The Basilian Fathers in Canada

More than 60,000 Ukrainians arrived in western Canada between 1891 and 1905. While gradually settling themselves in the new land, these early pioneers were disheartened at missing the liturgies and religious feast days they have fervently marked in their homeland. They wanted the sacraments of baptism and confirmation for their babies, while also recognizing a need for cemeteries in which to bury their dead, in consecrated ground and in common locations. Yet because few priests emigrated, religious life initially remained disorganized, with the immigrants relying on missionaries who might occasionally travel through their area. Later, the Ukrainian settlers were attracted to other denominations — including the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches — as those missions were established in the early years of the twentieth century.

In response to this situation, the hierarchy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Galicia began sending members of its clergy to Canada. On November 1, 1902, Fr. Platonides Filas, OSBM (1864–1930), Fr. Sozont Dydyk, OSBM (1875–1950), Fr. Anton Strotsky, OSBM (1874–1950), and Bro. Yeremiya Yanishewsky, OSBM (b. 1878) — all members of the Basilian Order — arrived at the Strathcona immigration hall (in present-day Edmonton). To best serve the Ukrainian pioneers, each priest took responsibility for a district within the new mission: Fr. Filas went to Beaver Lake (southeast of present-day Mundare), Fr. Dydyk to Rabbit Hill (south of Edmonton), and Fr. Strotsky to Star (east of Edmonton). Before formal parishes could be established and churches built, the priests celebrated liturgies and performed the sacraments from the settlers’ homes, with people walking from miles around to attend. Although the Basilians drew together the Ukrainian community, the gatherings at these services were multi-ethnic, with immigrants from other nationalities also participating.

The Growth of the Basilian Order

In January 1903, Fr. Filas applied for a homestead in the Beaver Lake settlement, with additional quarters taken in the names of Fr. Strotsky and Bro. Yanishewsky. This was the foundation for the Basilian mission. With the help of the Ukrainian pioneers, Fr. Filas built a combined chapel–residence, and later a school in May 1904. The monastery chapel was one of the first specifically denominational churches in the area. 

The earliest chronicles from the Basilian mission document the response of the local community to the growing religious organization. Between November 1902 and December 1903 alone, the Basilian Fathers performed 307 baptisms. In another entry, Fr. Naucratius Kryzanowsky, OSBM (1876–1940) noted that in 1921, he heard 3,134 confessions.

From their base at the Beaver Lake mission, the Basilian Fathers served throughout east central Alberta. The earliest parishes established in the area were: Star, St. Michael, Skaro (1898); Wostok (1902); New Kiew (1903); Plain Lake (1905); Derwent, Smoky Lake (1907); Myrnam (1909); and Innisfree, Northern Valley, Radway, Stry (1910). Before dedicated church buildings could be constructed within these parishes, the priests relied on the pioneer families to provide them with lodging as well as a place from which to conduct services. The Basilian chronicles identify the following families: Kalinchuk (Borschiw); Nay and Seniuk (Hilliard), Eleniak (Chipman), Starko (Star), Tychkowsky (Peno), Lesiuk (Mundare), Svarich (Vegreville), Predyk (Plain Lake),    

Following his arrival in 1905, Fr. Athanasius Fylypiw, OSBM (1870–1937) further solidified religious life at the Beaver Lake mission: he initiated May Devotions, organized the Apostleship of Prayer, and constructed a bell tower which also served as a chapel during the summer months.

Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate

The Ukrainian Catholic religious congregation known as the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate (SSMI) had only been in existence for ten years when four of its members left for missionary work in Canada: Sr. Ambrose Marcella Lenkewich, Sr. Taida Elena Wrublewsky, Sr. Emelia Omeliana Klapowska, and Sr. Isidore Pauline Shypowsky. After arriving on November 1, 1902, the Sisters Servants spent eight months in Edmonton (which then had a population of 5500 residents). During this first winter in Canada, the Sisters Servants became acquainted with the Sisters of the Faithful Companion of Jesus, who were associated with St. Joachim’s parish and who conducted an evening school for about 40 young girls, some of whom were the children of Ukrainian immigrants.

When the Sisters Servants reached the Beaver Lake mission on July 7, 1903, Fr. Filas vacated his newly constructed residence for them. Among the Sisters’ first task was to offer an education to the settlers’ children. Until a dedicated structure could be built, the Basilian chapel also served as a school: portable walls were used to separate the sanctuary from the rest of the building.

From their base at the Basilian mission, the Sisters Servants also began their sustained efforts to address the social, cultural, and medical needs of the Ukrainian settlers. They lived within the community, offering support to the women, teaching the girls manual tasks, taking care of the sick, as well as tending to the chapel itself. In 1913, an orphanage was established at the Basilian mission, financed from both the Sisters Servants’ dowries and donations from the settlers. Bishop Nykyta Budka — Canada’s first Ukrainian Catholic bishop — blessed the orphanage on August 19, 1914; and to celebrate the event, the children staged a concert and play.

Mundare, the Centre of Ukrainian Catholicism

During the 1920s, the Basilian Fathers and the Sisters Servants relocated from the original homestead to the growing town of Mundare, although the school on the Beaver Lake mission remained open.

Mundare subsequently emerged as the primary Ukrainian Catholic centre in Canada. This status was reflected in the construction of a grand domed church and an infrastructure of devotional buildings: the Basilian Novitiate was opened in August 1923; a Way of the Cross and Grotto devoted to the Virgin Mary was built in 1934; and the Basilian Press started publishing in 1936, expanding on an earlier effort known as the “Library of Good Books.” Additionally, a variety of religious and national organizations was founded for the community, including the Apostleship of Prayer (1905), the Brotherhood of St. Barbara (1908), National Hall Association (1910), Ridna Shkola (1923), Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1928), and Brotherhood of Ukrainian Catholics (1933). Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the town hosted a variety of meetings, rallies, and celebrations focused on Ukrainian topics. 

To complement these institutions, the Sisters built a convent–school (1926), with one classroom reserved for younger children and the orphans in residence and the other for older girls.  A new hospital opened in 1928–1929 and employed one of the first Ukrainian-speaking doctors in Canada.

In serving settlers in east-central Alberta — the largest Ukrainian bloc settlement in Canada — the Basilian Fathers and Sisters Servants nurtured the language, culture, historical memory, and Catholic faith of thousands of Ukrainian Canadians and fostered the church’s growth both in Canada and internationally. In 2011, Parks Canada recognized the national historical significance of the Beaver Lake–Mundare Ukrainian Catholic mission: it marked the permanent establishment of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada and paved the way for the appointment of the country’s first Ukrainian Catholic bishop, Nykyta Budka.