Who Am I?
The history of Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church is as opaque as its first image shown below. I have checked at least three community history books for the immediate area but found no mention of it. I have searched archives in Alberta and still found nothing. I’ve emailed libraries, museums and of course the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada who, one might think, should know the full story but they do not. In fact the first time I checked their site they had what was clearly the wrong image. I offered them one of my images but they must have found another because they now have the right image to go with the name but still no other details. Months passed and I occasionally returned to my research motivated by Covid-19 and the resulting excess of home time. Each time my research came up with the same results and that is basically nothing.
History is rarely lost. Sometimes it is difficult to find but the knowledge is usually out there somewhere. That is true in the case of this church. When I first posted this blog a small amount of information started to trickle in. Gradually that trickle increased to a steady stream and now I think that I have read as much, or more, about this old church than I have about any of my other blog topics. As a result, I have gradually added images, additional facts, and then finally significantly rewritten this post to the point that now it is finished except for the changes being made to the church by the new owners. So now please enjoy the story of St Peter and St Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
So how did I find this old church? Interestingly I was given rough directions for a different domed church that took me to the wrong place. It was only because of a chance turn of my head that I was able to spot something through the verdant forest. I immediately knew that I wanted to photograph it so I drove to the closest thing resembling an entrance and knocked on the door of a building that looked like an old community hall to see if anyone was home. I was greeted at first by the loud barking of a dog that sounded like it was probably named “Cujo” after the Stephen King movie. The owner opened the door and when I asked if I could photograph the church he said, “Sure” and off my wife and I went to check this place out.
After circling the old church, my wife decided to go back to the other building and ask the landowner if they would let us see inside. I stayed behind for a while to finish photographing the exterior as best I could and then started to walk back to see what was taking her so long to return. I was also a little concerned about her walking around with Cujo possibly on the loose in the area (I don’t remember the dog’s actual name) as my wife is quite uncomfortable around big dogs. The owners, Terry and Tracy, were amenable to our request and opened up the church. Terry explained that they recently bought the property and moved in to start converting the community hall into their house. He’s a carpenter by trade and didn’t seem at all daunted by the size or scope of the project. As for the church, well it just came with the property. Tracy would like to see it restored. “That’s great”, I thought, but what do you do with a restored church on your property? Terry wasn’t sure what it would become but a bed and breakfast was certainly one idea they are considering. They have no personal ties to the old church that I know of, except of course, that they own it.
These front steps are a mystery in and of themselves. How could they have become so covered with the earth? I’ve seen old churches and schools all over Alberta and Saskatchewan in various states of decay and yet none of them had steps like these. The closest I can come to something similar would be the Mayan ruins in Guatemala that we visited many years ago. So how did the steps get like this? I don’t know for certain but there was a report of a fire at the building. It’s possible that to put out the fire gravel or soil was shovelled onto the wooden parts of the steps to smother it.
Cindy, a knowledgeable local, reached out and suggested that the steps were made from hand poured concrete and may have deteriorated over time. That does make sense, but then why are the steps to other old and even abandoned churches not in a similar state? Actually most of the other steps at old churches are made of wood so the explanation is still quite valid. I recall a number of years ago I put ice-melt on my front steps and the concrete started to dissolve right before my eyes. I quickly wiped it off and the following spring I bought some patching material to fill the holes the ice-melt caused. The ice-melt works fine on public sidewalks but not on pre-cast residential concrete steps so I can imagine what it might do to very old hand mixed concrete. This was confirmed below in the timeline of the church as there were holes in the steps that became a concern to the Church Board back in 1995.
Looking above you may conclude that this is not a fancy or ornate church. This is true. It has asbestos or tarpaper siding rather than wood or stucco. The lower part of the dome looks very roughly formed. These are the signs of a small congregation with limited funds available. I kind of like the look because it shows it’s handmade by the congregation. In my opinion the shape of the dome (more horizontal than vertical) looks like those I’ve seen on Russia Orthodox Churches in Alberta. It’s somewhat ironic because Russia has some of the most ornate Orthodox Churches in the world.
“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”Sir Winston Churchill
The above two photos show the Iconostasis. It is the feature that probably most clearly distinguishes an Orthodox church from Catholic or Protestant churches. The iconostas is a screen or wall between the nave and the sanctuary, which is covered with icons. There will normally be three doors, one in the middle and one on either side. The central one is traditionally called the Beautiful Gate and is only used by the clergy. The doors on either side are called the Deacons’ Doors or Angel Doors as they often have the Archangels Michael and Gabriel depicted on them. These doors are used by deacons and servers to enter the sanctuary.
I hope that once Terry and Tracy make some progress on renovating the old church they will invite me back to photograph their work. Terry did say that they have experienced problems with theft from the church. After each unauthorized entry they have upgraded the security around the church structure. By now I expect that they have video cameras both visible and hidden to at least catch the intruders if not dissuade them. In appreciation for allowing me to photograph it I have agreed not to disclose the location beyond saying that it’s located west of Edmonton.
This last image shows the front door and those amazing steps from as far back as I could go without the spruce boughs blocking the view. Already you see some branches encroaching on the top and sides.
The door is now locked, just like the story and history of this church. Both the door and the history are impenetrable until someone comes along with the right key. It seems there were a number of people who held the key to the church’s past. I’m sure there is always more so if you know something interesting about this old church, please comment below or send me a direct message by clicking on the email icon below. Please feel free to comment even if you don’t know have more details to share. Thank you for stopping by and checking out my blog.
Recollections: there was a dance held most weekends and there was no bar service. Families would only get liquor permits for weddings, so some people brought their own liquor and jars of moonshine may have been in that mix. At times the police would conduct a raid and catch and fine anyone caught drinking or with alcohol outside the hall.A Member’s Memory
Some answers have arrived
I knew it was only a matter of time before somebody would have some answers about this church. In fact I think I now understand why the history of this church eluded me, and in true Edmonton tradition I can even indirectly blame it on Calgary. The University of Calgary maintains a collection of community history books, with on-line searching capability. The history book for this particular area exists but in two volumes. That’s not unusual because after a history of a community is published many people contact the committee that assembled it to report errors and omissions. They also provide more updates so that the histories are not just of the pioneers but also those who descended from the pioneers. However the Calgary collection appears to have two copies of the first edition of this community history book, rather than volumes one and two. Apparently this church was omitted from volume I but there is a brief description of it in volume II. Regardless of the reasons for the omission, a brief history is now in a published book.
This church was built in 1947 and 1948. Cindy sent me a copy of the document where it was officially recognized as part of the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of Canada on December 10, 1951. That’s a very important step because it means that the church is part of the larger body of Orthodox Churches in Canada. I’m aware of a very beautiful old church in the northern part of Saskatchewan where the congregation didn’t bother, or simply forgot, to have it formally recognized by the Orthodox Church. Now the former members of that church are gone or deceased and there’s nobody to make decisions for its future. That particular church could be one of Saskatchewan’s most beautiful of the old rural churches but it’s also likely too far gone to be restored and who would put money into it without some assurance it will be cared for and not torn down? To date I’ve only heard of this problem of non-registration impacting the one church in Saskatchewan.
In the country, people didn’t rely on baby-sitting services, so children went with their parents to everything. If it was a dance, we ran around inside and outside the hall until we were tired and went to sleep on the pile of coats set in a corner of the hall until our parents were ready to leaveA member’s daughter’s distant memory
Timeline of this church
- 1940 or earlier: The church hall was built. The hall served as the place of worship until the church was built and then the hall continued to be used for many activities of this community. Priests were in short supply and therefore they were typically shared among a number of congregations. As roads and vehicles improved many people would follow some or part of the priest’s circuit so that they could not only attend church each or most Sundays, but also so that they could support the other congregations, thus ensuring that each one had enough attendees to warrant a priest’s visit. Those people would come to Sts. Peter And Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well so they supported each other.
- 1947-1948: This church was built by the congregation through volunteers giving of their time, skills and resources while also working on their own farms or jobs.
- 1951: The church was admitted as a congregation to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (UOCC). I’ve mentioned above why this is an important step.
- 1954-1958: The original hall was struck by lightening and burned down sometime between 1954-1958. Community members immediately volunteered their time and a new hall was built within a year or two. Many events such as, weddings, christenings, funerals, church lunches, wedding showers, anniversary celebrations, dinners and dances were held at the hall. The Jackpine Men & Ladies’ Association volunteered their time for maintenance and operation of the hall. “The ladies provided delicious Ukrainian meals and kept the hall running with the funds raised from ticket sales and donations by the local hall and church members”.
- 1950s to 1960s: In the summers of 1950’s (and possibly earlier) through to the 1960’s, Ukrainian School was offered at Jackpine Hall for two to four weeks each summer for youth of all ages from the local and surrounding communities. Those who came from afar actually “lived” in the hall during this time, sleeping on bedrolls while parents helped out with meal preparation. Children were taught the Ukrainian alphabet, the language, writing, customs and dance. At the end of the term, the children put on a concert complete with live Ukrainian music, choir, dance and cultural costumes.
- 1986: Discussions were held to upgrade the roof of the church and possibly also add stucco to the outside walls. At this time there were only ten members remaining (I don’t know if that is ten people or ten families).
- 1995: They discussed the holes forming in the church steps. This confirms that the deterioration was a natural gradual process.
- 2002: Archbishop Rev John and other senior church officials visited the church for a review after receiving a letter from the church’s membership committee stating that the church membership was waning. There were only six families who maintained their church membership.
- 2008-2009: No annual meetings were held during this period as the committee members had passed on or moved away. The ladies association took on the responsibility to book a priest for the annual graveside services and the attending congregation brought potluck lunches to share at the hall afterwards. This communal pot-luck had always been the tradition of the church after each service or function.
- 2013: The final service in the church was held in this year.
- 2015: A board was formed to deal with some building safety concerns and the lack of insurance. They couldn’t obtain insurance until an engineering firm certified that the building was safe for use. They hired an engineering firm and it found numerous deficiencies plus the structure didn’t meet current building codes. There were estimates up to $100,000 just to bring it up to code for insurance purposes. The Board discussed this with the remaining members who concluded that this was a huge sum of money to raise and then there would still be annual maintenance obligations. They voted to decommission the church. Father Patrick Yamniuk of St Anthony’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Edmonton advised the few remaining members of the path forward. He advised them to contact the Winnipeg Diocese about their situation and how to close the church. The standard Orthodox practice is to burn the church down and place a plaque where it once stood. The Bishop might prefer to allow it to fall down naturally but that raises concerns about safety and liability as well as the possibility of vandalism, and other risks. Click here for a news article for another historic Alberta church that faced a possible intentional burning.
- 2016: The church was broken into and vandalized. Religious items and icons were smashed as well as the huge chandelier that hung from the chain that you can see in the photo above. Sadly, satanic graffiti was spray painted on the walls. Church elders removed the damaged icons and anything of value that was salvageable. They looked into distributing these items to other churches or to a museum. The church was then boarded up to reduce the chance of additional break-ins. The damaged icons and other items salvaged from the break-in were stored so that they could be ceremonially burned as instructed by Bishop Ilarian. These ashes will be put into an urn and buried under a plaque at All Saints Cemetery.
- 2019: The Ukrainian Educational Association of Taras Shevchenko owned the land since the church and hall were originally built. The responsibility to sell the land that the hall and church were built on fell to this association. It was sold in 2019 to a numbered company that I assume was owned by Terry and Tracy.
- In June of 2019 there was a special service to decommission the church. A graveside service was held with an additional service, known as Moleben. An urn with ashes from the damaged religious icons and vestments were buried at the foot of the big cross in All Saints Cemetery.
- In the Fall 2019, a granite stone marker and an engraved commemorative plaque were set in place overtop the buried urn of burned icons. This was the last formal act of the church body.
This began as a regular photo story of an old church spotted near the side of a road. It has become something more. It has become the story of the birth of a new church for a rural congregation, followed by the years of attendance and fellowship at the church and the nearby hall. The first story ends with the final ritual burial of the ashes of the damaged icons and other property at the nearby cemetery. This story is specifically about what was once Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church but a similar story could be written about the hundreds, if not thousands, of old rural churches across the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. It’s the story of the people who came here seeking a better life and, despite many hardships, found that better life.
This second story is about the efforts of Terry and Tracy as they work to make the church hall their home and try to restore and repurpose the old building that was once a church. Their story may take years before it’s complete but hopefully I’ll be able to provide you with updates of their efforts as another part of this blog. Thank you for visiting and learning, along with me, the story of this church and hall.