First Ukrainian Church in Canada

John Panchuk

St. Michael's Ukrainian Orthodox Church built in 1899 is two miles west of
Gardenton, Manitoba. Photo Manitoba Archives ca 1915.

RURAL CHURCHES AND SCHOOLS represent the earliest landmarks of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. Official immigration correspondence of the period referred to such settlements as "Ruthenian" or "Galician" colonies. Church building committees were formed in several colonies in advance of the arrival of any Ukrainian resident priests. An agent of the Dominion Lands and Immigration Department wrote to Ottawa as early as the summer of 1896 to send "one or two priests with the next batch of emigrants," asserting that "This is a highly important matter to the colonists and should receive early attention."

In the fall of 1897, the Canadian government succeeded in getting Rev. Nestor Dmytriw, a Ukrainian missionary priest from Pennsylvania to visit the Ukrainian colonies in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Being the first Ukrainian priest to visit them, his services were eagerly sought by the settlers of both the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and the Ukrainian Orthodox faiths. The pioneers' experience with the local French and Polish Roman Catholic priests did little to satisfy their spiritual needs and the ethnically reIigious-traditions of the Ukrainian families. Two or three additional Ukrainian priests arrived from Ukraine to cater to the religious needs of the Greek Catholic or Uniate settlers during 1898-1900. The Orthodox settlers mainly from Bukovina, had to be satisfied with the Russian Orthodox priests whose paramount mission in Canada was to Russify the Ukrainians.

UKRAINIAN PIONEERS had neither the time nor the means to build churches during the initial years of settlement from 1891. Early religious services were held in the farm homes of the settlers or under the open sky. A couple of roadside chapels were built in 1897, but these were not churches in any sense of the word. The Greek Catholic church in Edna-Star near Edmonton, Alberta, although started by Rev. Dmytriw in 1897, was not actually built or completed until the latter part of 1899. The Greek Catholic church of the Holy Ghost in Stuartburn, Manitoba was started in 1898, but was not completed until 1900. The St. Michael's Greek Catholic church near Dauphin, Manitoba was built in 1902, contrary to an alleged construction date of 1897 as claimed by some.

Examination by the author of this article of historical data, Dominion and provincial records, history books, memoirs of pioneers, almanacs, newspapers and other periodicals failed to turn up any evidence of a Ukrainian church having been built in Canada prior to 1899. According to the best evidence on the subject, St. Michael's Ukrainian Orthodox church near Gardenton, Manitoba is the first Ukrainian church built in Canada. It was completed in the spring of 1899.

Side View from the South.

Rear View from Southeast.

The cemetery in the courtyard of this church was consecrated for the settlers of the Orthodox faith in the fall of 1897 by Rev. N. Dmytriw. His itinerary account suggests that he helped them to complete an application for a free grant of government land of 20 acres in the N.W. 1/4 of Sec. 28, T.1, R.6 E. for cemetery and church purposes in the name of three trustees. The three designated trustees were members of the 44 named builders of St. Michaels church as evidenced by a 2 page scroll found sealed in the frame church altar some years later. The scroll gives the full name of each builder, the name of the chief carpenter, the name of the first priest with an inscription that the church was built in the spring of 1899, right after Easter.

Front View from Southwest -- Photo by A. Gregorovich.

THE CHURCH WALLS, measuring 22 by 48 feet were constructed of horizontal logs, lumbered during the winter of 1898-1899. Wooden shingles covered the low pitched roof which became badly warped from exposure to heavy winter snows and was completely replaced in 1915 with a central dome 33 feet high from floor to ceiling and small cupolas at either end. A square frame belfry (bell tower) was built in 1906, about one hundred feet from the church.

Candle Chandelier.

A Russian born priest, Rev. Constantine Popoff residing at the Russian missionary church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was invited by the church committee to provide religious services. He arrived in the beginning of October, 1899, and held consecration services on October 14, 1899, with some two hundred orthodox Bukovinians in attendance from the area.

Of the 44 listed builders, 41 belonged to the Orthodox faith, settlers from the Austrian province of Bukovina (western Ukraine); 3 were from the Austrian province of Galicia and were Greek Catholic. The farms nearest the church were settled by peasants from the Village of Onut in Bukovina, ten of whom were also church builders named in the scroll. This circumstance accounts for the popular designation of the church as "Onutska."

The church cemetery is crowded with distinctive Orthodox grave markers-inscribed crosses cast in cement moulds by the local pioneer craftsmen. The earliest standing marker is dated 1898, marking the grave of a pioneer settler from Onut. Inside the historic church one may see unique religious artifacts, such as wooden crosses, candelabras and altar decorations built by local craftsmen and a collection of rare lithographs from Kiev, Odessa, St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Pioneer Gravestones.

On August 18, 1974, St. Michael's Church near Gardenton was officially dedicated as the first Ukrainian Historic Site in Canada. The Historic Sites Advisory Board and the Minister of Culture approved the designation on application by the writer of this article, supported by historical documentation as provided by law. Two official historic site bronze plaques, with appropriate inscriptions, one in English and one in Ukrainian, were unveiled at a ceremony commemorating the event. Some 400 guests, including clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox faith, their bishop and government officials.

Historical Plaque outside St. Michael's Ukrainian Orthodox Church.


1. The First Ukrainian Church in Canada -- John Panchuk; 36 page monograph, Trident Press, Winnipeg, 1974 (in Ukrainian language).

2. Bukowina-Its Past and Present-Paris, 1956, page 917.

3. Ukraine-a concise Encyclopedia-Vol. II, page 1165, Uni- versity of Toronto Press, 1971.

4. The Ukrainians in Canada-Olga Woycenko, Trident Press, Winnipeg, 1967, pg. 160.

5. The Ukrainian Canadians-M. H. Marunchak, Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, 1970, Winnipeg, page 128.

6. Bukowinian Settlements in Southern Manitoba-John Panchuk, 1971, 86 pages.

7. Look Who's Coming, The Wacna Story-Mary Paximadis, 1976, Miracle Press Ltd., Oshawa, Ont. Canada, (pg. 74).

8. Hardships & Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers-Peter Humenik, 1977, Derksen Printers (pg.74) Steinbach, Man.

9. Canadian Collector-Vol. VI/No. 8, 1971, Toronto-A Journal of Antiques & Fine Arts, (pages 57-59).

10. Reader's Digest-June 1977, page 112 (Canadian Issue) Article "The Timeless Glory of Our Country Churches.)

11. 75th Anniversary of St. Michael's Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Gardenton, Man. 1897-1972; 42 pages.

JOHN PANCHUK, THE PROMINENT ATTORNEY and Ukrainian community leader, was born on April 4, 1904 in Gardenton, Manitoba. In 1916 his family moved to Detroit and ever since he has lived there and in Battle Creek, Michigan. He has been active in the Democratic Party and was a delegate to the convention which nominated John F. Kennedy for the Presidency of the United States. He had the honour of serving four years as Assistant Attorney General of the State of Michigan. He has been very active in the Ukrainian community and was president of the Ukrainian Youth League of North America in 1937. Mr. Panchuk served as judge of the U.W.A.'s Ivan Franko Scholarship Foundation Ukrainian essay competition. He is the author of many articles and of several books and publications. These include Shevchenko's Testament, and Bukovinian Settlements in Southern Manitoba. He is the author and publisher of Persha Ukrainska Tserkva v Kanadi (Winnipeg 1974, 35 p. illus.) upon which this article is based.


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Copyright © 1978 John Panchuk

Reprinted from FORUM Ukrainian Review No. 38, Winter 1978
Published by the Ukrainian Fraternal Association
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Telephone: (717) 342-0937

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Originally Composed: Tuesday September 9th 1997.
Date last modified: Friday February 4th 2000.