Basilian Beginnings

Mundare’s Monastic Heritage

The Canadian Centenary of the Basilian Fathers and Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate

Although the first group of Ukrainian farmers to settle East Central Alberta emigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1892, it was several years before any clergymen from the homeland followed them overseas to the frontier territories of the Canadian Northwest. Indeed, the appearance of missionary priests from the Old Country signaled that the pioneers were starting to set down permanent roots in the New World, and were beginning to think of issues beyond physical survival in a harsh and alien land. With each passing year, the need for regular pastoral care was increasingly felt, as births, deaths and courtships inevitably began to transform the rural communities that were developing in the lands being homesteaded along both sides of the North Saskatchewan River.

In the spring of 1897 a Greek Catholic priest, Father Nestor Dmytrow, became the first Ukrainian clergyman to visit what was then known as the Beaver Creek Colony, situated in the Star-Wostok district north of Lamont. On his initiative, congregational life was inaugurated at Star with the formation of a local committee to begin construction of a church and manse. However, just six weeks later, two Russian missionaries from Seattle also toured the Ukrainian colony on the invitation of a pro-Orthodox faction among the settlers — touching off a fierce and sometimes bitter competition for the confessional allegiance of the homesteaders.

Upon the completion of the Star church, a lengthy legal struggle ensued that was eventually resolved in London, England by a 1907 decision of the Privy Council in favour of the Orthodox. The fact that the immigrants for a long time remained dependent upon the sporadic services of missionary priests contributed to the growth of religious tensions within the isolated and divided Ukrainian community, which was comprised of peasant farmers from the province of Galicia, who were mostly Greek Catholic, and a smaller number of traditionally Orthodox settlers from the neighbouring Habsburg crownland of Bukovyna. The lack of stable clerical leadership also made the immigrants vulnerable to proselytization by various Canadian Protestant churches that sought to promote the Anglicization of the Ukrainian newcomers while simultaneously expanding their flocks with converts. Religious charlatans and renegades posed yet another threat, as did atheistic and socialistic radicals.

To meet the needs of the large and growing number of Ukrainian Catholic believers in Canada, and to counter the inroads being made by rival denominations, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky of Lviv, with the blessings of Canadian Roman Catholic leaders, took steps to provide Greek Catholic missionaries for the Galician Ukrainians who were emigrating abroad by the tens of thousands. In September 1902, Metropolitan Sheptytsky dispatched four members of the Order of St. Basil the Great — Fathers Platonid Filas (superior), Sozont Dydyk and Anton Strotsky, along with Brother Yeremii Yanishewsky – and four Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate  — Ambrose Lenkewich (superior), Taida Wrublewsky, Isidore Shypowsky and Emilia Klapowchuk – to establish the first permanent Greek Catholic mission among the Ukrainians in Canada. Accompanied by Sheptytsky’s personal secretary, Fr. Vasyl Zholdak, who only traveled as far as Winnipeg, the group arrived at Strathcona station on 1 November 1902. After spending several days in Edmonton, Fathers Filas, in the company of Roman Catholic Bishop Emil Legal, traveled by wagon to the Beaver Creek colony at Star (where they over-nighted at the home of Wasyl Hryniw, whose farm was just east of the future St. Nicholas Church, at SE 2-56-18 W4) and then on to the Beaver Lake district, as the area around present-day Mundare was then known. Following this brief orientation tour, and once the much-delayed baggage containing their priestly vestments had arrived, the Fathers divided up the territory that had been heavily settled by Ukrainians, with Fr. Filas assuming responsibility for Beaver Lake, Fr. Strotsky taking the Beaver Creek colony around Star, and Fr. Dydyk covering Rabbit Hill and Calmar in the south. Father Filas billeted for the winter at the home of Mathew Gach, who had settled on a farmstead southeast of Hilliard (at SE 32-53-17 W4) after emigrating to Canada with his wife Paranka and eight children in the spring of 1899. Fathers Strotsky and Dydyk likewise stayed with local farmers, it being necessary to also use private homes for religious services until chapels and churches could be built. In the meantime, the Sister Servants remained behind at St. Joachim’s Roman Catholic Church in Edmonton, where, with the help of the Oblate Fathers, they began learning English and organizing classes for the young Ukrainian women who were working in the city as domestics. At this time, it was estimated that there were already 20,000 Galician Ukrainians living in the Eparchy of St. Albert, and the flow of immigrants was showing no signs of relenting.

On 23 January 1903, Fr. Filas filed for a homestead (at NW 10-56-16 W4) on a quarter section of land that is now on the south side of Highway 16, two miles east of the 855 turn-off to Mundare and opposite the Parkland Conservation Farm. In May, volunteers began working on a house, using wood and some materials that Fr. Filas had previously purchased from established settlers. On 7 July, the Sisters Servants departed Edmonton for the monastery property at Beaver Lake, and four days later moved into the still-unfinished house, which had only one habitable room and as yet lacked doors, windows, flooring or a chimney. Sadly, their numbers had been reduced by the untimely death of Sister Taida in May. Nevertheless, the three remaining Sisters threw themselves into the tasks at hand, helping to break land for a garden, cooking for volunteers, and soon providing religious instruction for local children.

On 12 July 1903, a Divine Liturgy was celebrated at the new farm monastery on the Feast Day of Sts. Peter and Paul. This joyous event drew a huge crowd of homesteaders from far and wide, and subsequently became established as a major religious holiday that continues to draw pilgrims annually to Mundare on the last Sunday in June. A simple chapel was constructed at the monastery site a few months later, which then became the hub of organized religious life for Ukrainian Catholics in the far western plains of Canada. In 1984, this pioneer-era landmark was moved into Mundare, where it remains as a monument to the groundbreaking labours of the founders of the church in Alberta.

From their base at the farm monastery, the Basilian Fathers and Sisters Servants routinely traversed the rough trails and primitive roads of rural east central Alberta tending to the needs of the Ukrainian Catholic faithful. An expanding network of country churches, and a growing number of priests and sisters, indicated that Christianity was flourishing with the burgeoning Ukrainian bloc settlement that soon extended as far as Lindbergh, Derwent, Innisfree and Holden to the east, from Thorhild, Waugh, and Lamont County in the West.

In 1910, a Ukrainian Catholic Church – appropriately consecrated in honour of Sts. Peter and Paul — was constructed in the village of Mundare, which had sprung up alongside the Canadian Northern railway line laid between Edmonton and Vegreville in 1905. The formal blessing of the impressive, onion-domed structure took place on 23 October 1910, during an historic visit made to Canada by Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. Thousands of settlers attended the consecration ceremony and other observances held in conjunction with the Western Canadian mission of the visionary church leader, who raised the spirits of Ukrainian Catholics in Alberta and spurred on the endeavours of the Sisters and Fathers.

As a result of Metropolitan Sheptytsky’s 1910 trip, there were increased efforts to get a Ukrainian Catholic bishop appointed for Canada. Finally, in November 1912, Nykyta Budka, newly-elevated to the Episcopal throne, arrived in Winnipeg to assume leadership over the Ukrainian Catholic community and to oversee the development of the church for the next fifteen years. Bishop Budka made his first visitation to the Beaver Lake monastery in March 1913, returning in July to bless the cornerstone for a two-storey school and orphanage where the Sisters Servants could more effectively educate and care for the children in the Ukrainian colony.

Meanwhile, with the emergence of Mundare as a regional center, it was only natural that the activities of the Basilian Fathers and Sisters Servants should gradually shift into the village, where communication and services were much better. Consequently, in 1922, a brick monastery was constructed for the Fathers in Mundare under the direction of the talented architect priest, Father Philip Ruh, a Belgian-born Oblate who dedicated his life to serving among the Ukrainians of Canada. In 1926, a new building was erected in town for the Sisters Servants to use as a residence and school. And just three years later, the Sisters also opened a hospital near their novitiate, providing much-needed medical care to the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. Next, in 1932, work began on a grotto adjacent to the monastery, which took a decade to complete. Featuring a series of fourteen Stations of the Cross, catacombs and small chapels arranged on an artificially-created hill, the attractively landscaped grotto is used for an outdoor liturgy during the annual Sts. Peter and Paul Feast Day commemorations, and for private meditation and prayer by pilgrims.

The original Mundare church built in 1910 was replaced in 1969 with the modern sanctuary that today stands on the east side of Secondary Highway 855, opposite the Monastery. To the south of Sts. Peter and Paul Church and the former monastery chapel is the Basilian Fathers Museum, opened in 1991. The museum formerly occupied the monastery printery nearby (constructed in 1938), vacated after the Basilian Press moved its operations to Toronto in 1949. With galleries documenting the tireless work of the Basilian Fathers and Sisters Servants, and a permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of Ukrainians in Canada, the museum is an excellent place to get a better appreciation of the enormous achievements of the two pioneering orders and the key role that they played in the evolution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church through the trials and tribulations of the twentieth century. Open year-round, the Museum possesses a wealth of artifacts from 15th-19th century Ukraine and other treasures as part of its collection and extensive archival holdings. It also has a gift shop, and provides tourism information to visitors.