard it from the J.M.Kaplan Fund, which is supporting the effort to preserve its rural churches. I knew, of course that Ukrainians, a lot of them, had come to Canada, in several waves. A couple of families live on our block in Montreal. They came in the sixties, around the same time as the Greeks and the Portguguese, who displaced the Jews, who had displaced the Québécois habitants. There was another Ukrainian wave in the twenties, when Stalin dispossessed the kulaks, the most successful farmers, and there was widespread famine, and the Ukes are still coming, God bless them. There is a current drive to get a new infusion of Ukrainian farmers on to the fertile northern plains, the descendants of the original immigrants having lost the farming vocation and being more into malls and game boys.
My wife’s kid sister is married to a great guy of Ukrainian-Irish descent named Dan Stepchuk. They live in Ottawa. -Chuk is a common Ukrainian surname ending, although the most common one is –enko. Both, if I am not mistaken means “son of. ” I myself have a large dose of Ukrainian blood, but only in the last few years have I begun to get in touch with my Ukrainianness. Our family had a six-thousand-acre estate in the oblast of Poltava, in eastern Ukraine, which is best known for the Battle of Poltava in l709, in which Peter the Great routed the army of Charles XII, thus putting to an end Sweden’s imperial brief imperial moment in Europe. Charles’s army, the first to perfect military drill and so disciplined that it had beaten almost everybody, had invaded Russia the previous fall, and Peter’s, employing classic Russian defensive tactics, kept retreating, burning and destroying everything in his wake. The logistics of provisioning the Swedish soldiers were overwhelming, and they were already weak and demoralized when winter caught them with devastating effect. Diaries of soldiers who survived speak of dead comrades still riding on their horses. The army turned its steps south, toward the steppes of Ukraine. That spring as it was laying siege to the Fort of Poltava Peter swept down with a huge army. Thousands of Swedish prisoners were taken and marched north to build St. Petersburg. One of my ancestors, Johann D. Schumacher, was among the Baltic Germans Peter recruited as bureaucrats to run his new Western-style administration.
I wrote about my family place in Ukraine in my 1985 book, Russian Blood (which the New Yorker excerpted in a two-part series that is posted in Past Dispatches section of my Web Site, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com). In those days, before the Bolshevik revolution, Ukraine was known as Little Russia, and was ruled by the tsars, except for parts of Western Ukraine that were in Poland or the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was a wonderful life, for the aristocrats at least. We were dispossessed of it, and of the estate, whose name was Shideyevo, in the fall of l917, and it became the Maxim Gorky Collective Farm, which I visited in the early eighties. The big house with columns had been blasted to smithereens during the civil war that followed the Revolution, and the artworks, including a Memling Madonna, had been made off with, perhaps by the Nazis when they swept through in the forties, or earlier. But the Fleigl, the Winter House, where my grandparents stayed on the rare occasions when they came down from St. Petersburg during the winter months, was still standing. It was now the school for the local kids. The local families were still living in cozy little khatas with thatch roofs and whitewashed walls, as they had for generations, but there were many fewer khatas than there had been in photographers taken by my great-uncle. Storks were nesting in the trees above them. It was an idyllic place. The sudden appearance of a member of the family after sixty-ofive years made the head of the collective farm apprehensive. He gave me a brick from the brick factor, with A, for Avinoff, our family’s name, stamped on it, but we were not able to talk about anything substantive.
In l997 I returned to Ukraine with my sister, Tonia Foster. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and Ukraine had finally won independence from Russia. But it was in terrible shape financially, and the fallout of Chernobyl had caused mutations that were now appearing in the children of the people who had been exposed to it and causing thyroid and other cancers in them. Poltava, several hundred miles to the east, was not affected. It was in the “clean zone,” and my sister was trying to start a summer camp for the children of Chernobyl on our old estate, which the local people were all for, as nothing was happening there. The collective farm had been disbanded, and there were now only a handful of old in the khatas below the Tatar ramparts where the big house had stood. The welcome we received was much warmer : a banquet in the forest, hosted by the mayor of Poltava and other local dignitaries, the reburial of my grandfather and a service performed by an orthodox batyushka, or priest, in the restored chapel where our family’s icons, kept hidden by villagers during the communist years, were now hanging again. I realized that an important part of me, perhaps even the most important part of my heritage, was not Russian, but Ukrainian. Nikolai Gogol, one of my favorite writers, who invented the short story and was way ahead of his time in terms of the surreal twists of his fiction, had lived in Dikanka, only 40 versts away, and was a distant cousin, I learned. I can still quote a sentence from Dead Souls, when I read it forty years ago, which describes an old couple who are sitting of a summer evening in the livingroom of their khata : “And all at once, as he was sitting there with his book, and she with her knitting, he would get up and implant upon her lips a kiss so prolonged and languishing that a small cigar might easily have been smoked while it lasted.” This was the Ukraine of my imagination. The reality for most Ukrainians throughout history has been much harsher.
Our family, the Lukianovitches– one of whom, Andrei Fyodorovitch, had built the house on land granted him by Catherine the Great for stemming the Tatars, had been Ukrainian, not Russian. One of them, Alexander Nicolaevna, had married Nicholas Avinoff, my great-grandfather. He was a Russian general, but his main contribution to the scene was his name and his burly, bearded presence at the head of the dinner table, where he had usually fallen asleep by desert. He was what is known in Russian as a primach, a man who marries into a family and comes to live with it. The Russian aristocrats who had estates in Little Russia were not unlike the British aristocrats who had estates in Ireland—colonials. I learned that Taras Schevschenko, Ukraine’s greatest culture hero, had been a frequent guest of Andrei Fyodorovitch. He had made watercolors of the huge, squat, prehistoric Polovtsian statues in the garden, and Andrei Fyodorovitch had bought a painting by the portraitist Bryulov and Bryulov had used the money to buy Schevschenko’s freedom. (He was a serf.) This connection with Schevschekno was a big deal for Ukrainians, I was told, although I had hardly even heard of him– so big a deal that the new mayor of Poltava is now talking of putting up a museum of Ukrainian history on the place where the house had been.
A year or so later I was invited to talk at a fund-raiser for the Children of Chernobyl Relief Fund in Rochester, New York, which has a huge Ukrainian population. Before the dinner where I said a few words about my sister’s project, we played golf. I was in an all-Ukrainian foursome and learned some choice Ukrainian swear words from my partners. I felt like I was with my people, and price of becoming American had been, as it is for so many Americans, that I had lost my culture. I was a deracinated, but not denatured, Uke.
So I had a more than passing interest in checking out this faithful recreation of my lost motherland on the northern prairies. Since 9/11 I have been avoiding my usual haunts, where an American passport has become a dangerous thing to have on your person, and largely satisfying my wanderlust in Canada, where my wife and our three little boys are landed immigrants. In August we toured New Brunswick, also to do a Dispatch for the Kaplan Fund, which is supporting the transborder effort to create marine protected areas in the Gulf of Maine. (I’ll be producing this report as soon as I get done with this one, and have already reported, in Dispatch Seven, on the fabulous but crumbling Cuba Moderne architecture in Havana, whose preservation the Kaplan Fund has decided to get involved in; and this winter I’ll be doing a report on its fourth transborder project : the Serengeti-like short-grass prairie or janos straddling Arizona and Chihuahua, which boasts the world’s largest prairie-dog town, sixty thousand strong. They have their own subways and delis, Conn Nugent, the fund’s executive director, tells me.) There is all kinds of fascinating history and ethnology. It just takes a little scratching.
The Ukrainian belt runs diagonally from Alberta through Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the North Dakota and Minnesota borders, spilling slightly over them. It roughly follows Route 16, the Transcanada Yellowhead Highway, which was built on the original cart paths of the settlers and is Canada’s Route 66. In this corridor the local people still speak English with a Ukrainian accent, and every few miles there is a beautiful onion-domed Ukrainian Catholic or Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church. (Architecturally and iconographically, there is no difference except their crosses.) There are hundreds of them. The interiors have lovingly stenciled folkloric motifs, hand-painted icons and hand-crafted iconostases and tabernacles, whose folkloric artistry compares with the bultos and santos and other devotional art that is produced in little poblados of northern New Mexico like Chimayo. These prairie churches are treasures of North American rural architecture on a par with, say, the covered bridges of New England. But many haven’t even been inventoried and are abandoned and/or deteriorating and in urgent need of help. The rural farming communities they once served are dying or dead—in a pattern similar and indeed related to what is happening in the Gulf of Maine, where the small independent fishermen are being gobbled up by the big fisherman, and machinery is replacing people. Here the small farms are being gobbled up by big multinational farm consortium (Louis Dreyfuss, for instance, who has a big estate with lamas in my hometown, Bedford, New York), and the younger generation is heading for the cities.
The congregations of these dying communities are down to five or six people in their eighties who don’t have the means to maintain them. Religion is dying, and the rural way of life is dying, so who is going to take care of these places ? The means of the local preservationist groups and agencies are limited, so Kaplan’s three grants– $50,000 for the ones in Saskatchewan, $50,000 for the ones in Manitoba, and $100,000 for the equally endangered prairie churches in North Dakota (most of which are Icelandic, Norwegian, and English, although there are a few Ukrainian ones, too.) are incredibly useful and appreciated. They have already spelled the difference for a few of these gems that were on the verge of collapsing or being burned.
On October 10 I flew from Montreal to Saskatoon with Natasha Fotopoulos, a Montrealer who was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church and speaks fluent Russian and takes pictures. I had also gotten an assignment from Travel & Leisure magazine to write up a four-day tour of the prairie churches between Saskatoon and Winnipeg, and had invited her to take pictures for it. Natasha couldn’t have been a more delightful travel companion. She brought along a cellphone to mobile-parent with her four kids back in Montreal, and to contact people to let us into upcoming churches without having to stop and look for a payphone (one of these days, I’m going to break down and get one of these things). In eight days on the road, we drove two thousand miles and saw only a fraction of the churches that are there, but this fraction included most of the most beautiful and important ones. Three preservationists, who are implementing the Kaplan grants, escorted us through their respective jurisdictions. They are all great people, and the whole trip was absolutely fantastic. I have racked my brain to come up with some negative to say that would enhance the report’s credibility (this is how we journalists think), but have drawn a complete blank.
In Saskatoon we met up with Frank Korvemaker, the research/restoration adviser for the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, who had taken a bus up from Regina, the capital, with a carton full of slides, literature, and maps. Corvemaker estimates that there are probably two hundred prairie churches in the province, but he has only identified sixty-eight of them. Each trip he takes he discovers new ones. “I’ll pick up a church if I see one, but I don’t go out looking for them,” he told us. “The community has to come to us. We help them get designation and grants that they have to match. But only twenty opportunities to restore churches have come in the last ten years, and we get a hundred applications a year. So the Kaplan money is really welcome. It really expands our capability. A private foundation providing fifty thousand dollars U.S. is unheard of in our province.”
Frank explained that “Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation is not quite a government agency. We are a crown corporation established by the government, but operated by a board of directors of people appointed from the private sector. We do report to the Minister of Culture, Youth, and Recreation, and the three of us who work for the foundation are employees of its Heritage Unit.” (Ah, I thought. The Saskatchewanian equivalent of the Ministry of Youth, Culture, and Sports, which exists in many former British colonies in Africa. I have always taken a special interest in this minister ever since I was kicked out of my seat on a flight from Entebbe to Rome by Uganda’s voluminous Minister of Youth, Culture and Sports, Moses Taylor, in the fall of l987. I walked up a few aisles and sat down next to a stunning young woman, who ended up becoming my wife. Taylor went on to organized a coup that failed against President Museveni. These are the guys the president has to watch for in Africa, not the minister of the defense, because you aren’t suspecting them and they have a ready source of teenagers to recruit into the movement. But Manitoba’s ministry was undoubtedly much tamer.)
“Our annual budget is $345,000 [Canadian; to convert to US $ divide by two-thirds],” Frank continued. “Unlike with government departments, our unused funds are not returned to general revenue, and we can receive and distribute as we see fit.”
Ukrainians are the second-biggest ethnic group in Saskatchewan, after the Anglos who headed west from Ontario in the l880s. The big Ukrainian migration to the northern plains took place between 1896 and 1913. It was part of the western colonization program set up by Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada’s prime minister. The railroad to Saskatchewan had been built by l882, and there was all this fertile land, but no one to farm it. Laurier cut the then territory into “sections” – grids with a north-south road every mile, and an east-west one every two. Every eight miles– the maximum distance a horse could haul wheat to a grain elevator and get back to its stable the same day– a town was built. Sir Wilfred offered Ukrainians 160-acre quarter sections for the ten-dollar price of registering them, and in time 170,000 came. They found a landscape remarkably similar to the Ukrainian steppe : dead flat, with rich, readily turned black earth like the famous chernozoem back home (except that here it is the mud on the floor of glacial Lake Agassiz) and the same types of trees— copses of poplar, oak, birch, and at higher elevations conifers. So they felt immediately at home. The first thing they did, after erecting some sort of shelter to get them through the winter, often no more than a pit house, and putting in their crops, was to build the church. It was a communal effort. Each family had to bring a certain number of the best logs and helped in its construction. The church provided faith, hope, strength, an opportunity for socialization, and a structure for maintaining cultural solidarity and dealing with death. Many immigrants died in the first few years, especially children, wiped out by blizzards or epidemics of smallpox or scarlet fever.
As soon as the immigrants could afford it (picking up on the prevailing attitude that log construction was crude and unclassy, kind of like trailers today) they sheathed the log walls over with clapboards, so unfortunately there are very few exposed-log structures in the northern plains any more. Nothing like the monumental Russian log churches on the island of Kizhi on Lake Onega, for instance. Dovetail construction was very popular with the immigrants, so the corners were square and the log walls were easily sided.
Virtually all of the 170,000 who came were from western Ukraine, from Halychyna (in Polish Galicia, which some Ukrainians take offense to) and other provinces. The vast majority were Ukrainian Catholics, who are just like the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox except that they recognize the Pope instead of Patriarch Alexis in Moscow, and their cross is the familiar two-piece cristate one, while the Orthodox cross has a second, shorter horizontal arm underneath (symbolizing the common criminal who was crucified next to Christ and accepted the Lord and was saved) and below it a diagonal arm (symbolizing the other one who didn’t and went to Hell). Both liturgies are in Church Slavonic and both services are performed by bearded batyushki, but the Catholic one is considerably shorter—an hour or so as opposed to three or more.
But dissident pacifists known as the dukhobors or spirit-wrestlers, who were being persecuted by the tsarist government, also came to Saskatchewan. Their passage was arranged by Leo Tolstoy, a great admirer of what he considered their true Christianity; his son Sergei Lvovitch accompanied them. During the Boer War, the Mounties came to forcibly conscript the Dukhobors, and they took all their clothes off. There were more than a hundred other apostate sects that refused to bow to the tsar or follow the rites of the orthodox church. The Molokani, or Milk Drinkers, for instance, neighbors of the Dukhobors in the Crimea, drank milk on fast days when drinking milk was prohibited to the orthodox. They condemned the institution of serfdom and refused to pay taxes or bear arms. I wondered whether any of them made it over.
Some of these sects were pretty wild. The khlysti, for instance, went in for group flagellation sessions like the Penitentes in Hispanic northern New Mexico, but this was only a prelude to the orgies that, after whipping themselves into a frenzy, they proceeded to have. Only by thoroughly debasing themselves and gratifying their basest animal urges, the khlysti believed, only by combating lust with lust, could they die to all sensations of the flesh (this was known as “the mysterious death”) and pass through the mystical transformation known as “the mysterious resurrection,” which gave them the dikvine ability to heal, prophesy, raise the dead and lead the living to heaven. The only way to stop sinning was by knowing sin. The most famous khlysti was Grigori Rasputin, whom Alexandra, the last empress of Russia and the mother of the hemophiliac crown prince Alexis, fell under the spell of. I made discreet inquiries about the khlysti during our trip, and got the impression that some probably did come over and their racy rites may still be practiced by some of their descendants, but this was not a line of questioning that anybody was comfortable with. It was hardly the image the Ukes we talked to wanted to project. The khlysti would not have built churches, in any case, so they weren’t really in the purview of this Dispatch. But nevertheless, I couldn’t help being curious about them.
Another sect, the skoptsi, employed an even more radical strategy for dying to the flesh : they castrated themselves. If any of them made it over, there would presumably not be any of them left, any more than the Shakers, or the Gnostics, another sect resembling the khlysti. (sources : Rural Russia Under the Old Regime, by Geroid Tanqueray Robinson, and a Web search of the word khlysti performed by Natasha).
But the main push factor was not religious oppression, but the lack of land in Ukraine. The serfs had been freed in l864, and twenty years later their descendants had multiplied, and the small plots they had originally been given had been subdivided by partitive inheritance to even smaller ones that weren’t big enough to crop even at a subsistence level.
Saskatoon is mostly generic modern, Albuquerque north– malls with price clubs and the usual American chains and outlets. It has a few nice old residential streets and along the Saskatoon River, which runs through town and is the nicest thing about the place, a few impressive mansions from the teens and twenties, but by the thirties many of their owners couldn’t afford the taxes, so subdivided their land so, as Frank put it, you get nice, crap, nice, crap, as Frank put it. The place to stay is the Bessborough Hotel, the last of the chateau-style hotels built by the Canada Pacific Railroad (after the Frontenac in Quebec City and the Laurier in Ottawa). The style is characterized by hip roofs with lots of dormers, and the Bessborough has a delicacy that the others don’t. But the truth is that there is a whole lot of architectural interest in the northern plains, except the Ukrainian churches are really precious. They and the grain elevators are the only things that stick up in the perfectly flat landscape, the only relief in the relentless horizontality.
We visited St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic cathedral, which has seven domes or cupolas (banyas in Ukrainian) and an elaborately decorated interior but personally didn’t do a lot for me. Next door was the small but apparently very good Ukrainian Culture Museum (open 11-5 Monday through Saturday, and Sunday 1-5). Also in Saskatoon is the larger Ukrainian Museum of Canada, which puts out a brochure called Ukrainian Culture Sites of Canada. The Ukrainian Catholic churches are catalogued in Ukrainian Catholic Churches of Saskatchewan, by Ann Maria Baran and Christian T. Pastershank, Modern Press, Saskatoon, l997.
By nine we were heading up Highway 41, where we found our first prairie churches, in a little ghost-town called Smuts. Frank was bearded and in his mid-fifties, my age, a straight-up guy with a dry, Canadian sense of humor. His father had migrated from Holland to Montreal, and he had married and settled here thirty years ago. “Maybe because I was a flatlander to start with, I love this openness,” he told me. The land we were passing through was so flat that you could see the earth’s curve, as you do at sea. “I can’t stand forests. I feel hemmed in. And mountains do nothing for me. They block the view and I get dizzy on their roads with steep drops at every bend.”
Having spent a year in the desert Southwest, I understood how he felt, how one can become spiritually addicted to the endless, visually soothing views of the Big Sky Country.
“It’s grey out there, isn’t it ?” Frank observed. The weather was raw and a biting wind was sweeping over the steppe. But every so often the sun broke through a dark, steely cloudbank and lit up a golden field. The entire prairie was under cultivation. Most of it had been sewn with Durham wheat, but some of it had been planted with flax, just as in Ukraine (my grandmother’s English tutor, Miss Whishaw, wrote a delightful novel about her years with the family called Rolling Flax.) The flax had been swathed (cut down and lined up) but not yet combined (threshed, had its tiny seeds taken out and the straw spit out to eventually be burned, because it doesn’t decompose). The flax grown in these parts is oil or linseed flax, not textile flax, which doesn’t do well so far north. The main producers of textile flax are France, Belgium, and Holland. Linseen oil used to be the base of most paints, but now synthetic acryllics have largely replaced it, and the market is much smaller. The new niche for linseed is as a trendy new grain in the health food market. The straw is burned, although the possibility of using it as an alternative to fiberglass is being explored.
Every mile or two there we passed a farm compound whose buildings were protected against the wind by a square shelter belt of trees. One had an antique thresher at the entrance to its driveway which reminded me of the stranded fishing boats I had seen along the New Brunswick and Maine coast. Both were relics of a bygone era, when it was possible to make a living as a small, independent farmer or fisherman. There were also natural ponds, known as sloughs, and little water-filled ravines and crevices called coulees, in many of which ducks, geese, trumpeter swans, and other migrating waterfowl were feeding. The sky was filled with bleating skeins of snowgeese. This was an unexpected bonus. We had hit the fall migration, when the northern plains are filled with thousands upon thousands of large birds migrating south. October is an iffy month in terms of snow, but I was now glad we had not come a few weeks earlier.
We passed a big dead porcupine on the road. Deer and moose are common on the prairie, as are raccoons and gophers, a generic term embracing several species of rodent, including the prairie dog (which you’ll be hearing a lot about soon) and Richardson’s ground squirrel. Every two miles a gravel road shot off to the right and left, but the distances were measured in kilometres; prime minister Pierre Trudeau had decided in the seventies that Canada should go metric, like most of the world. This was typical of Canada’s Euro-American schizziness. “I like traveling in kilometers,” Frank remarked. “It makes your journey go by more quickly. You get sixty percent more bang for your buck.”
Smuts was named for Ian Smuts, a general of the Boer War. The road off to the left went up a slight rise, and there was the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist. It was one of the most beautiful we saw on our entire trip (see the first photograph). An otlychnaya terkovka, an excellent church, Natasha and I agreed—the highest rating in the ranking system we had devised. The next best was prekrasnaya, beautiful; then preatnaya, pleasing; then horoshaya, pretty; and finally ladno, okay, but not worth traveling any great distance to see. The domes were covered with tin sheets, the walls with vinyl shingles simulated to look like wood shingles. We couldn’t get inside, because we hadn’t been able to find anyone to let us in, and we couldn’t see inside, because the windows were shaded. There was a separate, freestanding belltower—the old style, which most of the Ukrainian prairie churches have. It had been constructed in l926 on the site of an earlier church that burned and had been restored with the help of Grant #372. Down the road was the smaller, preatnaya Holy Trinity church, the other church in Smuts, which has only three members, all of whom live in Saskatoon. We peeked through a window at the elaborate interior. There was nothing left of Smuts. All the farmhouses and outbuildings and farm machinery had been abandoned and were returning to the elements, but the surrounding area was all still being cultivated. Wheat tops were dancing violently in the wind.
Across the highway, down the same gravel section road, was the preatnaya l936 Peter and Paul church. We continued up 41 to Alvena, where there were two churches in town and one we spotted southwest of Alvena—St. Mary’s, a new one to Frank. It was much like the excellent one in Smuts. “The more you get off the beaten path, the more churches there are to see,” Frank said. “If you really want to inventory all the churches in the provinces, the best thing is to work off the topo maps. Every church and cemetery is marked, but the maps don’t tell you what denomination they are.”
At Wakaw there was a truck stop where we stopped for lunch. There were several kinds of Ukrainian sausage, one more tempting than the next, in the display case. We continued north up Route 2 and turned right at the sign for Nickorick Beach, on a lake to the left, and reached Lapine, a community that no longer exists and is no longer on the map, but the church is still there, nestled among some confiers, and a prekrasnaya one it is, St. Michael’s Ukrainian Greek Orthodox, started in l917, with seven domes and a rather schlocky modern glass front door and vinyl siding. Two old men were waiting by a pickup to let us in, Victor Oleksyn (cell 233 7082) and Peter Huziek (233 4446); both are real friendly and delighted to open the church for visitors. The interior, particularly the iconstase, as Victor pronounced it, was dazzling. At the top of the inside of the dome a large eye, symbolizing the Holy Ghost, had been painted. Victor had a huge belly, like the one I am trying to get rid of. There is a certain body type that is common among Ukrainians, I realized after this trip. It is known as zhivitovsky, or big-bellied. A few years ago, in the Jewish cemetery of Kiev, I found a headstone where someone called Zhivitovsky had been buried. This was a nickname that became a surname. In French the term would be ventripotent. I am beginning to think that there is not much I can do about my own glutinus maximus. It’s part of my ethnic heritage.
Victor and Peter I connected immediately. I felt once again among paysani. “My dad came in l900 from Bukovena [in western Ukraine],” Victor told us. “He came for better land.” “My dad came in l912 from the tselo [rural muncipality] of Toporyuche,” Peter said. “Many people came from there. Our district was Sniatin. My mother went back twice. I went back in 94. I had the privilege of being in the birthplace of my father. I even got a piece of soil The Russians had knocked down the churches or had used them to store grain, but by l994 they had all been restored. They were stand and kneel, no pews, like old times. Before the collapse you weren’t allowed to talk to the locals. I had 32 siblings there left, and what they told me made me realize that we were lucky to get out.”
“I went back, too,” Victor told us. “We stayed 5-star hotel in Kiev. It was see five stars through the ceiling.” He and Peter took us into big assembly hall, which the parish rents out for weddings. A photograph of Taras Schevschenko, with a beautifully embroidered cloth draped over it, and lines from one of his poems, hung on the wall. Victor told me an off-color Dukhobor joke. The sense of humor, full of bawdy puns, reminded me of the Navajos’. There is a Dukhobor colony west of Aberdeen, near the Petrovka bridge. They settled near the river so they could get water for irrigation. The Lapine parish has forty members and eight services a year, not necessarily on Sundays, performed by Father Roman, the batyushka in Wakaw who conducts a total of eighty services in thirteen parishes. Lapine is in the r.m., or rural munipality, of Hoodoo. The Heritage Foundation was giving the parish a thousand dollars to keep up the church, even though Frank was dismayed about the vinyl siding, and Kaplan another thousand, which the parish was matching.
Shimmering lines of snow geese, with a few blue-phase ones and speckle-bellied geese mixed in, followed our route east. We stopped to admire an old farm building whose mud walls had washed off, exposing its post-on-sill construction. The posts had been set every two feet and filled with small, vertically notched logs that fit into a vertical groove scored in them. An alkali lake came up on the west. In Cudworth, there was an orthodox church, in Dana another small one, in Peterson, east on Highway, a Catholic church, but they were all nothing to write home about. Then on to Bruno and Humboldt, named for one of my heroes, Alexander von, the great explorer of the Amazon with his buddy Bonpland. There was a nice mural of Humboldt on a wall beside the convenience store. We were in a German pocket, a break in the pervasive Ukrainiality. Humboldt has a stately but derelict water tower, constructed between 1909 and 1914 along with ten others of the same design in the provice, that may get a Kaplan grant. But it was surrounded by a rash of the little ticky-tacky mass-produced houses that most rural Saskatchewanians live in these days. The old stuff, like Humboldt’s water tower, the post office, and the railroad station, was built to last and it is often the only construction of any interest or grandure.
In Muenster we checked out the three-story brick St. Peter’s Benedictine Abbey, which has the highest concentration of windows in the province but is generic institutional, like a dorm in a New England prep school. This is one of the three Benedictine abbeys in North America. The others are in Minneapolis and Memphranagog, one of Quebec’s eastern townships. Much more interesting was St. Peter’s Cathedral, built in 1920. Its exquisite interior iconography was painted by Count Berthold John Von Imhoff, who by the time of his death in l939 had completed the interior décor of more than a hundred churches of all denominations in the United States and Canada’s western provinces. One could do another tour of just the Imhoff churches in Saskatchewan. Von Imoff’s studio was on a small farm five miles west of St. Walberg.
On to Watson, then north on Highway five for five clicks, and right on a gravel road that says 49 k. to Fosston. St. Michael’s was schlock restoration but still beautiful. A new church for Frank, in the r.m. of Winner : The Holy Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox church, built in l924 with an unusual dome, bellcast instead of onion, and yellow-painted clapboard with white trim and green-painted wooden shingles. We stopped to check out some abandoned but still restorable grain elevators. “The elevators are going down like flies, and we’re losing to find our way around the geography,” Frank said. “You used to see an elevator and know a town was coming up. Each company—Reliance, UGG (United Grain Growers)—had its own design. There were dozens. These are Pattersons. They have a signature extra cupola [as Frank called it, but it was not a dome, it was a small box].” Another tour of the elevators of the plains could be arranged. A fence with boots and shoes on its posts ran along us to the left for a mile or so, then there was a small Anglican church. “If it has a small porch and apse, smaller than the main body of the church, it’s probably Anglican,” Frank explained. “If it has a steeple or spire with a witch’s cap, it’s probably Lutheran.” Crossing Highway 645, we rounded a speed curve, designed so you don’t have to slow down at an intersection, in this case with the road to Claire, and stopped to admire to the small St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic church in the r.m. of Ponass Lake. Built in 1990-11, had a sided-log belltower and both were white with green trim. Green is very Ukrainian. The last service here was in l975. In l995 the church was hit by lightning and restored with a Heritage Foundation grant. An application to reshingle the roof with asphalt shingles in l992 was rejected. “We don’t do asphalt,” Frank explained.
We could see in the distance, still thirteen miles west of Fosston and half a mile to the south, the silhouette of an unpainted, abandoned church which is Frank’s favorite in the entire province. He discovered it twelve years ago and hadn’t been back since. Its condition was unchanged, derelict but still basically solid and restorable. It had a beautiful truncated hip roof. The glass was gone from the windows, and as we unraveled the wire holding the two sections of the front door together, dozens of pigeons flew out the windows. The floor was caked with their poop. The inside had never been finished. You could see the boards used to frame the basement, to hold the cement that was poured in for the walls of the foundation, had been reused to frame the church itself. The year l949 had been etched into one of the concrete steps. “There’s got to be a story to this place,” Frank said. “The congregation moved away, or it was cursed. It’s in remarkably good repair for something that’s in disrepair. Maybe it’s cedar-sided. Cedar is much more rot-resistant than pine. It’s one of the last of the old-time design churches. After the war the style degenerated into small, squat churches with little cupolas. I can’t see anything happening to this church because there is no one who cares about it. I don’t even know its name. We may be the last visitors.” As soon as we left St. Genericus, as Frank dubbed it, a wind capable of inflicting frostbite on uncovered digits smote us, and the pigeons returned. The fields around the church were still being cropped. We flagged down two men in camouflage outfits in an approaching pickup to see if they could tell us anything about the church, but they were hunters who had come up from Montana and were looking for geese to shoot. We stopped at the farmhouse across from St. Michael’s where the man we had seen on a tractor behind the church lived, but he wasn’t there. He had stripped off his coveralls and boots in the front hall and jumped in his pickup and gone somewhere. Maybe to the Fosston bar, or a-courting. There was several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of machinery in the yard. It was hard to see how they could be paying for themselves. We passed through the smoke of burning swaths of flax. Frank showed us the minicule seeds of the plant, six to a pod. If you fall into a bin of flax, you can suffocate, he told us. You sink like quicksand. This has happened to several children in the province.
Darkness had fallen by the time we reached Fosston. “I think we’ve run the sun right into the ground here,” Frank pronounced. “We did four hundred kilometers today– not bad considering we haven’t got anywhere. We won’t be making Yorkton tonight, as I had hoped. We’ll have to stay in Wadena.” Fosston had just a few streets lined with trailers and old buildings in disrepair and need of a paint job. It was very bleak, like a Steven king or Russell Banks novel, like “being stranded on a desert island,” Frank observed. “Nobody new comes, and there’s a lot of inbreeding. The whole province is slowly losing population.”
Wadena was on Highway 5, a secondary east-west artery paralleling the Yellowhead, and it was considerably larger than Fosston, but it was still like the Australian outback, or a cowtown in the Wild West with tumbleweed skipping down its main drag. We overtook a bent figure in a baseball jacket making its way down a dark side street and inquired where the best place to stay in town was. The figure belonged to a cheery young man, who came up to the window and told us the Blue Willow Inn, just north of town. This was a motel run by a wonderful hospitable couple, Earl and Vie Haugerud. Staying there was like being taken into the family. The other guests were all U.S. duckhunters. One group, from Illinois, had bagged its quota of six hundred waterfowl, which they had packed into a freezer trailer and were driving back home with. One of them said that not only trumpeter swans pass through on their way to the Gulf of Mexico, but a few of the very rare whistling swans, and not only sandhill cranes, but a few whoopers, as well as white pelicans. Hunting is these guys’ religion, I thought. There are three escalating seasons here : bow-and-arrow, powder, and semi-automatic. The locals were happy to have the hunters blast away at the birds because they devoured their crops, and the hunters brought yankee dollars. Our appearance on the scene—people who were touring the province looking at the Ukrainian churches—was a first, and so unusual and represented a possible new source of revenue that is was worthy of a write-up in the local paper. Vie alerted one of the gals who wrote for it, and she came the next morning and interviewed us.
Posted on a wall of the Haugeruds’ cozily cluttered kitchen was a map of the local sections. St. Genericus was on Dennis Plyatuk’s quarter section.
We checked out Wadena’s horoshaya, vinyl-sided Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada’s (wondering what is the difference between this group and Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church), whose cupolas were gleaming in the cold morning sunlight. Big skeins of geese were on the move. It was too cold now, time to pick up and fly a couple of hundred miles south.
Karoki, the next stop, sounded Japanese, and it was. The Japanese were briefly allies of Canada, during the Russo-Japanese war, which precipitated a little flurry of Japanese names on the northern plains. There is also a town called Mikado. Later, during the Second World War, Japanese-Canadians were kept in internment camps like Japanese-Americans. Just off the right was the St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church, also vinyl-sided and, built in l952, ladno. Inverny had the l953 St. Vladimir and Olga church, which was typical of the new generation that don’t do the big dome.
We passed a house on the move to a new location. “People love moving buildings in Saskatchewan,” Frank told us. It’s a favorite passtime. Grain elevators are always coming over the horizon. Some houses have been on highway three or four times. The relocation of a three-four story house is not unusual. Saskatchewanianis don’t waste anything. They have a strong belief in recycling. Reduce, reuse, recycle—these are the three axioms of Canadian green movement, and nowhere are they observed more than here.”
Rama, a tidy little town down to a hundred souls, is named for a river and a village in Yugoslavia. On Second Street North is the Ukrainian Catholic St. Peter and Paul church, built in l936-9 and vinyl-sided. It has seven domes, the third church we had seen with so many (St. George’s in Saskatoon and St. Michael’s in Lapine being the other two). The still wood-sided St. Michael’s a few blocks away was much more interesting, indeed otlychnaya. Built in 1926, it had received a Heritage Foundation grant and had the most stunning interior yet, with, with beautiful stenciling around its wainscoted walls and marbled columns. There was real artistry in the detail. (see the second photograph). The icons which paneled the iconstasis (locally known as iconstase) had been painted by Paul Zobolotny, a religious artist from nearby Canora, in l950-1, and were of genuine artistic merit, standing out from the others we had seen for their simplicity and grace. Zobolotny had lived in the church while doing them. Two were in need of restoration. “We normally don’t do interiors,” Frank said, “but here we may make an exception.” Zobolotny’s bill had come to $900—a lot in those days. The rayed doors, (rayiskii dveri) had a lovely motif of gentian-blue grape clusters (the food of Christ) and had been done in Winnipeg; each grape had been handcut and painted. This church, and St. John the Baptist in Smuts, are musts.
Rudolph Kresak (cell 593 4944), a local farmer and the president of the church as his father had been before him, had let us in and was telling us about these details. “The altar doesn’t have a single nail. It’s all done with wooden pegs. The whole church was done on donations. This person or that gave $25. Dances and bazaars were held to raise money. The lumber was salvaged from a Lutheran Church seven-and-a-half miles away. The whole thing costs $117 to build. I remember when the church started there were families with five-six-seven kids and it was standing-room only, and a big overflow outside. Confession lasted from nine to two. Now we have only nineteen members, and ten services, performed by Father Pete Vascelenko from Canora. When you get somebody good you have to hang on to him, and now good or bad you hang on to him. We’ve only had four cantors in seventy-five years.”
Rudolph was sixty-seven but looked fifteen years younger. He was still a handsome, hearty, virile man in his prime. Two of his five sons were still farming with him, which was rare (His son Trent at 593 2173 is also available to visitors). “My grandfather came in l905. The people of different religions in Rama get along real well today, but it didn’t used to be that way. It was a bad place if you were a minority. The people here are mostly Ukrainians and Poles. The Poles learned to speak Ukrainian, and many can’t speak Polish.” On another street was the Roman Catholic Church, which had its own, cemented-stone grotto of Lourdes, with stations along the path around it. There was a lot of religious energy in this little town.
East of Rama, the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic shades into Dukhobor country. The Dukhobors start in Buchanan and Canora. There was a hint of resentment in Rudolph’s description of how “they came in droves and picked up the good land. But now everybody gets along. Dukhobors will tell jokes about Dukhobors.”
Buchanan boasted the smallest orthodox church in the province, only 8 x 8, just room enough for an altar and two worshipers, but it seemed to have been put on skids and taken away somewhere because it was not there any more. Canora takes its name from the first syllables of Canadian Northern Pacific Railway. It was a fairly large town, and a really nice one. The streets had names like Schevschenko and Dnieper. This part of Saskatchewan has the greatest percentage of seniors in the province, and Canora seems to be mainly inhabited by retired farmers. The modern St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic church had double (one over the other), slightly bellcast black half-domes, similar to the ones at St. George’s in Saskatoon, and Romanesque arched windows. The front steps were covered with red carpet and the front door was modern wood and glass door, giving the entrance a My Big Fat Greek Wedding kitschiness that undermined the delicate, baroque beauty of the cupolas. (Not that the parishioners probably even thought of their lovely church in these terms). The pièce de résistance in Canola was the otlychnaya orthodox Holy Trinity, built in l927-8. Doroty Korol (563 5211) let us in. The interior decoration and iconography is by Zobolotny, and the windows have lots of stained glass. The church is seldom used, except for summer vespers and by old couples renewing their marriage vows. The orthodox worshipers of Canola go to the new, much larger Holy Trinity church, built in l962, whose brochure spoke of “copulas” instead of “cupolas.” (Is this a new branch of khlysti ? I jokingly suggested to Natasha.)
We stopped at Canora’s small mall where a kerchiefed babushka was selling home-made borscht and flax cookies and other Ukrainian delights. I asked her if mostly Ukrainians lived in Canora, and she said “Russians too. That woman over there [another kerchiefed babushka sitting on a bench] is Russian.” By which she meant, a Dukhobor.
Leaving Canora, we passed a small, grey Romanian Orthodox Church, St. Peter and Paul’s. “Gothic arches, woohoo !” exclaimed Frank. Then to the left an old building, whitewashed mud over log, probably Romanian, too, because of the little slanted roof under the end wall connecting the gables and protecting it somewhat from the elements. Proceeding east, the Durham wheat gave why to kanola (rape) and flax. We reached Verigin, named for Peter Vasilievitch Verigin, the leader of the Dukhobors, who brought 7,500 of them here in l902. The two-story prayer home where he lived had elaborately filigreed balconies and gingerbread and was like nothing we had seen so far or would see, more like an antebellum mansion in Charleston or Savannah. There was also a very nice museum that traced the history of the sect and another museum that traced the life of Leo Tolstoy. We were greeted by Alex Sherstabitov and give the tour.
The Dukhobors broke from the Orthodox church in the sixteenth century and refused to pay allegiance to the tsar, only acknowledging God as their lord and master. They were like early conscientious objectors, who believed that human life is sacred and took the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill” with the utmost seriousness. The welfare of the whole world is not worth the life of a single child, Verigin preached. Toil and peaceful life are the Dukhobor’s watchword. “Our name means spirit-wrestlers, because we fight within ourselves to overcome all bad things—temptation, smoking, drinking,” Alex explained. “We believe in following Jesus Christ’s writings to the letter. Our services are simple. We have no priest. The most capable person conducts the service. The only thing that we do every time we meet is say the Lord’s Prayer together, which is the universal prayer.
“Originally the Dukhobors were from a lake called the Moloshny, or milky, Waters in the Crimea. We were neighbors of the Molokai, in fact we are an offshoot of the them.” (This derivation of Molokai/Molokani differs from Tanquery’s.) Alex had heard of the khlysti, who he said were another offshoot of the Molokai. “I saw a t.v. show about some of them who are living in California,” he told us. He hadn’t heard of the skoptsi.
In l841 the Dukhobors were banished to Tbilisi, Georgia. Learning of their plight, Tolstoy decided to help them, and they helped him formulate Tolstoyism, a pacifist philosophy that is much like the Dukhobor credo; Tolstoy considered them to be the most true Christians of all, because they didn’t only pay lipservice to the teachings of Christ, they followed them. On June 29, l895 three Dukhobor villages in the Caucasus mountains buried their arms. “We were prepared to die, no matter what anyone did to us,” Alex explained. This day is still celebrated in Verigin. Verigin himself was exiled to Siberia. In the fall of 1888, two ships carrying 7,500 members of the sect set sail from the Georgian port of Batumi, reaching Halifax in January of the following year. It was the largest single Ukrainian migration to Canada. Tolstoy’s son Sergei went with them. They made their way to Saskatchewan, where in l906 they refused to swear allegiance to the Queen, for which the crown took back 260,00 of the acres it had granted them. Verigin led most of his flock to Grand Forks and Castle Rock, British Columbia, where most of Canada’s 50,000 Dukhobors live to this day. In l924, on a train to Grand Forks, he was killed by a bomb. His assassins were never identified.
Queen Elizabeth came here a few years ago. The Dukhobors and the Crown have made their peace, but in the sixties the sect made headlines when a radical splinter group, violent pacifists calling themselves the Sons of Freedom, torched their barns in B.C. and committed other acts of unCanadian chicanery.
On to Kamsack, which is down in the Assiniboine River Valley, the first significant relief in the almost absolute flatness of the last two days. Off to the left, before we make our descent, is the ruin of the Dukhobor prayer home of which the Tolstoy museum in Verigin is an exact replica. Its brick walls have an unusual and attractive decorative feature : the “frogs,” the indentations in the bricks into which cement is usually poured, face outward. The original building is going back to the elements but is still striking on its little rise.
South through smoke billowing up from swaths of burning flax to Stornoway to see the orthodox St. Peter and Paul’s Church, then down to Wroxton, whose Church of St. Elia, built in l953, is one of the nicest in the province, a white otlychnaya with green trim and a large cupola and two smaller semi-bellcast ones, each perched on a slender hexagonal belfry which has no bells or glass in its louvers. The fronts were boarded up. We wondered if the church had been scheduled for demolition. We heard from a number of people that when a Ukrainian Catholic church loses its members, it is torn down because the diocese doesn’t want the responsibility and liability for break-ins— which puts more pressure on the preservation effort, because more and more of them will be falling into this category. But it was hard to imagine that any one could think of destroying such a beautiful building. Behind the church was an elevator, the only time we saw the two most striking elements of the prairie’s architecture juxtaposed.
On the way west to Yorkton on Highway 10, we stopped to inspect the ruin of a one-room mud-and-log cabin. On Myrtle Street in Yorkton itself there were three nice old Dukhobor houses in a row, brick with front porches, basic, solid, no-nonsense prairie homes that had an austerity and an integrity and a character that the builders of the cookie-cutter single-family residences of today would do well to try to emulate. Yorkton is a big town, on the Yellowhead, and it has a strong Ukrainian flavor. A law firm called Rusnak, Balacko, Kacher, Rusnak, and S.G.Kiyra had its offices on the Main Street. The most important church in town is the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, built in l914 and enlarged in l954. The frescos on the ceiling of the dome, painted in l941, are unmatched in the province. The church, which is more like a cathedral, is run by the Ukrainian Redemptorist fathers, one of whom, Father Joseph Denischuk, explained that the Redemptorist order was founded by St. Alphonsus in l732 in Pagani, near Naples. It now has installations in sixty-five cities worldwide. In l906 the Belgian Redemptorist father Achilles Delaire started accepting Ukrainian Catholics of the eastern rite into the brotherhood and established this one in Yorkton.
As with every religion, even Tibetan Buddhism (as I will be reporting in a big forthcoming Dispatch, there is the spiritual dimension, and the gross political one, and the schisms and murky intrigues in the Slavic orthodoxy make it clear how the term “Byzantine” arose for such monkey-business. Father Joseph explained that Ukrainians accepted the Catholic Church in 988, recognizing the Pope although their eastern rite was based in Constantinople, but in l054 the Ukrainian Catholic Church broke from Rome and remained detached from the Pope until 1596, when it re-recognized him at the Union of Breste.” This was, of course, the Catholic version : that Ukraine was always Catholic. The orthodox version was that after the Union of Breste, during the counter-reformation, the Jesuits led an attack on the Ukrainian Orthodox unionate, seducing Ukrainian Orthodox into becoming Catholics by letting the priests keep their beards and the Church Slavonic liturgy.
Father Joseph continued : “In Russia today there are seven million Ukrainian Catholics and forty million Russian Orthodox. A million Ukrainian Catholics joined the diaspora to the New World, including almost all the 170,000 Ukrainians who came to the northern plains, although some of these later joined the Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church, also known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has three factions : one recognizes Patriarch Alexis in Moscow, one Patriarch Filaret in Kiev (who is also the Belarus head of the Russian Orthodox Church, but not of the splinter group Russian Autocephalous Church of Belarus) and one Patriarch Demetrius in Lviv (formerly Lvov). Then there is the American Orthodox, which includes Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, and recognizes Bartholomew, the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is based in Constantinople. To complicate matters, the Russian Orthodox Church (the predominant denomination in eastern Ukraine) is also split into three factions. I got a taste of the Byzantine balkanization of Slavic orthodoxy on a cruise of the Black Sea several years ago, to which I had been invited by Bartholomew, along with other environmentalists, scientists, and religious leaders, to debate the meaning of the Apocalypse in terms of mankind’s failure in his stewardship of the planet, with a focus of the almost dead body of water we were circumnavigating. While we were doing this, Bartholomew was mending fences and healing rifts and forging new alliances with his Orthodox colleagues. At every port we stopped, he was greeted by a solemn procession of the local, bearded Orthodox hierarchy. Each branch had its own colored mitre : yellow, purple, etc. “I thought we were the only ones who were tribal,” an Amazon Indian picking up on the palpable tension and vibes of intrigue observed to me in Portuguese. Particularly charged with tension was the reunion of Bartholomew with Patriarch Alexis, who came down from Moscow to Russia’s last remaining tongue on the Black Sea at Novorossisk to meet him. During communism, his priests reportedly reported the confessions of their parishioners to the KGB.
“There is a struggle between Moscow and Constantinople for the Ukrainiancy,” Father Joseph went on, “and a movement is afoot to reunite Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox under one patriarchate. Alexis is not happy about Bartholomew because he want Slavic orthodoxy under his control. Filaret broke from Moscow, arguing why should we be dependent on Moscow now that we are finally sovereign Ukrainians ? He wants Bartholomew to recognize him as a patriarch but Moscow is against it. Another contender is Patriarch Lybomar Hussar of Lviv, who wants to be recognized as patriarch by the Pope, but the Pope will only recognize him as a major archbishop.” Of the twenty-seven priests martyred in the Gulag whom the Pope has recognized as saints, four are Redemptorist fathers.
In Yorkton we parted company with Frank, leaving him at the bus station where he caught the bus to Regina. Our impression of Frank, apart from his endearing personal qualities, was that he is a dedicated, knowledgeable, and capable preservationist, someone who knows his job and Kaplan can work with.
Continuing southeast on the Yellowhead, we crossed the border into Manitoba, descended back into the Assiniboine Valley, and on the other side reached Russell, where there is a large modern motel. Snow squalls were building up, the vertical precipitation was being blown horizontally by a ferocious wind. The modernity of the motel was a break from the time warp we had been traveling in. Here we met up with Ed Ledohowski, Frank’s Manitoba counterpart, the Heritage Designation Officer in the Historic Resources Branch of the Provincial Department of Culture, Heritage, and Tourism. Ed works directly for the provincial government, and the Kaplan fund doesn’t give grants to government bodies, so the money was being channeled through the private Thomas Sills Foundation, which is concerned with social services and heritage preservation.
Ed Led, as everybody calls him, had arrived at 1:30 in the morning on a bus from Winnipeg, but he was raring to go and had prepared a thick notebook with hundreds of pages of lowdown for me. He was a passionate preservationist with tremendous energy and enthusiam and love for the Ukrainians of the province, being one himself. He was a fabulous guy who was firing on all his cylinders, and then some. The only other person I’ve met with such abundant energy is Robert Thurman, the Tibetan scholar and Uma’s dad. “I’m a Puke, a Polish Ukrainian, a Poleranian,” Ed told us. “My mother was Ukrainian, my father was Polish.” His Polish grandfather had come in l903. Next year there was going to be a hundredth anniversary gathering of his descendants, who are scattered all over the North American continent. Ed was organizing the whole thing. He had tracked down all the ones he could and sent them invitation and he working feverishly on a family history so that it would be published in time for the events. He already had 380 acceptances from people with all sorts of variant spellings of Ledohowski. The family was illiterate when it came. Ed himself was named for an uncle who had been a Military Police Office in World War II and had suffered permanent brain damage during a fight he was trying to break up; there were too many of them. He was a “standard bearer” like my friend the marine conservation biologist Eliot Norse—a subject that would be a good subject for the Lives of the Naturalists section.
Ed, who is fiftiesh, had been doing heritage preservation for the province, fighting to save its historic Ukrainian buildings for twenty years. For a couple of summers, as a personal project, he led bus tours to the important sites, and the local babushkas had greeted the tourists with huge spreads of Ukrainian food, so he knew the architectural terrain and the people intimately. Before that he had been a photographer, for weddings and high school yearbooks and the like, so he himself took hundreds of photographs during our three days together, adding to the forty thousand or so he already had. He had a graduate degree in geography from the University of Manitoba, so he had good sense of how the land in the province flowed and changed and determined what sort of human activity could be sustained.
Ed’s Ukrainian grandfather had come alone in l911 at the age of seventeen. His parents, anticipating the First World War, had wanted to get him out of there. His only brother had already been drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army because that part of southwestern Ukraine was in the Austro-Hungarian empire and was later killed in World War I. He had grown up in the interlake region, between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, in a little place called Poplarfield that was now dying, like most other small towns on the prairies. The Interlake region is one of the three areas of intensive Ukrainian settlement in the province. The others are South Riding Mountain, which we were about to tour for two days, and the southeast, below Winnipeg toward the Minnesota border, which we would be seeing after that. The South Riding area has the most intense pocket of rural Ukrainian culture in the New World. There is a church every few miles, so if you only have time to go to one of these places, this is it.
Manitoba was the first stop in western Canada on the immigrant trail, and its map is a multiethnic quilt. The native people, who are known in Canada as First Nations People, are Assiniboine, Ojibwa (or Chippewa), and Cree. After Custer’s last stand, some Oglala Sioux came up. They all have severely reduced homelands with casinos and high levels of substance abuse and crime and the usual rez syndromes The first Europeans to arrive on the scene, in the seventeenth century, were French voyageurs. They intermarried with Cree, forming the Métis culture, which developed its own language. Most of the Métis live below the lakes and north of Winnipeg. In l812 the Scottish Lord Selkirk, a shareholder of the Hudson Bay Company, arranged for the emigration of Scottish sheep farmers whose small crofts had been taken away by large landowners. Most of them settled on the Red River just north of Winnipeg in a colony that still bears his name. The Scots were followed by Anglos who sold their farms in southern Ontario and came to Manitoba, where the land was less rocky and the soil much richer. They had capital and picked up much of the best land. Traveling north from Russell, we passed some of their substantial houses, some standard American four-squares with flat-topped, truncated pyramidal roofs, others Queen Anne Gothic Revival, with dormers over the entrance and lots of decorative fretwork. “Ontario ran out fast, because people had big families in those days,” explained Ed. “Many of the Anglo farmers were younger sons of aristocrats [remittance men as in Kenya, Patagonia, and the Texas panhandle] who were locally regarded as riffraff because they didn’t even know how to milk a cow. They built good-sized homes to keep up with their neighbors, and many borrowed so much money to build them that they ended up losing them.” We stopped at a very handsome four-square with a mansard roof and an asymmetrical window distribution in solid poured-concrete walls later scored to looked like concrete blocks. The interior woodwork had been salvaged from the parliament building in Ottawa, which burned in about l905.
Icelanders started to arrive in 1874, then a year later German-speaking Mennonites from Russia. They were joined by Scandinavians from 1890 on and l896, by Ukrainians, attracted by Laurier’s offer of free quarter-sections. The Ukrainians were not well-financed. “They came with eight kids and ten bucks to register their 160 acres,” Ed told us. “My dad’s father came with $180.” A year later large numbers came, and by 1900 they were immigrating in waves of tens of thousands. Their first settlement was actually in Alberta, just outside Edmonton, in l892.
We passed another Romanian farm building, with the signature little roof on the end wall connecting the gables. The first generation of Romanians and Ukrainians had built thatch khatas with whitewashed, mud-coated white walls, but the next had wanted to be like the English and had sided them over, so there were few pristine examples of the original building style.
A crow and a bald eagle flew up from a run-over coyote they were feasting on—the most spectacular roadkill I have ever seen, and one that, with our two sighting of bald eagles in Maine last August, suggests that the species has recovered from its downward spiral during the days of ddt spraying.
Then among the endless horizon of tilled fields, there was a golf course. “Golf is going crazy around here,” Ed said. “All the retired farmers and their wives have taken it up.”
We visited the John Paulencu farmstead and its St. Elijah church, which has the last known example of the traditional Carpathian-style farmhouse in Manitoba. The house consisted of three rooms and a hip roof and an attic where meat was smoked, which has some similarities to the Ukrainian one. Both structures are protected provincial heritage sites and have been fully restored. Three plaques, with the same write-up in English, French, and Romanian, stood in front of it. I have never seen more plaques than we saw in Manitoba. There must be more plaques per capita here than anywhere in the world. Every few miles there would be one in the now almost empty countryside, commemorating some structure or event in the short history of the province’s European settlement. The Paulencu homestead was very well done, authentically restored and preserved. It wasn’t an “architectural petting zoo,” a term we would soon learn from Dale Bentley, the president of Heritage North Dakota. Manitoba’s architectural heritage seemed better identified and enshrined than Saskatchewan’s, partly because there is more money in the province, and partly because of Ed’s tireless efforts.
The little church, built in l906 and restored in l979, was an otlychnaya, a primo showcase of transplanted Romanian folkloric décor. It didn’t have a cupola, which is not a feature of Romanian Orthodox church design. The site included a new St. Elijah Church, and a small priest’s residence, both build during the early l950s. Just up the road was Holy Ghost Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church. It was Sunday, and the morning service was in progress. Forty or fifty cars were parked outside. A good turnout, considering the massive depopulation of rural Manitoba.
We retraced the four miles back to Inglis, where we had left Highway 83, and stopped there to admire the last row of old-style grain elevators in the province. “An elevator is essentially a big wooden machine, a perfect form-and-function thing,” Ed explained. “The old ones are being replaced by round concrete towers of no aesthetic pretensions or value into which the grain is sorted and spewed into different sections and is more easily accessed. These five are being restored at great expense—three million dollars, some of which is provincial money, some federal, some community, and some from the Thomas Sill Foundation, through which the Kaplan dough is flowing, but not to this project. The mascot of Inglis is the prairie rose, and there was a big painted metal rose in its entrance. Many towns in Manitoba have theikr mascot. One could do a kitschy coffeetable book, The Mascots of Manitoba.
Driving back down to Russell, we headed east on Highway 45 (as this section of the Yellowhead is numbered) to Birdtail. There was nothing left of Birdtail. Just an elevator and a boarded-up old boomtown-style general store. The few people in the vicinity do their shopping in Russell now. We could see the gambling hall, recreation center, and hockey rink at Waywayseecappo, a mile or so in the distance on the Lizard Point Ojibway reservation. A native teenager passed on a bike as we headed up a dirt road for three miles, then turned left. The snow was burning off. A duck was standing on the thin ice of a newly-frozen slough. We arrived at the Ukrainian Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, known locally simply as St. Mary’s, built in 1905 and restored ninety-one years later. Bill Wasyl was waiting to let us in. His grandparents had come in l901 from Ivano Frankirsk oblast, but his English still had an accent. The belltower had its own banya. It is the only domed bell tower in the prairie. Inside the décor was spare and austere. Bill had been baptized here, with six other children, in l928. He had heard of the khlysti and was about to say more but stopped himself. This was not something one talked about with strangers, not something to put in the tourist brochures.
The rural distrinct in which the church is located is called St. Elmo’s (the Scottish saint who gave his name to St. Elmo’s fire, a beautiful, eerie form of atmospheric electricity that usually appears in stormy weather around church spies, sailing masts, and airplane wings) to see St. Mary’s Orthodox church. The farmers around here had not yet gotten all their crops in. “When it’s harvest time, you don’t stop for supper,” Ed, who had first-hand knowledge of this, said, “If you have a breakdown it’s panic time. You rush to town for parts. Now all the machinery is computerized, so you can’t fix it self, and you’re screwed.” We passed copses of black scrub poplar, and another, lighter species that looked like birch, and maybe was (we had a running argument about this, Ed and Natasha voting poplar whenever we saw a stand of these trees, and I voting birch. There was definitely another, white type of birch, and I think these trees were grey birch, or something similar, with more black lenticels than paper birch, and not poplar.)
Next stop was the Ukrainian National Home of Ivan Franco in Angusville, an assembly hall with three little domes built in 1923. Franco was a contemporary of Schevschenvko who tried to get Ukraine independence from Russia. There were portraits of both heroes inside, as well as of King George and his wife, a stage with a brocaded curtain and other memorabilia from bygone days, old typewriters, tin boxes and collectibles. It was all very colorful and old-timey and had a very Ukrainian feeling.
Then on down Highway 45 to Oakburn, turn left in town, three miles up and across to the rural district of Dolyny, where we reach the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in time for the ten o’clock service, attended by twenty or so oldsters and performed by a young priest who came from Ukraine six months ago and doesn’t speak much English yet. The service is warmed by a big potbelly stove. An octogenarian cantor leads the singing. Afterwards cookies and apples are passed around, and the parishioners tell me about the leak in the dome which they all chipped in $12,000, a huge sum for them, for a local contractor to fix, but it still leaks and is ruining the finely detailed wall stencils, and the contractor refuses to come back because he says he fixed it. Ed listens to their sad story and promises to see what he can do about it.
We visit the Ukrainian Pioneers’ Mass Grave heritage site on Patterson Lake, where in l899 two hundred settlers who had just walked thirty miles up from the train station at Straithclair were caught in a freak late April snowstorm, and in their cramped, cold quarters, weakened by hunger, 42 of the 45 children died of scarlet fever one of them had picked up from a kid he had been playing with at the station. The three who lived were scarred for the rest of their lives by survivor guilt. There is a monument commemorating the suffering, courage, and perseverance of the immigrants, and every year there is a well-attended commemorative religious service at the site, followed by dinner at the nearby community of Oakburn. On to St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Olha, which the survivors built five years later. Families are visiting the graves in its cemetery. Lunch of sausage and Ed’s home-made pickles at a small general store, one of the last of its kind still in operation. Then to Michael Swistun’s farmstead to see the faithfully restored buddas, or pithouses, that saw many of the settlers in the region through their first winter. They consist of nothing more a pit several feet deep covered with a a-frame of thatch. Swistun also built four or five churches in the area before leaving to eventually become the world’s strongest man in the Barnum and Bailey circus. A prairie chicken scuttles into the underbrush as we drive out. The settlers would have set snares for these birds. Ed’s grandfather went two years before he could afford a gun to hunt game for the newly-arrived family.
It is more forested and lake-pocked here. Passing a large stand of tamaracks that have turned gold, we head down a mile-long little road through the forest which brings us to the Marconi School, a one-room schoolhouse on the edge of a large, rush-fringed, secret lake in the forest and another protected and restored heritage site. It is an extremely beautiful spot, tucked away in the deep woods, the kind of place where I could see myself building a little cabin and communing with the life of the lake à la Thoreau. The school was operative from 1921-58 and the original desks, books, and schoolwork are still there. during class was forbidden. The handsome, hip-roofed building was divided into a large classroom and a cozy three-room apartment where the teacher lived. The facilities was an outhouse overlooking the lake. It was the 2085th school district. In l967 all the rural schools in Manitoba were closed, spelling death to communities, where the schoolhouse invariably served as the community center for the district.
On to St. Peter and Paul’s Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church at Seech, whose belltower has two stories. The lower one is a small assembly hall. The land rises a few hundred feet, and we enter boreal forest with the same basic composition as my land in the Adirondacks : balsam, spruce, and white birch. We are now in the parkland, the transitional area between the plains and the boreal forest of South Riding National Park, which is like an island in the prairie. We stopped at the otlychnaya St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic church, on a little road through the woods. The wrought-iron crosses marking the graves of many people in the Peech family, among others, have a crescent under their crosses, symbolizing the victory of orthodoxy over Islam. (One wonders why a Star of David wasn’t added. The Orthodox view of Jews as “Christ-killers” helped created the racist climate that produced the pogroms in the Pale of Settlement around the same time as the Ukrainian migration, a diaspora that had much more impact on North America. Despite its deep spirituality and mysticism and extraordinary chanting, and the devotion of millions, I confess to having some problems with the Orthodox faith, particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church’s condoning of the massacres of Muslims by its Bosnian Serb faithful. But then, what faith hasn’t done similar things ? One shudders to think what has been done in the name of God around the world. And the Orthodox have been on the receiving end of much suffering, during the Soviet era, and the Armenian genocide of l915, during which a million or so Armenian Orthodoxes were killed, the subject of Atom Egoyan’s superb new movie, Ararat.)
The ride over Riding Mountain, past a succession of lakes and beaver ponds amid tall, first-growth spruces is beautiful. A thousand feet below on the other side, the Dauphin region spreads before us. The Anglos got the good land and left the bush and swamp for the Ukes, but after the Ukes who came to Dauphin (pronounced DAWfin) cleared their quarter-sections they found that they had very fertile cropland, and many of them prospered. But the typical Ukrainian homesteader was just eking out a living during the early decades after settlement. In the winter the men would work in bush camps, cutting railroad ties, or they would go east to lakes Winnipeg, Winnipegosis, and Manitoba and haul fish for the Icelanders and net thirty dollars by spring.
Dauphin is the main trading center for this region. Its mascot is the beaver. It has a big Ukrainian Festival during the August long weekend, which spans the first Monday of the month.
We checked into the Super Eight motel. After three days on the road, I was euphoric from all the beauty that we had seen. In the morning—it was Monday, October 14, Canada’s Thanksgiving Day— we started with the large Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Resurrection in town, designed by the Very Reverend Philips Ruh, who known for his “prairie cathedrals,” built in l936-9, and beautifully decorated by the iconographer Theodore Baran from l957-61 and is now a national historic site. But a lot of Baran’s work had suffered water damage and is scheduled for restoration. The belltower outside was a simple steel-girder structure resembling a firetower. A subsequent priest had wanted to tear down this distinguished part of Dauphin’s skyline and put up a new church on the site to attracted the youth. “He wanted to make his mark in the community and was adamant that it had to go. The people who own or are responsible for these buildings are sometimes the ones who are least impressed by them,” Ed remarked sadly. But finally a parishioner donated a lot a hundred yards away, and the new church, which I would describe as nichevo moderne, was built there.
Now it is raining hard. The little foretaste of winter has ended. We drive south to Keld district to see the St. Nicholas’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, build in l922, which will be celebrating the hundredth year of its parish then will be torn down because there is no one left to go to it. “We need to persuade them otherwise,” Ed says. Its lovely stenciling had faded, and it has an unusual blue sunburst iconstasis. “The population of Canada is not replacing itself,” Ed says. “We need two hundred thousand immigrants a year, people who are willing to integrate, not just stay in their own enclaves like the Vancouver Chinese, who I’m told by a cousin who lives there don’t shop at malls because they don’t want to speak English, and they don’t want you in their stores, either, so this raises tensions.” I told him about an article in the New York Times by Clifford Krauss, the new Toronto correspondant, about a new drive to get immigrants with the farming vocations—Ukrainians, German Mennonites from Kazakhstan, Koreans—out to the northern plains. The Koreans will make out better than the Chinese,” Ed said. “They’re less standoffish, and those already here in Manitoba seem to be integrating well.”
Lawrence Smalski, who is wearing cowboy boots and has a knuckle-crunching handshake, lets us into the church. “We have thirty members active,” he tells us. “But each service costs $350 to heat the church and pay the priest, and the foundation is bad and would cost fifty or sixty thousand to fix, so we are going to close down, because the young generations can’t afford to farm these days. Some of the crosses in the cemetery are leaning. There is an American from Massachusetts named Steve Kostiv who comes up every year and in addition to photographing the prairie’s Ukrainian churches with a large-format camera and infrared film, he has begun to repair the headstones and crosses in Manitoba’s Ukrainian cemeteries, Ed tells us. He is so enamored of these churches that he wants to move the best ones all to one place like the wooden churches on Kizhi Island in Russia.
Across the road is the site of the Roman Catholic church which was burned five years ago. The bishop came to deconsecrate it and was furious that the Kocholskis were storing grain in it and it still had its cross.
All the crops are in around here, and the flax straw is burning. Signs warn would-be cattle rustlers who cruise the plains with unmarked livestock trucks that the neighborhood range patrol is on the watch for them. We continue to the Negrych homestead, where the Negrych family lived and farmed from l898 to l980. Recognized as the best-preserved and oldest Ukrainian farmyard in Canada, it was designated a national historic site in l992. The last members of the family were a brother and sister who were in their nineties when the farmstead was “discovered. The last of the twelve children of Wasyl and Anna Negrych, they were living without electricity or running water.” The place had been left as is, with some loving and authentic restoration. It really gave you a feeling of what it was like to live a life like this. Almost everything had been made by hand. The hinges of the doors and most of the tools were homemade. There was a tamarack-log hog barn, a hempseed smasher for cooking oil, a whitewashed clay baking oven with ledges for sleeping in a separate kitchen and smokehouse that had three-foot-long Carpathian shingles and a fenced-in orchard in the center of the yard, which produced the family’s own breed of Negrych apples.
We continued past the former site of a bunch of buried railroad tankers where some people had been growing hydroponic marijuana until someone who was jealous of all the money they were making told the Mounties and they were busted.
Next stop : Drifting River, where the first Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada, the Trembowla Church, a teenie-weenie little thing, was moved from nearby Mink River. Reverend Nestor Dmytriew (1863-1925) performed the first UC mass in Canada in it in 1897. There is also a whitewashed khata with blue sill and gold window frames, like the ones in our old place in Poltava. A schoolhouse had been moved from Riverbend, and the home of Wasyl Ksionyk had been donated by the Slobodzian family and moved next to it. Ksionuk led first group up here. Ed isn’t happy with the way the whole thing has been done. “While the individual buildings are worthy of preservation, the site has no historical verissimilutide,” he says. “Everything is out of context.” It was what Dale Bentley would call an architectural petting zoo.
On to Sifton. Clifford Sifton was a minister of the interior who like Laurier wanted farmstock on the plains and promoted the Ukrainian migration. The town is half abandoned. Most of the main street had been boarded up. Little stores with boomtown facades and the faded long Ukrainian names of their proprietors barely legible lie empty. I find the skin of a three-and-a-half foot garter snake in the grass in front of one of them. Ed tells me that in the Interlake region there is a place called Narcisse that is world-famous for its garter-snake dens. In the spring the snakes emerge from limestone fissures and mate promiscuously in huge balls of thousands of snake, sort like reptilian khlysti. There was a Russian Jewish settlement in Narcisse called the Bender Hamlet that started in l903 but only lasted twenty years. The hamlet was way beyond the other frontier settlements, and the land was ill-chosen and full of stones, and when the railway bypassed it by that was the coup de grace. Many of the daughters of the farmers married local, non Jewish families. Young men came to court them, sitting shyly in the livingroom without talking while their respective parents negotiated which daughter they could marry. There were so few marriage prospects for young men and women in the area in those days that the luxury of falling in love didn’t exist.
Sifton has one of the few rural Russian Orthodox churches in the province, the first one we had seen, the Church of the Holy Resurrection, built in l912. Its lines are otlychnaya but it is virtually abandoned and is on its last legs, although it could still be salvaged. It has verticality and horizontality : a big fat squat dome and in front a tall belltower above the choir gallery, which draws your eyes upward. But it is in dire need of help. It is a dead church in a dying town, but Ed is bound and determined to save it, because it is architecturally unique in Manitoba. Two old gals and a man come to let us in, Mary Babee and her brother Sargie Katchur and Sargie’s wife Stella. The inside is still beautiful. “I don’t know why it is Russian Orthodox,” Stella tells us. “The Father did throw in some Russian words that were hard to understand. We all know there is one god but you know people. This one belongs here that there. Nothing is happening any more, no more services. The last service was couple of years ago.” “
“It used to be nice town,” Sargie tells us. “It had a flour mill, a woolen mill, an elevator, and and five stores, but they tore up the tracks last year. Now there are only two hundred people in town, and 2000 in the Rural Municipality. Some Ukrainians like Russian Orthodox [mostly eastern Ukrainians]. This church was Russian Orthodox because they couldn’t get a Ukrainian priest for a while. The services went on for two hours, sometimes more. That’s Russian too. There was a monastery on the edge of town, but it burned. Sifton used to be a booming town. Now there’s nothing left. We don’t even have a post office any more. We get our mail at the town’s last store.” Across the street is a long-haired guy who deals in scrap metal. He lives in a trailer and works in a large hangar and there is salvage junk all over the place. Down at the corner trees are growing through a once-beautiful house.
“This reminds me of Poplarfield, my hometown,” Ed says. “There used to be three garage, four stores, three halls, two schools, and two churches. Now it’s down to a corner store/gas station/post office. Everything is getting centralized to big towns like Dauphin. This is good economics, according to Van Thunen’s central-place theory.”
“He’s a fast writer and he’s writing with the left hand yet,” says Mary, watching me scribble notes in my little Red Chinese notebook. “The younger generation has gone mostly to Winnipeg. It’s just that all the cement is all cracked and we’re scared that the whole thing is going to flip.”
The problem with this church is that even if you could mobilize the community and raise the money to restore it, what are you going to do about the rest of the town ? So the prognosis for the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church is not good. On the way out of town there is a plaque where the Holy Ascension monastery, nunnery, and orphange, built in l905, had been. It burned in l926, was rebuilt, closed in l990 and demolished in l997.
We drive back down to Dauphin and have lunch at Tony and Linda Zamryut’s Ukrainian family restaurant, on 119 Main Street. It’s a big place, but it being Thanksgiving Day, we are the only customers. “The local people don’t come,” Linda, a handsome blonde woman in her forties, tells us. “They’re jealous. ‘Why didn’t I think of that ?’ ‘The last thing I’ll ever do is eat there,’ I overheard a woman at the A & W say. ‘Why should I go out and eat the same thing I eat at home ?” I thank God that he sent me my tourists. During the Ukrainian National Festival we get hundreds of them. [There are postcards from her customers all over the walls, and a log book that she has us sign.] I’m going to put a big globe in here and stick pins in it where all my customers are from. We’ve been in business for eleven years, and we still can’t afford staff. I braid all the bread myself, and at Easter we make our own pascha and kulich,” which my grandmother used to serve at Easter and one of the vestiges of the Old Country that I really miss.
“Ukrainians can be very competitive, and often they don’t like people doing better than them,” Ed explains. “It makes them look bad. It was the same thing with Poplarfield, which physically split into two towns when the second generation started establishing businesses. They weren’t welcomed by the original business owners so they set up their business half a mile away, which was more strategically located to the highway, and the old town petered away. The Ukrainians of Dauphin are among richest but I’m told by some of the area residents that they are as tight as Scots.”
I tell Linda that the woman at the Super Eight, whom we asked where we could find some real Ukrainian food, had recommended her restaurant but said she had heard it was closing down. “Do I need these rumors ?” Linda says. “I’m not going to close my doors. I’m just too stubborn. They’re not going to drive me out of town, even if I have to struggle another fifteen years to show them that I can make it.” Shelly is not from Dauphin. She comes from Pine River, sixty miles to the north. Maybe that’s probably part of the problem. She is the only one of thirty-three grandchildren to stake out roots locally. The others have all gone elsewhere. The picture window in the front of the restaurant is cracked, like the windows of several other establishments on Main Street. The others are vandalism, Linda tells us, but her crack is due to the old building, which was built in l912, shifting.
I am reminded of my own hamlet in the Adirondacks, where there was only one restaurant that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but then Shelly, a local woman opened up another one, and she was completely shunned. Nobody came, and the restaurant folded after a couple of months. Ed says that one of his brothers is still in Poplarfield. He has a successful business as an outfitter bringing in Europeans and mostly American hunters to blast away at the deer, moose, bear, and ducks and has his own hotel, and the locals, particularly those on welfare, are always badmouthing him.
“Borscht gatova,” Linda says, bringing on steaming tourines of blended beet soup pinkened by sour cream, and following it with buckwheat holoptsi and kasha. (Wouldn’t it be gatov, borscht presumably being masculine ?)
“Boy was she venting,” Natasha says as we head east and cross the Lake Manitoba narrows to the interlake region. We pass a place called Reykjavik, where there was a big Icelandic settlement, but the lakes are pretty much fished out; the fishing industry is only a fraction of what it once was. The large fish peculiar to Lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg, the Winnipeg goldeneye (which has lent its name to Winnipeg’s AAA baseball team) is no longer abundant enough to sustain a fishery, and the Icelanders are long gone. We drive through Lundar, another Icelandic settlement, which is almost in the Red River Valley, which is one of the flattest places on earth, with a gradient of only two inches per mile. The land in northern Manitoba is slowly rising, so in a few thousand years the Red River will reverse its flow and head south to the Mississippi instead of north to Hudson Bay. One field is filled with blue plastic beehives where leafcutter bees are raised to pollinate the crops. We pass the shore of Lake Manitoba, which is being slapped by wind-whipped whitecaps. Manitoba means the voice of Manitou, the Great Spirit of the Ojibwa, which can be heard in the crashing waves along the shoreline at the Narrows. The Narrows is a sacred native site, and at the nearby “Thunderbird Nest” site, Ojibwa ceremonies are still regularly conducted. Ten minutes past Lundar is St. Laurent, an old Métis. When Manitoba became a province in l870 half the population was French-speaking Métis, or “country-born” English, both the progeny of fur traders. The Red River is really loopy. In flood it spills out for miles. By nightfall we reach Winnipeg. Natasha, who was a little under the weather at the start of the trip, is now running a fever and coughing violently. Ed goes home, and we stay with Russian friends of Natasha who are taking care of an old Russian Orthodox Church in town. (The upscale tourist would want to stay at the Fort Garry, another of Canada-Pacific’s chateau-style hotels.)
Winnipeg is a pleasant burg, with elm-lined residential streets and an up-to-date, snazzy downtown, and quite a lot going on in the arts. It prospered from grain and the railroad and in its heyday was often described as the Chicago of the North. Our hosts’ church was the Russian Greek Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral, although it was more like a small prairie church. It had a separate little belltower and both were, unfortunately, stuccoed over. But the domes were pristine. Inside was nice, the décor more urban and less distinctive than the folkloric interiors of the prairie churches.
The batyushka was a young Ukrainian named Anatoli Melnikov (Miller. We have some in our family). Shoumatoff. Interesting name, he said. Shum is noise in Russian. In Romanian shuma is a forest. What’s the derivation ? It’s completely made up, I told him. During the First World War my grandfather, Leo Arkadeyevitch Schumacher Russified his name because it wasn’t a good idea to have a German name. The Schumachers were totally Russian—Baltic Germans who had been brought in by Peter the Great to run the tsarist bureaucracy. Later it was Frenchified : the ou and the ff ending are French affectations.
Father Anatoli said that Peter the Great was the first tsar to do away with the traditional freestanding belltower (which in Ukraine doubled as a watchtower against the Tatars) building in 1701, at the Petropavlosky Sabor fortress outside St. Petersburg the first cathedral with the bells in a separate spire that soared above the choir gallery. In Novgorod, one of the earliest Russian cities, the bells were kept outside in a line hanging from posts and were sheltered by a little roof. He compared the dome and the high belltower to a two-masted ship.
The church had thirty-five members, but fifteen families had recently come over so there was new blood as the old blood was dying. Father Anatoli gave us a useful tutorial on the Byantine politics of the Russian Orthodox Church, supplementing the one we had gotten on Ukrainian Orthodox politics from Father Joseph in Yorkton. There are three main factions : The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, whose patriarch is Theodore Herman in Philadelphia. Practically all of its members have died out. Another group recognizes Patriarch Vitali, whose synod is in New York, on East 74th Street. The third, the Moscow Jurisdiction, recognizes Patriarch Alexis. All the Greek Orthodox, in Greece, the United States, Canada, and everywhere else recognize Patriarch Bartholomew. Then there are, as we knew, Patriarch Filatel in Kiev, and there is a big plot in Lviv over to remove Patiarch Demetrius, who his critics asserts has gone nuts. I learned a new thing : if you join a church as an adult, you are crismated, not baptized.
This is church was OCA, Orthodox Church of America, which was part of the Russian metropole (i.e. the Moscow jurisdiction) until l970. The Russia Orthodox Church Outside Russia is an offshoot of the OCA. It started in Europe, where it was known until the Second World War as the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile or the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. “The Russian Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox are the same,” Father Anatoli explained. “Some churches are canonical, others are non-canonical. In the world there are 15 national canonical ones. All of the non-canonical groups are separating like protestants. 7 ecumenical councils have been deciding since 787 who is Orthodox. The OCA took canonical status from Moscow, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada took canonical status from Bartholomew ten years ago. I came from the Alexis branch of Ukrainian Orthodox. Filaret and Demetrius are non-canonical, and the OCA would never take a priest from them.” Father Anatoli knew about the khlysti. “Rasputin has supporters,” he told us. “Some want to canonize him. Others say he’s a devil. Our church was established with the tsars and the New York Orthodox Mission. The Russian Orthodox Church in Exile (or Abroad) was canonical but separate politically. It said we must war against the USSR, who killed lots of hierarchs and priests. There were 150 orthodox bishops in Russia. By World War II all but three had been killed or exiled. New bishops were ordained and killed, 400 were killed and replaced, and the same think happened to the thousands and thousands of small priests and maybe twenty thousand monks who existed in 1914. The KGB made the priests report confessions and went through the baptismal registers and wrote ‘wolf tickets’ for their members so they would never be able to work in their profession.”
This was the North End of Winnipeg, the old Ukrainian and Polish Jewish district. Down the street was a poster : REELECT LAZARENKO IN MYNARSKI WARD. But the Jews had moved out, and now it’s natives, Vietnamese boat people, and Filipinos. A few blocks away was the Ukrainian Labor Temple, where a big general strike of disgruntled workers and soldiers who had come home from the war and couldn’t find work was organized in 1919, around the same time as the Wobblies had their strike in Bisbee, Arizona. Immigrant Ukrainians were blamed. A small percent of them were socialists, but the whole ethnic group took heat. During World War One many Ukrainian immigrants, whose political leanings were suspects, were arrested as “enemy aliens” and placed in internment for the course of the war, much like the Japanese were during World War II in the United States and Canada. (In Mistassini, a Cree Indian community fourteen hours by car north of Montreal, I met a couple of years ago the three-quarters Cree grandson of a Russian who escaped from one of these camps.) Ed’s maternal grandfather escaped internment because he was a carpenter and was considered useful, but he had to seek out and produce his “identification papers” at the local constabulary every time he traveled before departing and upon arrival.
Past a Sturgeon Tire outlet, we hit a native skid row, where a Métis who was not looking so good was standing with a young woman you wanted to think was his wife, not his daughter.
Natasha took the day off and stayed in bed, and Ed and I drove south of Winnipeg through a French-Canadian square of the province’s multiethnic quilt. When Manitoba became a province part of the deal was that French would have same standing. Bishop Taché promoted a big migration here from Quebec in the 1870s.. Others, in search of work, went to the New England milltowns, like Jack Kerouac’s father, and some of these later came to Manitoba, or they went to Los Angeles, like Nicole Simpsons’s family. In St. Pierre there was a Redemptorist Convent of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, a grand, solid four-story brick building with dormers in its Mansard roof, shingled with wood aged to look like slate, surmounted by a full bell tower. It was like the monumental buildings that house various dying out orders like the Salpetians in Montreal which are being condominiumized right and left. Such religious structures prominently situation in the town center are characteristic on the French communities in Manitoba.
“When there are more than two groups, tensions like the Francophone-Anglophone one in Montreal diffuse,” Ed Led said. “Here there’s always been a real mix. You don’t get one group trying to force the other to integrate, and the various ethnic groups really do get along with each other. The French care passionately about preserving their language, but unfortunately not quite so much about their buildings.”
Below the French square was a Mennonite one, in and around Steinbach where the Times article interviewed a family who had just come from Kazakhstan. There are several varieties of Mennonite, too. The main division is the drinkers and the nondrinkers. They started coming to Manitoba in l875, a year after the Icelanders, and showed that not only could you survive on the treeless open prairie, it was emininently farmable. Just turn over the sod, and things start to grow. The early Anglo settlers thought it impossible to survive a Canadian prairie winter without direct access to the woodlands and a source of flowing water—until the Mennonites showed them otherwise. The most famous Mennonite in the New World is Minnesota’s late Lawrence Welk. Some Mennonites went down to Chihuahua in the twenties; I have a description of them in Legends of the American Desert. Some of their descendants became dope growers, Mexican law enforcement being less conscientious about the eradication of estupefacientes than across the border. Some are coming back up because of crime, poverty and crop failure. During the first years after settlement, the Mennonites burned bricks from a concoctions of cow paddy and straw, Ed told me. Mestsodden in low German. The typical Mennonite community on the northern plains is a dozen or so almost identical-looking farmhouses with long connecting barns arranged in a perfect row along a street or two sheltered by cottonwoods. The Mennonites were allowed to consolidate and re-survey their homesteads into their traditional strip-fields, so that each family could be allotted the same amount of good land and bad.
“So tell me Ed,” I asked as we headed back up to Winnipeg, “How are you going to keep these churches going ?”
“Tourism is key,” he said. “We could arrange to have the churches open every weekend in August, take buses of people around to see them, like I used to do. But in another ten years the local people will be too old to open doors and cook food, and you’d miss out on the full experience that you can still get now if the people are not there to great and talk to you.” To our left the prairie gave way to the forested eastern uplands which are the foothills of the Canadian Shield. The cropland became dense, scrubby bush. There was a nice little Ukrainian Catholic church at Rosa, on the left. We headed down toward Minnesota, where there is nice loop of Ukrainian churches : from Senkiw to Planky Plains, Stuartburn, Tolstoi, Gardenton, Lukowce, Arbakka, Somme, Sirko, and back up to Sundown, Caliento, Sopiwnyky, and Zhoda. We didn’t see them all. It would take a full day to see all the churches in this area alone.
Tolstoi was all boarded up. There were two churches. One had a good interior but the outside was plastic, much to Ed’s chagrin. East to Gardenton, past a tall grass prairie preserve, one of the few pieces of the original vegetation left. At this time of year, it didn’t look much different from let-go cropland. In Gardenton we checked out the old St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, built in l899 and a national historic site. When the railroad came to Gardenton, the parishioners built a new St. Michael’s on the townsite. There was a small Ukrainian festival grounds with a whitewashed, thatched khata and a modest museum that Ed said had some really good stuff. Arbakka was an Icelandic name. The settlers didn’t like the land and moved on, but their name survives. had a Russian Orthodox St. Peter and Paul’s Chapel, built in l917. Like the Holy Resurrection Church in Sifton, its bells were inside, but in a tower that was lower that the dome. A sandhill crane flew up from a slough. Sirko is a mile from the U.S. border and is the southwesternmost Ukrainian settlement in Manitoba. It has the St. Elias Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church, built in l901. It is the oldest oval log church in the province. Its belltower had not been sided and its expertly dovetailed logs were still exposed. A new St. Elias was built in l950 next to it and was stuccoed over.
Audrey Dowd, the woman who showed us around, invited us back to her place for coffee and pie. “Nobody’s left here,” she told us. “Just my mom, who’s eighty-three, and us. We only have thirteen members, but we still have a regular monthly service. Last Sunday seventy-five people came to the Sunday service. The priest was so happy.
Twelve big families of Belorussians have moved into town in the last few years. Some are Russian, some German. They’re Seventh Day Adventists, not that that matters, but nobody wants them here. They’re gardening a few acres and not integrating. Like the Hutterites during their early years in Manitoba, they don’t buy at store, and they give the impression they’re not trustworthy. They offered my husband one fifth of what it is worth for his tractor.” Belorussians, like other people who lived through the deprivation of the communist years, have the attitude whatever is left better take it now before someone else does, Ed said in their defense.
Some Ukrainians spilled over the border by accident to Caribou, Minnesota, which was only a mile away, Audrey told us. It’s all bush and swamps and the border wasn’t clearly marked. They thought they were in Canada. Two of my dad’s sisters crossed the line and married people from over there, but now there is a post every four feet along the border. You have to drive forty miles to the nearest border crossing to get to Caribou, and it wouldn’t be worth your while because the people over there lost their culture. This summer, because of the 9/11 attack, three helicopters a day were patrolling the border. When I was a kid we used to go over into Minnesota to pick mushrooms [a very serious Slavic pastime] : smuzhi [morels] in the spring, big pipenki [brown with a skirt, probably honey mushrooms] and clusters of white hubeli which look like lips.”
Natasha and I were hoping to persuade Ed to come to North Dakota with us and meet his counterpart there, Dale Bentley. Frank, Ed, and Dale had never met or communicated, so the transborder aspect of the Kaplan program is still in the everyone-is-doing-his own thing stage. But Ed needed authorization to cross even a provincial border on official business, and he was coming down with a cold, too, plus he didn’t want to miss his curling night, and he is very serious about his curling. Manitoba is the curling capital of the world. There are more curlers per capita, as well as plaques, than anywhere else. So we said goodbye and headed down to the border on Route 75.
3. NORTH DAKOTA
We rendezvoused with Dale Bentley at the welcome center in Pembina, right over the border. Dale is a very big guy, over three hundred. He has a long Fu Manchu beard and a resonant, theatrically trained voice and is twenty years younger than Ed and Frank. Cold does not affect him. He spent the next two days in short sleeves, unphased by biting winds with below-zero chill factors. Dale had driven up from his home in Buffalo, west of Fargo, four hours to the south, in his car “Dimples,” so named because the roof and hood had received multiple dents from a hailstorm last spring. So we drove around in two cars, and didn’t get to know him as well as Frank and Ed, but he too is a passionately dedicated preservationist, and just about the only person in North Dakota who is fighting to save its prairie churches, which the National Trust For Historic Preservations included on its eleventh-most endangered list for 2001. The list calls attention to endangered architectural heritage across the. It was the first-ever listing for North Dakota.
Dale came from a town in Minnesota “whose historic church was taken down and replaced with a one-level modern structure devoice of any architectural details,” he explained, “which is partly why I got into it. Religious architecture to me symbolizes being somewhere that allows you to put the rest of your life into perspective, and not necessarily in only religious ways, either,” Dale added. “Since beginning the Prairie Churches Project, I spend more time in church than anyone I know.” He spends hours and days on the road. The distances in North Dakota are tremendous. I suggested he get an ultralight plane. There is certainly no shortage of places to land, and a big guy dropping out of the sky would make quite an impression and would alert people to his mission. Dale was mildly amused. He became Preservation North Dakota’s Executive Director and only staff member last March. He is pretty much a one-man show, with a few influential friends. The organization is eleven years old and its sole focus is to identify, preserve, restore, and re-use historic rural churches across the state, although it does help promote all kinds of preservation projects across the state, and other initiatives like the National Trust’s “Barn Again” program.
Here we were in one of the most remote corners in the U.S.A., northernmost dead center, but even here it was immediately apparent that we had entered “the greatest country in the world,” as President Bush likes to call it. The welcome center had been done with the kind of money that doesn’t exist in Canada for such things. It had a very nice little interpretive museum for being in the middle of nowhere, including some beautiful Mandan artifacts. The gift shop sold hand-painted eggs, or pysanki, made by old Ukrainian women in the western part of the state, where the culture is still strong. Each egg takes 42 hours to paint. It is a delicate and painstaking process. Wax is carefully dripped on the section you have painted, then you move on to the next one. In the U.S. the process of historification and ersatzification, commercialization for the tourist trade, is more advanced. The past is more in the past.
Melissa Grafe, the curator of the museum, was twenty-three and from Pennsylvania and just out of college. This was her first post in the “real world,” and she was already able to give an informative overview of Pembina County’s history. She came with us to look at St. John’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church on the other side of town, one of only a few domed Ukrainian prairie churches in the state. Most of them are Lutheran or Roman Catholic or Moravian or Methodist or other Protestant Icelandic, Swedish, or Norwegian white clapboard churches with spires. Pembina, the Chippewa word for highbush cranberry (Aneteminan sipi), is at the meeting of the Red and the Pembina rivers. It was an important tradepost when Métis voyageur paddled canoes laden with furs, bison hide, and pemmican down to St. Paul, and in the l997 flood of the Red River, a huge volume of water was discharged, turning the town into an island. St. John’s was between an outer levee and the one surrounding the town, and it was flooded up to its windows. The walls were soaked, and the foundation was desolidified. The church was started by Lutheran Icelanders in l885 who in l937 sold it to Ukrainians who put on the dome. A second dome was added in l956. Melissa had the tabernacle in her office for safekeeping. Preservation North Dakota has offered to assist with a three-four thousand-dollar grant to help restore it and raise it as unobtrusively as possible at least fifty-eight inches so it wouldn’t be flooded again during the next catastrophic flood. The congregation, even though it was down to five members, was matching it. “Our grants are grassroots seed money,” explained Dale. “They get things going, serve as a spark. I guess you could say I’m kind of the Johnny Appleseed of rural preservation.” If it wasn’t for Preservation North Dakota, and Kaplan’s help, most of the endangered churches wouldn’t have a prayer, because the state is reluctant to get involved if it’s an active church, due to the church-and-state thing, and if it isn’t, there is no one to match PND’s grant, so it is really up a creek. The other problem is that the Catholic churches are torn down once the membership is less than twenty-five. The diocese tried to shut down the little Catholic church in our town in the Adirondacks and transfer our priest to another, larger parish (The RC’s have been losing a lot of their priests these days, and there are more churches than priests for them), but the citizens got up a petition and persuaded it otherwise. “Congregations can’t always afford to get priests in, and when they can, the ones they do get are usually not prepared for the issued that face small congregations in rural North Dakota,” Dale went on. “It’s almost as if North Dakota needs to be a place for mission work like Africa. Religion and the rural way of life are both dying, and they need to be reinvented.”
Compared to what we had been seeing, St. John’s was nothing special. At best, a preyatnaya. And the other ethnic groups churches were your basic American simple, solid, white clapboard country church with Gothic windows, no different from the three in my little hamlet, which were built half a century earlier and when I got home and took a new look at them, are actually nicer. What’s special is the grit and faith of the settlers who came and built them, and the dedication of people like Dale. But heritages shouldn’t be compared. Each should be treasured for what it is. Neverthless, this makes Dale’s job an even lonelier one. I don’t see a lot of tourist potential in these churches, or in much of anything else in the northeastern corner of North Dakota, which is the richest part of the state, except for the Pembina Gorge, which is quite spectacular, especially when the fall migration is passing through.
Since this was the only part that we were going to visit, Dale showed us some pictures of churches and homesteads elsewhere in the state that we were going to be missing. Two had been struck by lightning. Their steeples make them sitting ducks. There is a school of thought that lightning rods actually increase the odds of being struck. Some of the churches had no town any more and were derelict. The last two institutions to go are the bar and the church. Four hundred of the two thousand churches in the state and counting are vacant. Some are only accessible by four-wheel-drive. A few are stone, one way down south is sod.
To Icelandic State Park, which has a little architectural petting zoo of the Icelandic immigrant buildings, but a very nice one. There was a beautiful reconstruction of a dovetailed log homestead. Henry Duray, the ranger who showed us around, was from Warsaw, North Dakota and of Polish descent. He told us that the founder of the Icelandic colony, Gunlogson, had an interesting quote on a community’s heritage : “You can let it be forgotten, or you can let it live to inspire future generations.” Henry went on to say, “There were a hundred and six one-room school in Pembina County. None is being used. Now the churches will be going down one the other, like the Last of the Mohicans.”
Dale explained that “North Dakotans have been through hard times and they’re notoriously tight-fisted. If they contribute money, they don’t usually want anyone to know about it. We have been told that the best place to hit them up is when they are overwintering snowbirds in Arizona. They seem to lose some of their thriftiness when they get down south. But North Dakotans are also very active in the community. More has been accomplished by volunteers in this state than almost anywhere else in the country.” In l998 a hundred volunteers spent well over 13,000 documented hours touring the state and inventorying its churches. “To our knowledge, this is the largest volunteer architectural survey ever taken,” Dale said.
We passed big breadloaf haystacks and in the distance a large top-secret government radar station. Until a few years ago, North Dakota was the world’s third-largest nuclear power.
The Vikur Lutheran Church, in Mountain, is the oldest Icelandic Lutheran Church in the country. It was erected in l884. The interior was simple and austere, instead of an iconostasis there was a pump organ. There are seven Icelandic churches in the county, five of them in this parish. Then we traveled a few miles south to the Gardar Pioneer Church, another Icelandic temple. It is located only a few hundred feet from the city limits of Gardar, but is known locally as the “country” church. (In the early years a disagreement within the congregation caused a new “city” church to be built only a few “blocks” away.)
Here we met Sir Magnus Olafson, a delightful eighty-two year-old, who was awarded the Knights’ Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon, the highest honor Iceland gives to those who are working to preserve it heritage, by the president of Iceland in l999. Sir Magnus was born on a farm a mile away and now lives in Edinburgh, six miles away. It was refreshing to meet a knight whose knighthood had not gone to his head and who had remained completely down-to-earth. “Weather and the economic situation” were the main push factors in Iceland, he told us. “There was a major volcanic eruption that covered much of the grazing areas inches deep in ash, in addition too which white arctic ice drifted down and closed off the fjords. There was no more land, it was all subdivided, so people were starving. There was a movement to go to Brazil, but the Portuguese government was slow in providing the assistance they promised, so they came here.
“The big migration,” Sir Magnus continued, “started in 1870 with four young men who came to Milwaukee. They wrote back about the opportunities, and in 1872 fifteen more people, including the first young lady, came. In l873 they were followed by 165 people, including my grandparents. My father was born that year on the train from Quebec to Milwaukee, just as it was approaching Coburg, Ontario.” Unlike the Ukrainians, the Icelandic immigrants had hundred-percent literary and brought thousands of books. “I was born in l920 on Father’s homestead a mile away. I’ve been cash-renting the land for many years, during which I was the office boy for my neighbors, who are big potato farmers. In 1879-80 lots of Icelanders flocked here from Gimli, north of Winnipeg, where there was lots of smallpox and pestilence, and others came from Minnesota where there were lots of grasshoppers. When they came here the grass in the Red River Valley was as high as a person. The soil here is dry and good and easy for breaking. There are rocks but they were used to that in Iceland. They did well to move. During World War II a lot moved to Seattle to work in defense plants and didn’t come back. Now lots of that generation are coming home for their final resting place in cemetery here, which I’ve had the privilege of looking for the last fifteen years.
“The Myrdals, Rosemarie’s boys (she is a former lieutenant governor and a great friend of the preservation effort, whom we were about to meet) farm most of the land here. There are only three farmers, let’s say, four families in the whole of Gardar Township. There used to used to be a house every quarter-section. Some worked only 40 acres. At the highest point of population, in 1900, there were 770 people, now there are only six or seven on the townsite.
Sir Magnus accompanied us to Thingvalla Church, in what used to be known as Eyeford, N.D. Built in l889, it is the only building that remains. Here we met a local farmer/rancher named Curtis Olafson/ “My grandma played this old pump organ for 70-some years,” Curtis told us. She played from the age of fourteen into her 80s. She was born in 1854, grandfather in l861. Father was born in l898 and had me in 1952, so I’m third generation here. The biggest challenge we face in preserving these churches is the decline in rural population that has been going on since the 20s. The next township has 36 square miles, but in five years only one farming operation will be left. Now people buying land as investment and renting it out for forty dollars an acre. The taxes on a quarter are $600. People are buying them for summer vacation places or hunting camps and are only contributing to the local economy for two weeks of the year. The culture of the Old Country limited the role women to cooking and having children. Now they’re more educated and have career aspirations and want cultural and shopping opportunities that don’t exist here [Curtis himself was divorced. Knowing of other cases of women who didn’t want to be kept down on the farm or the ranch, I wondered if this had been a factor.] The nearest city is Grand Forks, one and half hours away. The schools and townships are being consolidated, just as in Iceland, where rural kids go live with relatives and get their schooling in Reykjavic. In North Dakota we have open enrollment, and home schooling increasing. The kids are very educated and their work ethic is instilled and they are getting better job offers from other places, so not many are returning. Our farm was homesteaded 1883. I was hoping my nineteen-year-old son would come back and farm it until we went to Iceland last year and saw my grandfather’s farm. It was picture-postcard, on a hill, and had been in in the family many generations, yet there came a time when they were forced to leave to seek better life elsewhere and they ended up here in North Dakota. The young people here are faced with the same choice. History is repeating itself, but for different reasons. That trip put it into perspective. Now I’m not that adamant that he has to come back and farm.”
“Because people are living and working long, you almost have to skip a generation to be able to pass on the family farm here,” Dale observed. Curtis has a diversified operation : 4000 acres of tillable land, 500-600 head of beef cattle that he inseminates artificially, using planned matings off a computer. “A guy visiting from Iceland asked with disgust, ‘Don’t you let the bull do anything ?,” Curtis said. “I have lots of irons in the fire. I just wish they’d get hot all the same time.”
Thingvalla is the valley of the Parliament, the world’s oldest, established in 930, seventy years before Christianity came to Iceland. “We have four services a summer here,” Curtis went on. “The cemetery-owners association owns the building and maintains it. The congregation is the same people, but a different legal entity, and it was legally disbanded in l984 when it became part of a six-point parish. It was difficult to attract a pastor. Who would want to deal with six different congregations ? So five of them disbanded and a new corporation formed all under one church council, which made decision-making very easy, instead of impossible. In the unified congregation there are baptised members, about 200 of whom are active.”
“In the old days,” Sir Magnus said, “if Curtis and I had had a falling out, one of us would have gone off and built his own church.”
“Kaplan saved the roof,” Dale told us. “They’re our guardian angel. Without their help we’d be sputtering along. They gave us the means to get the Prairie Churches Project off the ground and running. The rural churches have a history of great hardship in the grandparents’s generation and parents hardened by the Depression and very frugal and protective and not open to change. It is increasingly important that we preserved some of this rural heritage, before it is all gone. Each generation is becoming less connected to its roots, and fewer people are doing fewer things that are more expensive than ever before. But consequently descendants who are making 50-80-100 grand are slowly coming back and seeing how much their grandparents, who couldn’t rub two cents together, did and are rethinking their values.”
In Edinburgh, we met Rosemarie Myrdal, one of Preservation North Dakota’s most dynamic and connected board members, who cares deeply about the welfare of North Dakota and its architectural heritage. She was very anxious to promote tourism.
“Tourism is the number-two industry in the state,” she told us. “People are coming to the state for heritage tourism, enjoying their tours of the different ethnic pockets.” Most of them admittedly are the descendants of North Dakotana who have come back to see how their ancestors lived. Besides the Scandinavian areas, there are Mennonite and native American reservations, Oglala Sioux and Mandan, and in Fargo there was an Orthodox Jewish colony about which a book called And Prairie Dogs Went Kosher : Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest has been written. She took us to the country store in Gardar which was all stocked for tourists, but a little to Norman Rockwelly and ersatz for my liking. I wandered the aisles in search of something to buy, to make a small gesture of contributing to the local economy, something genuinely North Dakotan, like the pysanki in Pembina. But it was all made-for-the-trade stuff. At last my fancy was caught by a hoaky little ceramic figurine of a frog in shades sitting in a deck chair with a case of Bud beside him. I collect frogs, “the batrachian.” The prize frog in my modest collection is a pre-Columbian frog king from the Amazon, who stands three inches high. (See the piece on the Amazon women in the Past Dispatches. But then I thought, it has become our national patriotic duty to keep buying stuff. We must consume to help the economy, or the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. But this only encourages the production of more of it. I don’t need this frog. I have everything I need, more than I need. I’m deaccessioning, not acquiring, and it the house of cards comes tumbling down, that might not be such a bad thing. I hate to see places and cultures, lose their character and become ersatsified. North Dakota, it seems, was in the early ersatzification stage, still harmless, but a trend I did not want to support. So I left it there, wondering if I had done the right thing.
Near Luvergne, we stopped at the derelect Lund Norwegian Church, built in l906. “We’re going to lose this one,” Dale said, which was too bad, because it had beautiful lines and motifs; it was the only otlychnaya I saw on our brief penetration of North Dakota. The front door was open and swinging, and coons had moved in. Someone had ripped out the banister to the choir gallery and was in the process of ripping out the wainscoting. But the structure was still salvageable. “The cemetery association doesn’t want to get involved,” Dale said sadly. “They joined with the church in town [this was the “pioneer church,” Dale explained. Later, a church in town was usually built], but it burned this past year, and they’re building a new, windless, eight-foot-ceilinged, low-to-the-ground, supposedly ‘maintenance-free’ building with artificial siding, rather than restoring this beautiful structure, and we offered a grant and architectural assitance to re-use the historic church, but they want a ‘no-maintenance,’ one-story place of worship. The Lund Church closed in the sixties and has had no maintenance for forty years. Structurally it’s still sound, but without anybody to take interest in it I’m afraid it’s a goner. Twenty percent of the churches in North Dakota are in this condition. In the southwestern part of the state, few are left at all.” I asked about the possibility of converting it to a private home, and Dale said there are a few examples of this happening in the state.
On to the Ladbury Church, listening to Rush Limbaugh berating Jimmy Carter for his smarmy liberalism and having the temerity to get the Nobel Peace Prize. A white pelican was sitting on a lake, indifferent to his apoplectic rantings. My theory about Rush is that he is a closet liberal and this will only come out after his death. The Union Congregational Church was built in l899 in the little town of Kensal, twenty miles away, where it was a originally a Methodist church, and in l926 was moved here on skids with a steam tractor, where services were held for the next ten years, then it was closed, except for the occasional funeral or picnic. It is a small, simple, basic rural church, the size of a one-room schoolhouse. George Amann, a local farmer of Polish and Swiss descent, came in a dumptruck and overalls and apologizing for his appearance, let us in. “This is our demonstration project,” Dale said. “The entire east wall of the basement had fallen in,” George told us. “When we began the project, there were only six people here that cared about this building, and we couldn’t afford to fix it, so with Preservation North Dakota’s assistance we put concrete piers in sixteen places to support the weight of the building. The new guy who had bought the gravel pit donated the gravel, and six volunteers spent fourteen hours a day hand-shoveling nine-and-a-half semi-loads into the basement to equalize the pressure on the remaining walls. Then we started on the rest of it. We didn’t know they had a bell until we rebuilt most of the steeple.” The original carbide light fixtures are still there. Through the window there were glimpses of endless, treeless prairie. “I want the things in this community saved,” George says. “I’m so tired of seeing North Dakota’s heritage pushed into a hole in the ground.” The entire cost of this massive restoration came in at just under sixty thousand dollars, with about $9200 cash being spent to leverage the remainder of donated time, materials, and talent.
“The first people here came in the 1870s and were all English,” George goes on. “The descendants of one family, the Keyneses, traced themselves back to England with the help of the Mormons all the way to 420 and found out that they were related to practically every royal family in Europe. To the west and the northwest there were Norwegians, to the north Danes, to the East Presbyterian Scots. My grandfather left Galicia, Poland, in 1893, and in l926 he came here from Germany. My mother’s side, the Kunzes, are Swiss and Ojibwa.” George himself was a German Roman Catholic, and he took us to his church, St. Mary’s, on a little forested island in a sea of sunflower, which had not been harvested. It looked just Poltava, where there was endless sunflower over your head when I last went there, around the same time of year. George said you can leave sunflowers standing through the winter and harvest the seeds in the spring. The church was Gothic, with Moorish and Spanish influences. The original architect had died in a car crash, and his son had taken over the project and changed things, adding elements from churches he admired in Mexico. It had sixty-seventy beautiful stainglass windows, and art decoish murals and stenciling that were done in the fifties. The congregation was about seventy-strong, and in September, seven hundred people came to the annual turkey and kraut banquet.
How are you going to preserve these churches ? I asked George, and he said, “First you got to get people to go to them. We had a Catholic Church that would have cost a million to renovate, instead they burned it and built a new one for the same price. You know how the new priests are. If you can get one.”
We went down to Buffalo and saw the little stone church that Dale and his friend Daryl, who is the president of the Buffalo Historical Society, renovated and turned into a museum with all kinds of fascinating stuff Dale had salvaged during his travels around the state. Then we said our goodbyes and headed back up to Winnipeg, a six-hour drive. We had been traveling for seven days. The whole trip was 3083 kilometers, almost exactly two thousand miles.
At the border the Immigration Canada officer queried us at length about what we had been doing in North Dakota, and I realized it was not to see if we were for real, but because the fate of the prairie churches was something that concerned him. “Who’s going to take care of these places ?” he finally asked, and waved us through.
So in my estimation, this is a brilliant, enlightened, and noble thing for the J.M.Kaplan Fund to be doing with its money.
The latest from Ed Ledohowski is that Dale Bentley has called him (none of the three preservationists even had each others’ numbers, so I performed this act of cross-pollinization in the interest of furthering transborder collaboration), and they’re going to get together soon.