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Manitoba History: Historic Sites of Manitoba: The Trembowla Cross of Freedom

by Cheryl Girard
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 67, Winter 2012

Over the past two years, the MHS has been compiling an inventory of historic sites around Manitoba as an encouragement to tourism and management of our rich historic resources. In each issue of Manitoba History, we will feature sites in that inventory. Eds.

A barefoot apostle, a tiny church and a wooden cross —without these and a determined group of Ukrainian pioneers—the Trembowla historic site would not exist.

Located about 27 kilometres northwest of Dauphin, the Trembowla Cross of Freedom is, today, a testament not only to the abiding faith of the first Ukrainian settlers in that area, but also to the perseverance they displayed in the face of many early hardships and struggles. For many Ukrainians, their story here can be traced back to the settlers of the Dauphin area and to Trembowla, one of the oldest colonies in Manitoba.

The Cross of Freedom at the Trembowla Cross of Freedom Historical Site and Museum, along with plaques erected by the Historic Sites Advisory Board of Manitoba.
Source: K. Slobodzian

Wasyl Ksionzyk – Pioneer Leader

Although some Ukrainians arrived in Manitoba in 1891, the first few groups of immigrants to the Dauphin area arrived in August 1896. A group of families of about five persons each, under the leadership of Wasyl Ksionzyk, traveled by train and then by wagon to establish a colony on the north side of the Drifting River in the Dauphin area. They named their new village Terebowla (also known as Trembowla) after the region in Western Ukraine from which many of them had come.

According to a letter sent by Ksionzyk to the Ukrainian newspaper Svoboda in the United States, Ksionzyk says he was initially advised by Dr. Joseph Oleskiw, a professor from Lviv, to settle in the Lake Dauphin vicinity. Oleskiw had earlier traveled across Canada and then returned to Ukraine praising the freedom and “free lands” to be found in Western Canada.

Ksionzyk and two other men set out from Winnipeg to inspect the region for themselves. Disappointed, at first, in seeing no good grain fields on the way there, they traveled three and a half days to reach their destination. Finally, nearing Dauphin, they were relieved to see that there the crops and vegetation looked much better.

In the same letter, Ksionzyk wrote that about fifteen families settled in the area but some of them came little prepared and had so little money that they could not even afford food for their families. A ten-dollar homestead entry fee was required from each family for their farm land but the settlers had to wait for spring before they could begin their planting and before they could pay the necessary fees. In the meantime, Ksionzyk wrote in his letter that they hoped to earn some money by selling wood off their land for $2.50 per load.

Having left their homeland to escape persecution and starvation, the Ukrainians were eager to embrace the political and religious freedom promised in Canada. Their first years in their new home, however, were still difficult ones for various reasons.

The lack of financial resources was a major problem. Also the farm lands available to these immigrants in the bush country to the north of the Valley River were nowhere near rail lines or, according to historian Paul Yuzyk, they were of poorer quality than those given to earlier settlers.

Further hardships followed because the immigrants did not understand English and were given a cool reception by earlier immigrants, according to author, Michael Ewanchuk, in his Pioneer Settlers: Ukrainians in the Dauphin Area, 1896–1926.

Also for a culture with very strong ties to its religion, there were no churches, and no priests to turn to for support. Ksionzyk wrote frequent letters to Svoboda almost pleading for a Ukrainian priest to be sent out to the settlement.

In the meantime, the settlers had only each other, and a will and a determination to survive and to work. They had land, wood and pastures and the promise of freedom and from these humble beginnings they set to work and struggled to build a future for themselves and their families.

Oxen were lost the first winter in Canada as the settlers did not have enough food to feed them. The settlers looked for work in the town of Dauphin until they were able to farm. Meat came from elk and deer in the nearby woods. A few cows provided them with milk. They worked harder than they had worked in their homeland but in Canada they had freedom and the hopes of a better tomorrow to keep them going.

Ewanchuk relates the story of the eldest daughter of Wasyl Ksionzyk. The Ksionzyks had arrived in Canada with five children. Interviewed by a Winnipeg Tribune writer in 1976 Ksionzyk’s daughter said that she was fourteen years old when she first arrived in Canada and that their first house was but a simple log cabin thatched with reeds from the nearby Drifting River.

The Barefoot Apostle

It was in this house in Trembowla, in the spring of 1897, that Rev. Nestor Dmytriw, a Ukrainian priest from the United States, gave the first Ukrainian Catholic Mass in Canada. Dmytriw, according to historian Michael Marunchak, in his 1977 article for The Ukrainian Weekly, was the first Ukrainian priest to set foot on Canadian soil.

Newly appointed as an immigration officer to help with the incoming Ukrainian immigrants and also the editor of Svoboda (Liberty), Rev. Dmytriw set out from the United States in April of 1897 to visit the new colony of Trembowla due to the repeated appeals from the settlers and in particular, Ksionzyk.

Dmytriw traveled in a smoke filled train to Dauphin with a French priest cloaked in a long black robe, Ukrainian immigrants wearing sheepskin coats and an assortment of immigrants of other nationalities. He stayed overnight at Dauphin, as did other immigrants, in a crowded and noisy one-room immigration hall.

As the train did not travel past Dauphin at that time, the priest had to make his way by wagon from Dauphin. Passing open fields with poplars and little white houses dotted here and there, Rev. Dmytriw came to a river and had to then make his way on foot to the colony which was another six miles. As it grew dark in the heavily wooded area he became lost.

Wandering through bushes, snow and water in the darkness, the priest traveled on foot until finally he found his way and arrived late at night, wet and cold, at the home of a Ukrainian settler in Trembowla. In later weeks he was often seen traveling barefoot to various villages having to struggle to make his way through swampy and difficult terrain.

The next morning, Rev. Dmytriw woke to find almost the whole colony of fifteen families (about 78 people) gathered around and waiting to meet him in front of the house. Pleased for the settlers at the sheer abundance of land available to them, he realized also, however, that they were not likely to survive, unless they had some money as well as a “good head.”

The following day, the first Ukrainian Catholic Mass was held on Canadian soil. It started to snow and so the Mass was held indoors with the settlers packing the small room of the tiny log hut owned by Wasyl Ksionzyk.

The strong and determined settlers who had endured so much just to get to Canada and who had survived their first winter in the woods with virtually nothing broke down and cried at the first words uttered by the priest, “Blessed is the kingdom.” The priest also struggled to control his tears when he began to speak of the hardships and difficulties that drove the Ukrainians across the seas to Canada and to the plains of Dauphin to carve out a better life for their families.

A Wooden Cross

A tiny Ukrainian Canadian was baptized next. Then the first Ukrainian cross, the Cross of Freedom, which had been erected on Canadian soil on the banks of the Drifting River, was blessed. It was blessed that day in honour of the freedom attained by these settlers in their new land. Many such crosses were erected in western Ukraine when serfdom was abolished in 1848 in Galicia. According to Marunchak, Dmytriw wrote in his memoirs that in order to cross over the other side of the river to bless the cross the priest had to ride an ox because the settlers had not yet acquired horses. There, where this simple wooden cross was erected, the people cried even harder than they did during the Divine Liturgy, Dmytriw wrote. He moved on from one community to the next, often on foot and again often barefoot having to struggle through marshes and swamps and densely wooded areas. At each stop he ministered, helped to organize church parishes and gave what comfort he could to the settlers who, lacking any Ukrainian priests at all, desperately sought his help.

The Tiny Church with a Huge Legacy

One of the communities Dmytriw visited that same year was Mink River formerly called Volkivtsi after a village in Ukraine. It was in Mink River that Dmytriw advised a church be built as he often did in other communities he visited. And so, it was here, in 1898, that St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, the oldest remaining Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada, was built.

Small but hardly insignificant, this tiny structure has a huge legacy. The small log chapel soon became the religious centre for the settlers in and around Trembowla. The church was blessed by Rev. Wasyl Zholdak in 1901 when it was given the name of St. Michael’s.

Because the Ukrainian settlers did not have any priests available to them in the early years the parishioners of this church often had to conduct their own services. They later built a small addition to the church. The building served the area until about 1960. By then most of the settlers had passed away and their children had moved on.

In 1967 the little church was moved to the Cross of Freedom site and restored so that it could be situated as close as possible to the site where the first Ukrainian Catholic Divine Liturgy was celebrated.

Though simple in its exterior design, its interior, nevertheless, features some beautiful examples of Byzantine-style icon paintings, a handmade tabernacle on the main altar crafted by a pioneer settler of the area, and side altars with table covers of authentic Ukrainian cross-stitch design.

It was declared a provincial heritage site in 1999.

Photo of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, grotto and bell tower at the Trembowla Cross of Freedom site.
Source: K. Slobodzian

Preserving History

By 1964 the wooden Cross of Freedom had been rotting for years, knocked over by a wagon in the 40’s, and largely forgotten according to Marunchak who had begun researching the history of the area.

At Marunchak’s urging and with the help of Michael Szewczyk, then Secretary Treasurer of the Rural Municipality of Dauphin, the cross was re-erected and a large seven foot tall granite Cross of Freedom was unveiled and blessed on 31 July 1966, the last day of the first Ukrainian Festival of Dauphin.

Wasyl Ksionzyk’s log house where the first Ukrainian Catholic Mass had been held in Canada in 1897 had been abandoned and also mostly forgotten until its historical significance became better known. With a grant from the Manitoba Heritage Foundation Inc. the home was successfully moved closer to the Cross of Freedom site in 1987 and restored to the pioneering era of its time.

The Trembowla schoolhouse was also moved to the site in 1968 for preservation and serves as an example of a one-room rural school.

A replica of a pioneer home built in 1967 was donated to the site by Mary Demchuk of Sifton whose ancestry can be traced back to the Trembowla settlement.

In 1977 the Ukrainian National Association of New Jersey erected a bronze bust of Rev. Dmytriw which was designed by the internationally known Ukrainian Canadian sculptor Leo Mol. It was unveiled that year at the Trembowla Cross of Freedom site.

Today, Dmytriw is known not only for his work as editor of the Svoboda, his spiritual help to the Ukrainian settlers, and his creation of early2 parishes, he is also highly regarded for his writings in which he recorded in great detail, the life of the early pioneers in Canada. In so doing, he left behind a rich and valuable history of their early struggles.

A grotto constructed of specially chosen field rocks and containing a statue of the Blessed Mother holding baby Jesus was built on the site in 1998 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of St. Michael’s Church and is also a tribute by the site’s committee to the early pioneers.

More recently, a large granite monument was erected on the site in 2002 as a tribute to the first Ukrainian Catholic Bishop who arrived in Canada in 1912. Bishop Budka was beatified by His Holiness Pope John Paul II in June of 2001 in Lviv, Ukraine.

The historic site’s committee consists of local volunteers and was set up to continue the preservation of the site. The non-profit charitable organization became incorporated in 1978 as The Cross of Freedom Inc.

According to committee Secretary Kay Slobodzian, every year on the Sunday of Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival held near Dauphin, people gather around a small, modestly built church at the Cross of Freedom site. There, they pay tribute to the determination, faith and endurance of the early Ukrainian pioneers of Canada.

Monument erected in honour of Bishop Nykyta Budka—Canada’s first Ukrainian Catholic Bishop—who arrived in 1912.
Source: K. Slobodzian

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Trembowla Cross of Freedom Museum (RM of Dauphin)

Page revised: 2 January 2017

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