The Ukrainian cemeteries found in out-of-the-way places in Western Canada provide a fascinating glimpse into Old World traditions.
JOSEPH MARTSINKIW WAS AN ENERGETIC man of many talents. He was a farmer, harvest-gang boss, telephone lineman, and carpenter. He built his own house and barn and the barns of neighbours. More than half a century on, the barns are abandoned. But you can still seem them around Donwell, the hamlet in east central Saskatchewan where he farmed, and they still stand straight and true.
Martsinkiw, our maternal grandfather, also built the cross that marks the grave where his teenage son was buried, and many more for other people in the district. His crosses and those fashioned by other Ukrainian-Canadians are found in countless rural cemeteries across the Prairies, some neatly tended and still in use, others all but forgotten or lost.
The burial grounds and little churches next to them are testaments to the faith of the settlers and their devotion to the ancient traditions they carried with them from eastern Europe. But as the parishes of an older farming generation pass away, so does the heritage they bestowed on Canada.
Some rural parishes remain healthy, if diminished, and their churches are restored and are kept in good shape by the members. But many more are going or gone.
In the estimation of Ottawa-based ethnologist and historian Jennie Dutchak, this is “a tremendous loss, a chapter of Canadian history wiped out.”
For Dutchak, the loss is personal. Her mother was on the parish executive for the small church where she was baptized near Buchanan, Saskatchewan, and she recalls seeing her father carrying the protocol books, one of which dated to the beginnings of the church in 1910. That memory led her to thirty years of writing and publishing on the subject of Ukrainian Prairie churches.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, thousands of immigrants poured into Western Canada following, and sometimes preceding, the railways that were being laid down at a furious pace to receive them. By the time the First World War stemmed the tide, more than a hundred thousand eastern Europeans had created a band of settlement that stretched from southeastern Manitoba to northwestern Alberta. They were mostly Galicians, Bukovinians, and Austro-Hungarians, names that designated where they came from. For most of them, their common language was Ukrainian, and this came to define them as an ethnicity before there was a state called Ukraine.
The settlers were devout followers of both
Caption Holy Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox Church near Maryville, Saskatchewan, in 2010.