Wednesday 17 June 2009

The First Ukrainian Catholic School in Winnipeg

According to Recently Discovered Archival Sources

in Progress Ukrainian Catholic News, n. 15/2617 (23 August 2009). p. 7.

While doing research on Blessed Nykyta Budka, I discovered some interesting pieces of correspondence in the Vatican Archives pertaining to St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek-Catholic School in Winnipeg, known today as Immaculate Heart of Mary School. The letters in question, English translations of which are produced in this brief history, contain hitherto unknown details relating to the construction of the first school.

At the time St. Nicholas School was founded in 1905, some fourteen years after the arrival of the first Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, there were already five thousand Ukrainians living in the city of Winnipeg. Sometimes referred to as Ruthenians or Galicians, our Ukrainian ancestors came from what was then Austrian Galicia, which is part of present-day Western Ukraine. Although virtually all of these immigrants belonged to the Greek-Catholic Church, without priests or churches of their own they were obliged, initially, to attend Immaculate Conception and later Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church.

At first, the Roman Catholic clergy had attempted to integrate the Ukrainian settlers into the local Latin-Rite parishes. Observing, however, that their spiritual needs were not being met, the Latin bishops, led by Archbishop Adélard Langevin of St. Boniface, requested Ukrainian Greek-Catholic clergy be sent from Austrian Galicia. In 1899 an itinerant missionary, Father John-Damascene Polivka (of Bohemian-Slovak origin), had founded a religious community in Winnipeg named after St. Nicholas. In two years this fledgling congregation raised enough money to build a tiny chapel on land they had purchased. Unfortunately, the church had neither resident clergy nor religious instructors. Various Orthodox and Protestant missionaries offered worship and education, in an effort to entice the Greek-Catholics to join their congregations and to abandon their Catholic Faith.

Eventually, in 1902, three Basilian Fathers and four Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate arrived in Canada and settled in Beaver Lake, near the present-day town of Mundare, Alberta. On 10 May 1903, less than a year later (and two months after having preached a mission in Winnipeg), the mission superior, Father Platonid Filas, described their humble ambitions in a letter written to the papal delegate in Canada:

We are beginning to build a house for the religious sisters “Servants of the Blessed Virgin”, who, together with us, also came to Canada, in order to help us in this mission work, and also, if possible, to open one elementary school for the Ruthenian children.

Six months later, in November 1903, two more missionaries arrived, Fathers Matei Hura and Navkrati Kryzhanovsky. This time, they settled in Winnipeg, where Father Hura assumed the direction of the tiny St. Nicholas Church and began offering classes to the Ukrainian children. The founding of a formal school is usually dated to 1905 as its beginning was often assumed to have coincided with the arrival of the Sisters. Actually, Father Hura had already set up a makeshift school, as evidenced by letter of Archbishop Langevin to the apostolic delegate, dated 10 June 1905:

As to the children that are attending the Catholic schools, there are not more than 70 going to the free Catholic school of Saint Nicholas in Winnipeg and perhaps 25 to 30 going to Holy Ghost School in Winnipeg. [...] I myself went to Vienna, last summer 1904, in the hope of interesting the Austrian Government and the clergy of Galicia in our schools, and asking them to send us catholic teachers; they answered me that they did not have enough for the[eir own] country.

Nevertheless, help was imminent. Father Hura had already requested the Sisters Servants’ Galician superior send two sisters to serve at the Winnipeg mission. Only six days after the Latin archbishop had written the letter cited above, Sisters Athanasia Melnyk and Alexia Chykalo arrived at St. Nicholas Church and began teaching at the school.

Over the next year, the number of Ukrainian immigrants in Winnipeg continued to increase; so much so that, by December 1906, in a report to the Vatican, Archbishop Langevin listed St. Nicholas as his largest parish in the city of Winnipeg, with 700 families totaling “4000 souls”. This figure represented twenty-eight percent of the city’s total Catholic population. The present day St. Mary’s Cathedral was listed as his second largest Winnipeg parish, with 600 families totaling 3000 souls.

Published sources state that in the spring of 1906 classes were moved from a nearby hall to St. Nicholas Church basement. Three years later, the school had still not relocated to better premises, as Archbishop Langevin noted in a letter to the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry del Val, dated 19 January 1909:

The Basilian Fathers of Saint Nicholas Church in Winnipeg take care of over six thousand Ruthenians. The archiepiscopal Corporation has built them a church and a priest’s house with money borrowed at 6 per cent from the bank, and this religious establishment is still burdened with a heavy debt. [...] Their parochial school of Saint Nicholas in Winnipeg is staffed by Ruthenian Nuns in the basement of the church, a most unfavorable place. This fact, together with the poverty of the people who cannot contribute to the free school, are the reasons why many children go to the Public Schools. [...] Consequently, it is urgent to build a parochial school for the Ruthenian children in Winnipeg.

This “urgent situation” was brought up at a meeting of the Ukrainian clergy, held at the archbishop’s palace (l’archevêché) on 4 January 1910. At that meeting, the decision was made to construct a school building for the Ukrainians, even though the archdiocese was already burdened with many debts. Published sources stated that the funds for St. Nicholas School came from the Catholic Extension Society of Toronto. While it is true that Archbishop Langevin asked the Society to support the Ukrainians, in fact the bulk of the funds came from an unknown benefactor. As if by providence, on 27 January 1910, only three weeks after the decision to build a school, Cardinal Merry del Val wrote to the Canadian apostolic delegate that:

A pious person made an offering to the Holy Father of ten-thousand lire in favour of the Ruthenians. Wherefore, I am sending to you, for this purpose, an enclosed cheque from the Credit Lyonnais.

Apostolic Delegate Donato Sbarretti informed Archbishop Langevin of the bequest, to which Langevin replied on 9 March:

Truly the Holy Father is very good to take an interest in our dear Ruthenians and the benefactor that gave to His Holiness these two thousand dollars is generous. [...] In Winnipeg, we must build a school for the Ruthenian children.

Ten days later, on 19 March, Langevin wrote in greater detail to Archbishop Sbarretti concerning his project:

Truly it is a great encouragement and this determines me to take on the project of constructing a school for the Ruthenian Parish in Winnipeg- since only 150 children come together under the direction of one or two Ruthenian sisters in the poorly lit basement of the church of St. Nicholas. There are more than two-hundred other children that are not at any school and about a hundred good to the schools constructed by the Presbyterians or to the public schools. It means constructing a school for 400 children with room for the sisters to lodge.

With the requisite funds at hand, construction of St. Nicholas School began on 2 July 1911 and the blessing and official opening took place on 22 October. Only ten years later, this apostolate had already produced abundant fruits throughout the country. Writing from Quebec City on 1 November 1921, Metropolitan Sheptytsky shared the following observations with Bishop Papadopoulos of the Oriental Congregation:

The Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate run 6 schools for young children. This Congregation of Sisters, which came from Galicia 18 years ago only 4 or 5 in number, has developed very well. They have [...] schools in Mundare, Winnipeg, Edmonton Yorkton, Ituna and Sifton. [...] Thanks to the annual collections that the Canadian bishops decided to make, for 10 years, in all the churches in Canada, and thanks to the help of the Basilian and Redemptorist Fathers and to the efforts of Bishop Budka, all the Sisters’ convents have large and beautiful schools. [Today] their number is close to 70.

The first of its kind, Saint Nicholas School continued to serve the Winnipeg Ukrainian Catholic community until 1962, when the present-day building was completed and the its name was changed to Immaculate Heart of Mary. In its centenary year of 2005, a planning project for a new school was initiated. Canadian Ukrainian Catholics are no longer burdened with the poverty that their ancestors endured, a century ago. Currently, our community is endowed with all of the human, financial, and spiritual resources required to maintain a Ukrainian Catholic school of the highest calibre. Our Faith leads us to Hope which moves us to Charity. Besides shedding light on interesting details from the past, this article can also provide material for reflection about our future.