ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Straddling Two Worlds: Canada’s Ukrainians

Though they look to their Old World past, Canada’s Ukrainians are firmly planted in the New World.

In 1988, Ukrainians in Canada commemorated 1,000 years of Christianity in their ancestral homeland with a mixture of happiness, sorrow and anxiety. Deeply moved by the rich spiritual legacy passed to them by their forebears, Ukrainian Canadians were equally concerned for the destinies of their churches in the New World and the continuing oppression of fellow believers in Soviet Ukraine.

Just three years later, while celebrating the 100th anniversary of their arrival in Canada, Ukrainian Canadians welcomed Ukraine’s emergence as an independent state. The swiftness with which the Soviet Union unraveled and the peaceful way in which Ukraine escaped centuries of foreign domination were widely regarded as miraculous in view of the violence that devastated Ukrainian lands throughout much of the 20th century. Nevertheless, these upheavals, which altered the face of Eastern Europe, have also rocked the foundations of Ukrainian Canadian society.

Fatigued from carrying the burden of Ukraine’s tortured history, Ukrainian Canadians were overwhelmed when their yearnings for a free Ukraine were suddenly realized, compelling them to reexamine their mission in Canada. Not only must Ukrainian Canadians now grapple with the contradictory tug of the Byzantine East and the Latin West, they must also reconcile competing contemporary influences from Canada and Ukraine.

These tensions have plagued New World Ukrainian communities – in fact all ethnic communities in emigration – from the beginning. They have also been the source of much creativity, sustaining Ukrainians through decades of isolation and hardship.

The origins of Ukrainian church life in Canada may be traced to the years immediately following the arrival of the first pioneers from Carpathian Ukraine. In the late 1800’s, the Canadian government, fearing its sparsely populated western plains were vulnerable to annexation by the United States, wanted to settle these lands. When it proved impossible to attract a sufficient number of farmers from Western Europe, government leaders looked to the Slavic East for hardy folk who would be willing to take on the task of homesteading the prairies, especially the partly wooded areas that were less amenable to cultivation.

In 1891, two adventurous villagers from Austro-Hungarian Ukraine traveled to Canada’s Northwest Territory to see if the free lands offered by the Canadian government were suitable for agriculture. Ivan Pylypow and Wasyl Eleniak were impressed with what they saw and their enthusiastic reports encouraged massive immigration that brought approximately 170,000 of their kinsmen to Canada by the outbreak of World War I. Almost all of these newcomers came from the poor, overcrowded provinces of Galicia and Bukovina in the Hapsburg-ruled territories of modern-day western Ukraine. The former were mostly Greek Catholic; the latter were almost all Orthodox, resulting in the division of the Ukrainian community into rival religious camps. These groups then fragmented further along denominational, jurisdictional and ideological lines.

As the initial trickle of settlers turned into a veritable flood, the need for pastoral care became pressing. In spring 1897, the Canadian Department of the Interior commissioned a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, Father Nestor Dmytrow (1863-1925), to visit the Ukrainian colonies sprouting across western Canada. Although employed as an immigration agent to report on the progress of his fellow countrymen, Father Dmytrow used the opportunity to celebrate liturgies with the pioneers. In the process, he also sowed the seeds of congregational life among them by encouraging these pioneers to build sanctuaries in anticipation of the arrival of priests from the homeland.

Some colonists – many of whom had emigrated from predominantly Greek Catholic Galicia – were already making plans to welcome Russian Orthodox missionary priests stationed in the United States. Influenced by a western Ukrainian Russophile movement (which was covertly financed by the imperial government of Tsar Nicholas II to destabilize the East Slavic population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), these priests promoted a return to Orthodoxy and a rejection of the 1596 Union of Brest. This union had forged communion between the Orthodox eparchies under the Metropolitan Archbishop of Kiev with the Church of Rome, thus forming the nucleus of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Just weeks after Father Dmytrow’s historic stay, when two batiushki, or priests, from Seattle visited the Ukrainian settlement northeast of Edmonton, the stage was set for a clash still felt by Canada’s Ukrainians.

In 1898, with the encouragement of Father Dmytrow, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Orthodox communities in Star, Alberta, completed the first Ukrainian parish church on Canadian soil. Leaders of both communities claimed ownership of the sanctuary, however, prompting a long and costly court battle that polarized the two communities.

Eventually, a 1907 ruling by the Privy Council in London, England, awarded control of the church to the Orthodox minority, ending the legal dispute but not the hurt feelings between Canada’s Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Orthodox.

A hundred years later, descendants of the litigants still reflect sadly on how this parting of ways divided friends and families. Today, in the best expression of rural solidarity, relations between Canada’s Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities are generally neighborly.

As their churches evolved, Orthodox and Greek Catholic Ukrainians in Canada had to deal with a host of other problems, some of which were peculiar to Canada; others were attributed to cultural, ecclesiastical and political influences introduced from abroad.

In addition to benefiting from the generous financial and moral support provided by their Latin Catholic co-religionists, for example, Greek Catholics were subjected to limitations imposed by Latin bishops who knew little about the Eastern churches and showed little sensitivity toward the traditions and customs of their Greek Catholic brethren.

Ultimately, misunderstandings would cost the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church the allegiance of laity and clergy, who defected to Orthodox or Protestant communities in protest over perceived “Roman meddling” in Ukrainian religious affairs.

Canada’s Orthodox Ukrainians experienced even greater upheavals due to jurisdictional intricacies. As pioneer-era immigrants to Canada gradually embraced a Ukrainian identity, many Orthodox among them became estranged from the pro-Tsarist, Russian Orthodox clergy who served them.

The rising tide of Ukrainian patriotism, the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy during World War I and subsequent revolution in Ukraine also impacted the Greek Catholic community in Canada, severely straining relationships between clergy and laity, particularly members of the nascent Ukrainian Canadian intelligentsia. These and other factors led to the founding in 1918 of the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of Canada (UGOC), a product of Canadian conditions and Ukrainian Canadian aspirations for ecclesiastical autonomy.

By proclaiming itself free of Moscow and Rome, the UGOC attracted not only converts from the Russian Orthodox Church – then in crisis due to the collapse of the Tsar and the establishment of a regime hostile to the church – but also Greek Catholics who were disenchanted with their church leaders and what they regarded as constant pressures to “Latinize.”

Not surprisingly, a fierce rivalry erupted between Canada’s Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox with the establishment of the UGOC.

This rivalry lasted for more than a decade until lawsuits forced both communities to rein in their rhetoric and settle on a state of mutual indifference. This “cold war” prevailed until the Canadian government compelled Greek Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainian Canadians to form an umbrella organization to unite all non-Communist Ukrainians in support of Canada’s military efforts during World War II. By then, some of the wounds from the early battles had started to heal, while the desperate plight of Christians in Stalin-era Ukraine gradually muted many of the differences in Canada that had seemed so insurmountable.

The spirit of tolerance that took root in the 1940’s led to a growing interaction and cooperation between the Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches in Canada. However, the small minority that remained loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate remained on the periphery of the mainstream community because of the Russian Orthodox Church’s compromise with Communist authorities in the Soviet Union.

In time, the founding of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) by the Moscow Patriarchate created yet another rift within the ranks of Orthodox Ukrainians in Canada, who have always been fewer than Greek Catholics due to the preponderance of Greek Catholic Galicians in all three major waves of Ukrainian immigration: 1891-1914, 1923-1939 and 1947-1955.

By the 1960’s, relations between Greek Catholics and Orthodox had normalized through the concelebration of prayer services – although not Holy Communion – and participation in joint cultural, educational and human rights activities on behalf of larger Ukrainian community interests.

Marriages between Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox became less controversial, even commonplace, further bonding members of both churches and weakening feelings of prejudice and mistrust. As Greek Catholics and Orthodox attended baptisms, weddings and funerals in each other’s sanctuaries, the distances between them shrank. And as both churches struggled to cope with the pressures of cultural and linguistic assimilation, declining memberships and the rampant materialism and secularization of Canadian society, they worked to foster sympathy and understanding that transcended former rivalries.

By the time the millennium of Ukrainian Christianity was commemorated in 1988, most Orthodox and Greek Catholics felt comfortable worshipping together, even if they still debated the finer points of their histories. Mere tolerance was steadily giving way to mutual respect and support in the face of common difficulties.

The tumultuous changes wrought by Ukraine’s independence have reconfigured the religious landscape for Ukrainian Canadians, the vast majority of whom are now Canadian-born, but nevertheless find themselves buffeted by the complex processes occurring not only in Ukraine but in Rome, Moscow and Constantinople.

Although these should be heady times – thanks to the rebirth of a distinctive Ukrainian spirituality – the unsettled religious differences in the ancestral homeland, coupled with the accelerating tide of de-ethnicization in Canada, have raised troubling questions about the destiny of Ukrainian Canadians, who cling to both the Byzantine and the national inheritance received from their ancestors.

Today’s Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic believers in Canada not only find themselves at the forefront of a revitalized dialogue taking place between East and West, but they also stand at a juncture: they must decide whether or not they can survive as Ukrainian Christians in 21st-century Canada.

It is a pivotal moment for Ukrainian Christians, one fraught with unease and the potential for the reopening of old wounds by the confessional disputes currently raging in Ukraine. However, the same circumstances are ripe with the promise that if unity were attained in the ancestral homeland, it could have a reinvigorating effect on those Ukrainian Canadians who have remained stalwart guardians of their traditional churches.

Jars Balan is a lay member in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada with a special interest in Ukrainian church history.

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