Holy Family Parish 75th Anniversary Luncheon November 22, 2009
“Memories” by Walter Dubowec

Father Mark invited me to recount some history and memories about our parish of the past 75 years. There are only about six of us parishioners left who were there 75 years ago as children and are still parishioners to this day.

In 1991, a 460 page book was compiled on the “Ukrainian Catholic Churches of Winnipeg Archeparchy” which was a masterful piece of work. This body of knowledge includes an excellent history of our parish up until then. You have probably read excerpts from it in either our parish bulletin or at the 75th Anniversary dinner and dance event.

You might wonder how there was such a concentration of Ukrainians in Winnipeg’s south end. The population in this area was beginning to grow and the CNR was the principal employer where most of our Ukrainian people found work in the CNR shops as machinists, switchmen, section-hands, etc. The common bond amongst them was that they had emigrated from Western Ukraine and knew one another from their respective villages. In order to have a gathering place they built a cultural centre for themselves called the “Kobzar Hall”. Occasionally religious services were celebrated in the hall and catechism classes were eventually conducted by the Sisters and Ukrainian school was taught by a lay person on Saturdays.
Let me briefly describe what the community looked like back then. There were clusters of houses, interspersed with garden plots and a lot of surrounding bush, mud roads, ditches, wooden sidewalks, two grocery stores owned by Ukrainians, McDiarmid Lumber yard, a couple of coal yards, a Red River Grain elevator on the corner of Scotland and Lilac, and the CNR main railway line ran down what is now Grant Avenue. The street car went as far as the loop at the corner of Lorette and Stafford, and on Corydon Avenue, to the corner of Corydon and Wilton.

Imagine the great depression had just ended when a small group of 40 courageous individuals with a vision decided to build a Ukrainian Catholic church. A site on the SW corner of Lilac and Lorette was donated by Messrs. Czerny and Bidochka, a lady from eastern Canada donated $500, McDiarmid Lumber granted an open line of credit, and along with volunteer labour, construction of the church commenced.  The builder was Mr. Alex Romanchuk who was a respected builder of several other churches.

The original church opened with bench seating.  A parishioner who was a very talented carpenter, volunteered to build the tabernacle, the two side altars, the confessional and the pews out of his house on Weatherdon Avenue.  What a gift of personal labour that was to the parish.  In those days it was common practice in our Ukrainian Catholic churches to pay an annual fee for reserved seating, with the family name affixed to the side of the pew.  In addition to the Sunday collection plate, there were various fund raising events held.  For example, a common summer fundraiser was called “zemna harbatkas” and held in a parishioner’s yard on Sunday afternoons.  The translation of “zemna harbatka” is “cold tea”.  Now let me explain.  While the ladies sat around and enjoyed “hot tea” and supervised the children who enjoyed their “cider”, the men sat around and swapped tales while enjoying their “zemna harbatka”.  The host was responsible for cycling down to the liquor store and picking up a small keg of beer.  A spigot and a small hand pump would be inserted into the keg in order to dispense the “zemna harbatka”. The beer was relatively flat but on a hot day nobody really cared.  As a child I was always impressed with the camaraderie and the way people conducted themselves. They were truly role models for us children.  It was truly a community.

Volunteerism was always an important part of church life for everyone. If you were asked to do something you just did it.  Our original church was built on concrete piles without a basement.  The council decided that it was time to develop the basement so that there could be an indoor washroom, a kitchen and space for various activities.  The itinerant pastor at the time was Fr. Michael Syrnyk who was the Chancellor under Bishop Basil Ladyka. He had me crawl under the church through one of the small air vents and while I shovelled the earth out from under, he shovelled it away on the outside.  We dug a hole big enough to get things started when the men arrived from work to continue with some serious digging.  The basement was completely dug by hand and all of the carpentry work was done by volunteers. The floor and walls were of wooden construction, with a staircase leading down from the Narthex.   I also recall my father getting up at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning to light a fire in the church so that it would be reasonably warm enough for the arriving faithful. Parishioners were always very hospitable to our itinerant priests and choir directors and would invite them both over for lunch following the liturgies.

One of our parishioners had acquired and donated a used organ for the choir loft. The challenge was to get it up into the choir loft which was no small fete.  The men first erected a huge ramp in the church and then slowly pulled it up using heavy ropes.  Had the ramp ever collapsed, the organ could have plummeted right through the floor and may have even seriously injured someone.  Nadia Reid was the organist, who became president of the UCWLC.  We were also blessed in having such capable choir directors as John Kozoris, and later a Mr. Markiw, who was a perfectionist when it came to song.

One of the itinerant priests who deserve special recognition is Father Vladimir Bozyk, the son of Father Pantemelon Bozyk who was the first priest to conduct occasional services at the Kobzar Hall.  Father Vladimir was an exceptional young priest who was very energetic, which really went over well with both the children and the parishioners.  He organized many interesting activities for us children such as wiener roasts and sing songs around a bonfire in the bush near the church, trips to Winnipeg Beach, games in the Kobzar Hall, etc.  He always had new ideas up his sleeve to keep us engaged.  He was also instrumental in encouraging charitable giving which allowed for upgrading of the church interior.

would be remiss if I didn’t also make special mention of the exemplary Dybka Family.  Mr. Dybka was employed at the CNR and was not only a founding member of our parish but the president and a highly respected member within the Archeparchy.  While on Archeparchial business he died at the age of 43 as a result of a car accident on a trip to Rosa, MB.  He left behind a family of 8 children; which included two 7 year old twin daughters Elizabeth and Olga both of whom later in life entered the sisterhood; and a son Yaroslaw (Russ), who entered the Redemptorist Order. Fr. Russ and Sr. Petronnella often remarked on how they played in the bush when they were kids where the new church is now standing.  Fr. Russ would pretend he was a priest and make the kids attend liturgy while Sr. Petronnella made the same kids attend her catechism. When I was in grade 7 at Earl Grey School, Fr. Russ was in grade 9. One morning on the way to school he shocked me with the announcement of his intention of entering St. Vladimir College in Roblin. I couldn’t imagine being without one of my closest friends. Later in life I realized that he had made the right choice as he became a very prolific preacher travelling throughout Canada, USA and Ukraine.  Sister Petronnella (Elizabeth) has served in the Edmonton Eparchy for many years. She is the sole surviving member of her family and made a personal effort to attend our 75th Anniversary dinner in memory of her late parents and family. In 2008, an anonymous donor gifted $10,000 in “Memory of Michael & Katherine Dybka”.

Our parish’s first full time priest was Father John Kristalovich. In order to provide him with accommodation, a second story was constructed above the sacristy.  Although the living quarters were cramped, Father Kris considered them adequate and lived there until the new church was built with a similar housing arrangement above the sacristy.

Holy Family Parish priests 1
Holy Family Parish priests 2

By 1960 our small church had outgrown itself and land was acquired on Grant and Harrow for a new church.  A fundraising campaign was initiated asking parishioners to sign pledge cards committing to their donations over the next five years.  This started out to be a hard sell as our Ukrainian people were not familiar with pledge cards and they were concerned about the possible consequences of not fulfilling their obligations.  Gradually the fears and concerns were allayed and the campaign was a resounding success.  It reminds me somewhat of our effort today in trying to convince parishioners to sign up for direct bank deposits for their donations.

An architect’s preliminary design for a new church was presented to our building and fundraising committee but it was dismissed as being far too traditional and typical of Ukrainian Catholic churches of the past.  Professor Radoslav Zuk was then engaged to come up with a unique modernity design that would appeal to the influx of the young families moving into the surrounding neighbourhoods.  When Professor Zuk presented his design in the form of a wooden model to our building committee, I vividly remember how we unanimously agreed that the design was unique and absolutely stunning. It was the kind of design we were looking for and instructed him to proceed to detailed drawings. The new church would comfortably seat in excess of 300 parishioners, as compared to the old church which accommodated 110.

Tenders were let for the construction and a contract was let to the successful low bidder.  Although we didn’t have our financing in place the contractor agreed to commence construction. In order to get some interim financing, Mark Smerchanski, chair of our fundraising and building committee, along with Michael Gingera, went to the Bank of Nova Scotia on Corydon and Daly and negotiated a $100,000 loan secured by a promissory note and guaranteed by them personally. Mark Smerchanski was a successful engineer and geologist, and later became a Member of Parliament, while Michael Gingera was a practicing lawyer, both of whom must have had great courage and confidence in the future of the parish. Subsequently, mortgage financing was secured from the Knights of Columbus in Minneapolis.  A special ceremony was held when the mortgage was finally paid off.

As in the case of the original church, we used volunteer labour as much as possible to reduce the cost. A good example was the laying of the floor tile throughout the entire church before the pews arrived. The blonde colour of the pews, built in Quebec, was a bold break from tradition. The pedestal mahogany altars were crafted by a cabinet maker on north Main Street.  The tower glass which had a spectacular gold color when the sunlight shone through was imported from Europe.  There were hanging lights in the tower that when lit up at night provided a stunning view from the east and the west. Unfortunately the wind stress on the tower caused the original glass to crack so the tower had to be reinforced and the glass replaced with a different type and colour. The lights in the tower were eventually dismantled because they were too difficult to service. The ceiling lights which hang in the sanctuary were made and donated by Mr. Roscoe, who was a very young confident past president.

On one of our family visits to Toronto we went to the Casa Loma Museum and much to our surprise a picture of our new church was being exhibited.  Professor Zuk had been awarded an international architectural prize for the best church design of the year. Professor Zuk had emigrated from Ukraine, graduated from McGill and taught at several Canadian and American Universities, including the University of Manitoba.  He was a renowned international architect and had many awards to his credit for his many church and building designs.

Behind the church there was surplus land reserved for future expansion.  As the land had remained undeveloped for some time, Fr. Kriss was concerned that the City of Winnipeg might insist it revert back to them.  As a result a discussion ensued as to the best possible use of the space, be it a parish hall, a senior citizen’s complex, or a paved parking lot.  Father Kris favoured the construction of a senior citizen’s complex which would accommodate our senior parishioners if and when they decided to move out of their personal residences.  Several of our other parishes had already opened similar government subsidized senior citizen accommodations. Financing was secured from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, our parish contributed the land, and a capital campaign raised enough money to cover the cost of the basement for classroom use and the underground link to the church.

Fr. Kris had an unassuming style but in many ways he was quite progressive as a relatively young priest. I recall him mandating that the parish finance committee should be in full control of parish finances rather than the parish priest and he ensured that proper controls be followed. He also had our parishioners vote on when to celebrate Christmas.  Overwhelmingly, the parishioners voted in favour of December 25th rather than January 7th. Fr. Kris accommodated the congregation by conducting the liturgies in both the Ukrainian and English languages.  We were the first parish to embrace these changes that became an attraction to many new parishioners.

A more recent initiative to the credit of our Father Mark was the acquisition at long last of a standalone rectory for the use our parish clergy.  Up until then we were the only parish in Winnipeg which did not have suitable accommodation for our clergy. The acquisition of a rectory freed up much needed space for expansion in the sacristy and the office which were unreasonably cramped quarters. An equally important aspect of our parish’s operations was ensuring that the parish had a reliable financial information system and proper internal controls.  For the past decade a computerized accounting system has been in place with proper internal controls, and most importantly a qualified and dedicated staff to administer the parish’s affairs. There is now an exceptional historical data base on which to guide our parish council and finance committee in making future decisions, such as any capital project being contemplated.

In closing, I wish you all continued success and hope that you have both the vision and wisdom of the 40 families who founded our parish 75 years ago, as well as those that followed in building the present magnificent church which has served our parish so well.