A Legend of the North

By Walter Kish

A long, long time ago, when I was just a youth living in a small mining town in northern Quebec by the name of Rouyn-Noranda, I served as an altar boy to a remarkable Ukrainian priest by the name of Father Lev Chayka.I rather enjoyed being an altar boy, perhaps not so much the result of strong religious convictions, as the fact that you got to do interesting things at the front of the church, rather than be stuck kneeling and praying amidst the mass of parishioners.I loved the heady and mysterious smell of the incense, and took particular pleasure ringing the little bells at the appropriate spots in the ceremony.Of course, there was also the occasional conspiratorial, stolen sip of sacramental wine…

It is now some forty-five years later, and Father Chayka, now a Monsignor, still says the occasional mass in Rouyn-Noranda, though the attendance can now usually be counted on the fingers of one hand.Most Ukrainians departed the grand northlands of Quebec and Ontario decades ago, resettling to the more conducive and pleasant climate of Southern Ontario.

At one time however, shortly after the end of World War II, this northern hinterland was home to thousands of Ukrainians, most newly arrived from the DP camps of Europe and taking advantage of the job opportunities created by a booming mining industry.Rouyn-NorandaValdorMalarticSeneterreKirklandLakeTimminsVirginiatown, Swastika, and many other mining towns became home to large Ukrainian communities.

To tend to this flock, Bishop Borecky in 1952 sent a newly ordained, energetic, ambitious, and indomitable young priest by the name of LevChayka to establish parishes and erect Ukrainian churches and halls to serve the spiritual and cultural needs of the newly arrived Ukrainians.Over the next several decades, using whatever means he could muster, he succeeded in building churches in ValdorRouyn and Kirkland Lake, as well as several parish residencies and a summer youth camp.He organized Ukrainian schools and cultural activities and organizations.For many years he produced a Ukrainian program on local radio stations.

He was forever on the go, accumulating incredible mileage in covering his geographically widespread parishes.Being fluent in French, he often acted as a representative or middleman between the Ukrainian community and the local and provincial authorities.To the local French population, Father Chayka was the voice of the Ukrainian community.

Within the Ukrainian community he also played another vital, unifying role, mediating the simmering tensions and rivalries that sometimes cropped up between the rival political “Melnykivtsi” and “Banderivtsi” supporters.

Somewhere in between his priestly duties and obligations, Father Chayka also found time to further his education, earning Bachelor and Master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Ottawa, and a Doctorate from the Ukrainian Free University in Munich.

Serving in a remote location for most priests is a temporary posting, usually rewarded with a more comfortable and visible assignment in a larger urban setting.For Father Chayka however, the far north, at the same time beautiful and demanding, was a lifetime calling, a true labour of love. Though officially “retired”, he still makes the rounds, fulfilling his priestly duties to the handful of older Ukrainians still left in northern Quebec and Ontario.Not one to ever sit still, his latest project is to write a history of the Ukrainians in these northern regions, and try to raise funds to establish a museum in Valdor dedicated to this theme.

For his efforts, in 1987, the Quebec government presented him with a special award, appointing him a “Laureate” of the Cultural Communities of Quebec.He also has the distinction of being recognized as the most famousQuebecois Ukrainian” within the Quebec public school cultural history curriculum.

Lest this be seen as a hagiography, I must point out that there are those who occasionally remember Father Chayka in a less than kindly light.One does not build as much as he did, and accomplish as much as he did without at times twisting a few arms, indulging in some self-promotion or engaging in some “aggressive” fund-raising.Nonetheless, Monsignor Chayka has earned his laurels and deserves his rightful place as a prominent Ukrainian “Pioneer” that helped make Canada and the Ukrainian community here what they are today.