Holy Ghost memories linger
Slovak Greek church comes tumbling down on Golden Boulevard
A one-time city landmark has been turned into rubble.
For more than 50 years Holy Ghost Slovak Greek Catholic church and hall on Golden Boulevard West figured prominently in the city’s spiritual, ethnic and social life.
It was a place of worship and culture for the city’s Slovak community from the mid-1950s to “about 10 or 15 years ago,” said Rose Dzugan whose family lived on Lyons Avenue, a block away. On days when the breeze was just right, she might catch a whiff of breaded chicken and cabbage rolls being prepared for a wedding reception in the spacious hall.
But its popularity wasn’t limited to the local Slovaks, said Dzugan.
The hall was a venue of choice for bingo, back in the day when Welland could lay claim to being the province’s bingo hot spot. It was a favourite location for wedding receptions, stags, showers, dances and more, she said.
A booklet published for the 25th anniversary provides some information about its history. It said the parish “is originally dated from the 1st of June 1952 when suitable property for the future actions was acquired and the first shovel of earth was lifted by Rev. Nicholas Chanat on 4th July, 1954.”
The booklet has a small collection of photographs including religious services and cultural events. But it has many advertisements from businesses, among others, extending best wishes on the 25th anniversary. One of those was a full-page advertisement from a distinguished Slovak-Canadian, the late Stephen B. Roman, president of Denison Mines Ltd.
William H. Lewis, the late Welland historian, allocated several pages of ink to Welland’s ethnic communities in Volume 3 of his trilogy, “A History of the City of Welland.” Although there is a discrepancy in dates, this is an excerpt of what Lewis wrote pertaining to the new Slovak church: “In 1954, some 60 families in Welland’s Slovak community played a major role in the formation of a new parish for local Slovak Greek Catholics. In August of that year, Rev. Nicholas Chanat celebrated the congregation’s first Mass in the Slovak Hall (Hagar Street). On July 5, 1955, sod-turning ceremonies took place on Golden Boulevard for their new spiritual home, Holy Ghost Greek Catholic Church.”
Rose Dzugan’s memories are rich and crystal clear.
“I remember two things about it: It was the religious centre for us. We attended weekly mass and the other celebrations like Christmas and Easter and I still marvel at some of the rituals they brought from Slovakia with them. And second, it was the social hub for most of our activities like weddings, showers and dances. The people were close knit, there was always a family atmosphere.”
Dzugan recalled she and another young Slovak girl would set tables for as many as 600 guests at functions like weddings.
“Huge weddings were being held there,” she recalled.
She found it amazing that older Slovak women who staffed the kitchen “knew how to calculate right to the last chicken thigh how much was needed for 600 guests.”
Stanley Szymkow, a Welland-born saxophone player with a large following, played at wedding receptions and dances in the church hall.
“The crowds were always big,” recalled Szymkow, who played with the Nu-Tones, a local band that is still together, and also the Nationals.
“I played my first gig there around 1970, 1971. What a place it was back then. I remember the late Bill Nitransky from Central Music asking us to play a tango at this wedding and giving us a $20 tip. That was a lot of money back then.”
Mark Dzugan, Rose’s brother, cherishes ties that go back to elementary school days. He was an altar boy from his Grade 3 year, but also started working at bingo about the same time.
The church-sponsored bingo was held weekly on Monday nights. Dzugan said the building’s three floors were turned over to bingo on those nights. Hundreds of people would attend.
“Buses came from everywhere, even New York state. It took us from Tuesday to Saturday to clear out the smoke for mass on Sunday.”
But it was worthwhile because it was lucrative. Eventually, the banquet business went south as new halls started opening and people showed a preference for hosting their wedding receptions and other events there, rather than a basement hall, said Dzugan.
“I get that. That’s how things go. But thankfully the bingos made money for the church, that’s what sustained us.”
As did Rose, Mark Dzugan said the Slovaks who immersed themselves in the hall devoted “a labour of love” to all that they did. Women who cooked also helped carry heavy plates of food from the kitchen area to the banquet hall, which was no small chore for some of them.
“They did it because they were doing it for the church,” he said.
Dzugan watched as the wrecking crew razed the building that was a big part of so many lives over so many years. It was painful to do so.
“It really affected me,” he said. “It (the church and hall) meant kind of everything to me, to us. But then things started dwindling down and people were passing away and sooner or later, this is what happens.”
The loss of bricks and mortar is one thing, but the loss of memories, of traditions, of customs, of history, of heritage, well that’s something else altogether. These are irreplaceable and, once again, our community is diminished because of it.
A ghost of the past, this old Coke cooler stands in the rubble of Holy Ghost Church hall, Golden Boulevard West, in Welland. The landmark building has been demolished. The hall is fondly remembered by many as a venue of teen dances for a couple of decades.
Ground is broken for Holy Ghost Slovak Greek Catholic Church in 1954.