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Manitoba History: An Interview with Mr. Emil Michaels

by Professor Stella Hryniuk
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Time and again, architectural reminders of a rich and meaningful culture brought by newcomers to Canada are being lost. In the fall of 1982, another such landmark, in Portage la Prairie, will likely be destroyed. There, the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is scheduled for demolition. Built in the late 1920s, it is a striking example of traditional Byzantine religious art transplanted to the Canadian west. But, beyond that, it is a monument to the immigrant community which built it, and to its spirit of self-reliance. The way in which the Church took shape, using the money and labor of the community itself, is the subject of this article. In the following interview, Mr. Emil Michaels (originally Michalchyshyn), the last surviving member of the Building Committee of that Church, illuminated some of the events of that under-taking. The conversation ranged across several themes which have been of recent concern to Canadian and Manitoba historians—the motivation for Ukrainian immigration and their settlement pattern; the early material and spiritual deprivations, and the later successes in organizational and religious life; the abiding spirit of community and voluntarism brought here as cultural baggage from the “old country”.

Emil Michaels

Emil Michaels came to Canada with his father, George, in 1922. He had just completed village schooling and had been admitted to the gymnasium in Chortkiv. Besides his public schooling he had been educated in religion and singing at home by his father who was cantor for the Ukrainian Catholic Churches in the two adjoining villages of Skorodyntsi and Bychkivtsi and, as such, one of the cultural leaders of the village. Emil was employed along with his father and brother, Jerry, on the Canadian National Railways. All three of them spent their working lives as Section Foremen, Emil retiring in 1966. The first cantor in the Church of the Assumption was Emil’s father who remained cantor until his death in 1953 after which Emil took over that position until illness forced him to quit. Today Emil lives in Portage la Prairie.

This interview was conducted in both English and Ukrainian.

Q. Your father came to Portage in 1913. Why did he choose this small town in the prairies?

Because there were quite a few people from the village where he was cantor. So I guess they must have been corresponding. He had three different passports. He came on somebody else’s passport. He had to get out of Galicia, but he wasn’t a criminal. It was mostly politics. He wanted it to be better for his people. We used to say ‘Austrian rule, Polish jurisdiction, Ukrainian misery.’

My father was with the Peasant party—strictly for the people. Whether they were beggars or millionaires, they were for the Ukrainian people. He was never elected to a position but was always working behind the scenes all the time, in Skorodyntsi and Bychzkivtsi, where he was a cantor (diak, in Ukrainian).

Q. Did your father have a good education?

Fairly good. And mother had village school. This was the same for most of the people like, Piliawsky, Blavatniuk, Stebelesky. [1]

Q. Was there a reading hall in the Portage Ukrainian Community? [2]

Oh, yes, a big library—plays were held.

Q. What was the church called?

The Assumption, Uspenia, in Ukrainian, built in 1907-08—when the parish was organized—the first one ever.

Q. Were there not already Russian Orthodox and Presbyterians in the area?

The Orthodox Church was here at that time. It was organized before the Catholic Church. The only thing is, there weren’t very many people from Bukovyna here, maybe 10 families. [3] And that’s why that church was built there.

Q. Were there any Independent Greek Churches, that the Presbyterians organized?

Not at that time. The Presbyterians, or bible students, whatever they were—they were trying to get into the Greek Orthodox Church. There wasn’t even a priest on their side, but they didn’t succeed. These Bible Students, Presbyterians, they tried to talk to people this way, saying “What is this,—the Catholics have Rome, and the Orthodox have Moscow, but we don’t need any of that. We don’t even need a church at all. We and God, that’s all we need.”

Q. When you came, this little church was standing. Who was the priest when you came?

When we came it was Father Hryhorichuk. He wasn’t here long. Maybe a year. Shortly after that there was Fr. Kamenetskyi. There were no steady priests. They used to come from Winnipeg, oh, maybe once in 3-4 weeks. [5]

Q. What did you do about funerals?

You’d let them know and they’d come—and the same for baptisms.

Q. I’m imagining, if I lived in that parish and there were 5 babies born, say in the month of May, would they wait till the priest came, and then have a sort of common baptism?

Yes, either that, or they went to the R.C. priest. In case of a sickly baby or something, to be on the safe side, they’d go to the R.C. priest. And when the Greek Catholic Church priest came, they’d transfer the paper over here. So it was registered here. And sometimes, an R.C. priest wasn’t careful—it happened in my case—he’d put it in his books.

Q. So your record was never transferred?

Our daughter Marian was getting married when I found out. I asked our priest about our daughter’s baptism. He said there’s no such name. Father—he had a French name—who christened Marian, didn’t record it. I came back to our priest. He said “are there any witnesses (godparents) still around?” There were Mr & Mrs. Holuk. He said “I’ll make you a certificate. I believe you and what you say about the godparents:” There were hundreds of such occurrences. Your mother—she’s not born. And I wasn’t married. I was going on pension in 1960 and CNR asked for my marriage certificate. I went to see our parish priest, Father Slabyi, and he asked me, “are you really married” (laughs) “are you telling the truth?’; he said.

Q. So the first time you had a priest who belonged to Portage was in what year?

It was 1922. But he still only came once or twice a month. There was no residence here.

On Sunday morning, most of the parish people came to church. The cantor and 4 or 5 people together started to sing the liturgy. “Amen: What we sing—the cantors—that’s what they sang right to the end without a priest. Somebody would kneel, at Consecration when the words “Take and eat of this ...” would’ve been said, and would ring the bells. Then we’d sing, “Amen” and that was all. We knew what should’ve been inserted there. This happened 3 Sundays out of every month.

But it was like that all over. We did Vespers like that too, but fewer people came for these. For Vespers, the priest normally has very little to sing anyway, and the Cantor has the most to sing.

Q. So that’s how you did it. Your dad was the Cantor. Did he have to organize the parish this way or did they come to him? Did they come to the house and ask him?

Well it was so firmly entrenched in them the way things should be regarding these services. Everyone knew how it should be and how to do it. Of course, if it was praznyk, [6] or something, that needed changing in the service, the priest and the cantor would consult; or if it was a procession around the church or something like that to arrange—well, then there were the elders (starshi braty), the people who arranged it.

Consecration of new church, July 20, 1930
Courtesy Mrs. K. Kuzyk.

Q. The people had formed a committee?

Oh, of course. There was more order then than now.

Q. Well, who were the head people?

When we came—I’m going to mix them all together. There was Piliawsky, Chyzheveych, Sokolowskyi, Martyniuk. Later—Bulbak, Stebelesky, Marusyk, Kyrylo, Stroch, Horbal, Firman, Hewko, Ozarko. Those were the core of the parish—Halaiko, Piliawsky, Stebelskyi. When we came to Portage there were already a lot of people and they were talking about needing a new church. So, 1924, 1925—yes, 1925—when Father Hryhorichuk was here, we were holding a big parish bazaar. They made $600 in 5 days. In that time, that was like $10,000 today. So—the $600 was ready, and they wanted to get on with building a church. The parish account had over $5,000 cash in it. Every year they’d collected a bit and now they said, “Well lets start a new church.”

It was Dad who talked with Bishop Budka. Someone had died, and the Bishop had come to bury him. Dad told Budka that the people had this money and wanted to build a church. The bishop said (I heard Dad telling about in “I know this priest who builds churches. If he doesn’t help you I don’t know who will.” So he gave Dad the address, told him to write to him (Fr. Ruh), [7] Dad wrote to him, and told him all about the situation. Dad didn’t know what he was — German, Polish or whatever It was 1924-25. He wanted to know if he could come out to talk to the parish. Fr. Ruh replied that he’d be able to come out a week from then. “Call a meeting’: he said. It was all very quick. Dad didn’t expect this. This was in 1925. Dad then went to Hewko, Halaiko, Ozarko Firman—5 or 6 men. And he told them this priest was coming. He went from one house to another house. There was no phone in those days. He told them that the man who’d be building their church was coming. Fr. Ruh came to town, to our house on Main Street.

Q. The meeting was in your house?

Yes. They met and he talked with them (the priest and these few people). It was unofficial. Then they made an official meeting a week or so later. They announced it in Church on Sunday that there’s to be a parish meeting at 3 pm the next Sunday.

Well, one of this group of men who, was on the Parish Committee—Ozarko, treasurer Blavatniuk or Firman—was a secretary of some kind. And thats how it all started. Dad came home and talked about it.

Q. Why did they want this big Church?

OK. Now I’ll go back to that. After preliminaries, Fr. Ruh asked us, “Give me an idea what kind of church you want. Are you going to build of stone, brick, wood, whatever?” Well, they discussed it, and decided they’d like a wooden church. “How big?”, he said. “How many members do you have?” he asked. I know who was there, I was there.

Q. Tell we who was there.

The elite: Chyzhevych, Stebeletsky, Pyliawskyi, Sokolowskyi, Horbal, Dad (George Michalchyshyn), Kravets. Other names I’ve forgotten. They looked at each other and couldn’t tell him. Fr. Ruh said then, “how many pews do you want?” One said 100, another—200, another—300. They had no idea. There were 240 families here then—not members. Families of Ukrainians, not all Catholics. That was exactly the point. He was asking how many of you are here. He was under the impression that all the Ukrainians were Catholics. Finally, they decided on 200 seats. It was going to be a big building with that many.

Q. So that’s how it got to be that size.

He said, “I can make you a big one or small one.” I remember him saying (made a sign with his hands on the table of a foot or so square structure).

“If its of mud it’ll be big. If its of wood, it’ll be smaller; and if gold, still smaller (used Mr. Ruh’s pronunciation).

“Yakz polota to bodevelyka, z dereva, mensha; a z solota to she mensha.”

Q. He was Belgian?

No. He was German, what do you call that part of the world—Lotharingia?

Q. That’s the German/French province, Lorraine?

That’s where he came from. When I went to school they called it Lotharingia.

Q. He spoke pretty good Ukrainian?

His pronounciation was different. Some people always teased him about it. He would say “Trymaitseja svoi firy”—God give him heaven.

Q. People laughed at him, I guess.

Yes, some laughed at him, but many cried too. Because he was sincere. When he gave a sermon, boy, it was for three quarters of an hour. Who was going to serve all those Catholic people, if these Belgians and Germans and French Priests didn’t? And yet that’s what the more radical people went after—saying “He’s not one of us.” Instead of accepting and helping him ... Where would you find a Ukrainian priest who built churches? Or would build one for others, for the French, for example? If you mentioned anything to Fr. Ruh, that he was German, he’d turn red and say, “Don’t you dare.” He didn’t say it the same way 1 just have. “How much of a German am I?” You see, he quit everything of his own. He studied in Halychyna, before he came over to Canada, in Buchach in Zhovkva. Zhovkva was a Basilian monastery and so was Buchach. [8]

Q. Did Bishop Budka have much to do with the Church? Did he come here, encourage it?

As far as I know and can tell, there wasn’t very much connection. He had no hand in it. It was almost entirely up to the parish.

Tony Luhowy was here twice. He was the bishop’s secretary then. I saw him twice here with the Bishop. They used to come maybe from someplace, stepped in. But the Bishop had no influence in it. He advised the parish, he said to the people—”if he (Fr. Ruh) doesn’t build it for you I don’t know who can help”, he said. From then, they were on their own. He never said, “you should build it like this or like that.” He said, “if you can build it, then go ahead. If you can’t then don’t.”

Q. Why did they always say that the property was under the Bishop’s Corporation, that the parish doesn’t own the property? How did they explain this?

Well, its a misconception. Its not that the parish doesn’t own the property. It’s something like what we had before between Canada and England. There’s certain things you can’t do without permission from the Bishop.

Q. But this church, the way you’re telling we you collected money and you built on your own, it doesn’t sound to we as though the Bishop or anybody had much control over you or your property. [9]

No, no, no. The only thing is that there could be no bible students—Presbyterians, or any other factions could come in to take over.

Q. What about people from the countryside, did they come in join?

There were very few Ukrainian farmers around here then. Bujachok, Nazar counts himself as Orthodox. Mike Sholdak—brother of Fr. Sholdak—Malenchak (Mike, Douglas) came as long as their mother lived, drove her to Church, sat in the Church. But when they died they come to the church, then.

Q. Tell we about the big Church—how it got built.

The new church got started—in 1924 when Fr. Ruh agreed to start building anytime we wanted. So the parish decided first of all to dig a hole for the basement. This was done in the fall of 1925. Remember that, because there’s so much controversy about that. Some of the members didn’t like it, because they said—why dig a hole in the ground and leave it for the winter? In the spring it’ll be full of water. How can you start to do anything? In the spring there was no water, luckily there were not many rains, the water there was down and they started to build.

Q. Where was Fr. Ruh at this time?

He was living here. By 1926 in the fall we had the roof over the building. Roughly, there were no windows yet. All we had were some walls (laughs).

Courtesy Mrs. K. Kuzyk.

Q. Who built it?

We did, that means, the parish. Everybody. Lately, I’ve heard so many snide remarks about that time (in Ukrainian). “Oh, they didn’t know what they were doing.” They said, “The people who built it were as bad as the architect.” The architect had training in architecture, was a good architect, and he told everybody what to do. Besides him, we had four paid carpenters — Sawchuk, Baraniuk from Mountain Road, Sylvester somebody—can’t remember his name—anyway there were 4 or 5 paid carpenters, full time; volunteers came by the dozen; as long as you could hold a hammer, and as long as you could see what you were doing with the saw, you had a job there—all voluntary. There wasn’t a cent paid. Some had their parish membership waived, $5 a year.

Q. I can’t imagine how you did it. Everybody had another job. How did they do it?

Those who had a job didn’t build. Those who didn’t have a job came to build the church.

Q. You mean the unemployed?

There was no such thing as unemployment. You worked three months and you “retired” for the rest of the year.

Q. Some guys would work on the railroad?

For 3, 4, 5 months, and then they’d get laid off. They worked 6 months at the most. But nobody looked for any other work because there wasn’t any. There wasn’t any use going any place. Just like now. Its getting to be like that. There’d be no work. For instance, I’ll talk about Hewko, because its something I know about. He worked maybe 3 months a year. Year after year after year. All the rest of the time he spent helping to build that church. Kyrilo Stroch—he had a job with the CNR, but every day after work he was here.

Q. They came after supper—till the sunset?

Yes, and Fr. Ruh was there from 6 o’clock in the morning till 9 at night, to tell everybody what to do. He supervised it.

Q. How long did it take you to build that church?

Almost 3 years. I was married in that church in February of that year, 1927. It had windows, doors, roof and a furnace. But everything was just boards. In 1928 it was painted inside.

Q. That’s when you had Mr. Sych in. Tell we about Mr. Sych.

Sych was an artist but he wasn’t a professional artist. He was a “homegrown” artist.

Q. In the old country?

Wherever he was, in the old country or in Canada, he wasn’t trained in painting. Whatever he could, he painted. Till now they say, even, “he was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing.” Its not as symmetrical as ... We all know. But, you just try to hire somebody to paint a church these days.

Q. Did he have workers working for him?

Yes, he had 2 or 3 to do the backgrounds—all those decorations. His nephew was here, and he had a brother-in-law or cousin. There were 4 or 5 of them.

Q. So he was here for only year? He wasn’t someone who belonged to the parish?

No, he lived in Winnipeg, came here, lived somewhere, had to pay for his room and board. [10]

Q. So then the church was finished. And who would you say then was the parish leadership when the church was finished? Was it a new generation already or was it still the same people you had come with?

Well, it was still almost the same. The only thing is, in 1927, there was a big break, or I should say, split in the parish. When our church started to come up with the walls and then the pillars, there were so many pillars in that building that anybody going by would say, “What are they building there—are they building Rome or something? Look at how many pillars there are there.” This was the remark. And a lot of people took that remark to heart. “It’ll cost so much money, what will we do?” They gave up. Most of those people—radicals and the sort who didn’t care about faith, religion, only their individual needs ... they stopped helping, they stopped gathering together and we, and I count myself among those who were left, some 40 of us, said, “whatever way we can, but we’re going to do this because we have to finish this.” And that’s how it was. This man, the late Hewko, that I mentioned, he worked on an extra-gang one summer, on the railroad, collecting money; everyone was collecting money, any place, anybody, everybody tried to get some money. That is why the upper part of the Church is weaker than the lower. We had no money by the time we got to that.

Q. But it sounds like the foundation was pretty good.

Yes. It started as a good and beautiful building. I’ll tell you about one instance, about how the money was collected or donated. Gibb and Mackay, that’s a lumber company, wouldn’t give us any more lumber because we owed $40 there. That’s a day’s wages now—a joke now. “Give us $40-$45. We’ll give you some more lumber,’ they said. Kyrillo Stroch, that’s Mrs. Kish’s stepfather, sold his cow —got $40, and he gave the money to the Church. Who would do anything like that now? Would you sell your house, and lend money to...”Why did you sell the cow; what did you do that for? You crazy man”, said his wife. I thought old Kyrillo Stroch would go crazy—his wife was after him so much. But still, she was a good woman.

Q. She was thinking of the kids.

He only had one.

Q. If these people built the church, they must have had some reason for building it. Was it just faith?

To say to what you’re saying, besides faith, they had a pride. We can do it. “It doesn’t matter what you say, we can do it. I’ll go barefoot from here to Halifax, but I’ll do it,” they would say. Those kind of people are gone now.

Today there is half of the religion or faith there was then—not even half. Let me give you an example. l remember Mr. Bulbak went to Mountain Road or someplace to a logging camp. They had boards, timber, for sale, cheap. Nobody would go. Nobody had a truck. This Bulbak had a truck; he was on the farm, then. Nobody told him to go. He said to him-self, “I’ll go and get some’. He went up there. got the load of lumber. Coming back, the truck broke down. He had to unload, go back to the garage someplace, to get it fixed. Grandpa (George) always did his cantorial work for nothing. I was right there at the Church gate. Then later Fr. Kushnir came, said, “Here, this is the money owed to you”—to my father. He pulled out $1.50, Sunday’s pay ($6 a month). Dad said. “No, thank you. Keep it.”

Because the parish began construction of their church in 1925 with a substantial amount of money and manpower, the builders were confident of seeing it through to completion. But as the decade of the 1920s drew to a close and the Depression set in, this Ukrainian community was hard hit in terms of unemployment and financial losses. As for the church, its upper portions, roof and exterior finish had to be financed out of diminishing funds. Thus a very vital part of the structure was weakly constructed. Over half a century, the elements have taken their toll. Today, the commanding centre dome sways visibly on a windy Manitoba day, and the bracings, over the pseudo-Gothic side altar sections are a mass of peeling paint and rotting wood.

The present parish committee has already built a smaller, modern Church. But the loss of the old Church is hard to bear.


1. The Ukrainian Catholic community in Portage was composed of people who had emigrated to Canada between 1896 and 1914 from a part of the Austrian monarchy called Galicia. Many of them were originally from the same county (Povit, in Ukrainian) named Chortkiv. In particular, three members of the Building Committee, Paul Firman, and George and Emil Michalchyshyn came from the village Skorodyntsi in that county. Others mentioned in the interview were from adjoining villages and counties in the eastern, predominantly Ukrainian part of Galicia. For example, D. Hewko was from Bily, a village 5 km south of Skorodyntsi, his wife was from the village of Bilabozhnytsia, 5 km west of Bily.

2. Reading halls, sometimes referred to as reading clubs were a feature of village life in east Galicia whence these people came. They were gatherings of people, in a private home or in a building specially designated for the purpose. to listen to reading of newspapers, books, journals. etc. In a society such as theirs where illiteracy was still considerable, exchange of written knowledge in this manner played an important role in the cultural and intellectual lives of the people.

3. Bukovyna was another province of the Austrian monarchy from which many Ukrainians emigrated to Canada, particularly to the southern part of Manitoba. However, Ukrainians from there were predominantly Orthodox in religion, with allegiance to the Patriarch of Moscow. They differed from the Ukrainian Catholics from Galicia mainly in the fact that the Ukrainian Catholics recognized the Pope as the head of their church. The ritual of the Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic churches were virtually the same.

4. The Independent Greek Church was a syncretic institution established by the Presbyterian Church in Canada in cooperation with some Ukrainians in order to assist in Canadianization of Ukrainians. It allowed for the retention of some facets of the Ukrainians’ ancestral religious rituals, but it was to be Protestant in spirit.

5. The priests played an integral part in the life of the Galician peasantry, and later in the life of the Ukrainian immigrants. Because a very small number of Ukrainian Catholic priests came to Canada with these immigrants, their spiritual needs were often sorely neglected. At first they were served by the occasional itinerant priests of their own kind, but more frequently, by Roman Catholic missionaries sent to them by the St. Boniface Archdiocese under whose religious care they found themselves. This situation improved somewhat after 1912 when a Ukrainian Catholic Bishop, Budka, was nominated to the first separate diocese for that rite in Canada.

6. Praznyk is a word meaning, generally, celebration, or in the context of the interview, it was the Sunday in which the parish celebrated the feast day of the saint or holy day after which their church was named.

Amateur drama, choral and dance societies might also form in these for mutual enjoyment and enlightenment. The most important of these halls or clubs in east Galicia were those belonging to Proorita. an educational society which emphasized self-reliance. cooperation and self-education in its programs.

7. Father Phillip Ruh, a Roman Catholic priest and builder, was a German Oblate missionary who had been assigned by his Order to work in Ukrainian missions in Canada, despite his different rite and language. His expertise in designing and overseeing the construction of churches had earned him widespread recognition. He was responsible for other “prairie cathedrals,” among them the Ukrainian Catholic churches in Mountain Road and, later, Cooks Creek, Manitoba.

The Church he designed for Portage embodied stylistic features found in eastern Christian Churches the world over—the cruciform shape. the central hemispherical dome, the soaring cupolas. The interior he adorned with other typical Byzantine features—icons, gilt crucifixes, candelabra.

These features had profound significance for the Ukrainians who had been accustomed to seeing them in their homes and churches in Galicia. There was an intense appeal to the senses through the use of color, light, space. The main body of the Church and the domes were filled with icons painted on canvas and applied to the walls. The arrangement of these icons was determined by Byzantine conventions established as far back as the 9th and 10th centuries. Part of this pattern can be discerned in the photograph of the interior of the Church. There can be seen the image of the Pontecrator (God the Father) in the dome of the sanctuary and other icons around the body of the Church commemorating various saints and holy days. The purpose of the icons was to remind people of the presence in Heaven and on earth of Divine Grace, and of the believers’ place in the “society” of Christ and the saints.

8. When Roman Catholic missionaries were assigned to work among the Ukrainians in Canada, the Superior of their Order generally arranged for them to spend some time in east Galicia among the Ukrainians. Presumably they were to learn about the Ukrainian rite and people. Two monasteries of the Ukrainian Basilian Order in Galicia, in Buchach and Zhovkva, were the centers to which they were sent for this special preparation.

9. When the Ukrainians first built their churches they were the outright owners of them. In fact they were supposed to register all church properties in the Bishop’s Corporation. for their own protection. However, Ukrainians became aware of congregational denominations in Canada. and some rejected the idea of registering their properties with the French Bishop’s corporation. seeing this as a threatening “Latinizing” influence. Many problems arose over this phenomenon among Ukrainians in Canada in the early decades of this century.

10. Pavlo Sych, like Father Ruh, had become something of a legend in Ukrainian Canadian Church history. Various accounts agree that he liked to drink. One elderly lady who was a young girl at the time recalls how she was sent up the scaffolding in the Church to bring the painter needed sustenance in order that he might work further. But his habit didn’t prevent him from producing some remarkable works of art. On the other hand, the icon portraying the Last Judgement provides viewers with insight into the relationship between himself and his employers. Mr. Michaels and others have explained that at the time of the painting of this icon. Sych was embroiled in problems over payment of his meagre wages with certain members of the Building Committee. Sych’s retribution for delays in payment of his wages was to portray certain members of the Building Committee among the multitudes in Hell.

Page revised: 1 January 2011

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