Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 6, 2004
A modest house of God
Traditional Prairie Ukrainian church harbours treasures
Blessed Virgin Mary -- September 8
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
One of the hundreds of silverdomed Byzantine churches that dot the Western Canadian prairie landscape, the Ukrainian Catholic Church near the former post office of Leeshore, Alta., honours in its name the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It's a modest house of God, for 86 years a familiar landmark in a rich mixed-farming area, south of the North Saskatchewan River 60 km northeast of Edmonton.
Since its origins in the East about 650 AD, the celebration each Sept. 8 of the nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos (Mother of God) has become an important Marian feast in the Church calendar.
In the seventh century, it became established as one of the four major feasts honouring Mary in the West. Tradition and the apocryphal Proto Evangelium of James (180 AD) tell of the lives of the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Anne and Joachim.
Said to have been well-off but childless residents of Nazareth, they prayed for offspring that would be dedicated to the service of God and were then blessed with a girl, Mary.
And the story began
Her birth after a conception free of the original sin that all humans bear, was the beginning of the events leading to the birth, death and Resurrection of Christ. The feast of the major intercessor between God and sinners is celebrated in both Eastern and Western churches.
At Leeshore, the first Mass was celebrated in the unfinished church on the feast day of the parish patron in 1918 and a few years later, the building was officially incorporated as the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Parish of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Leeshore, Alta.
Six years later, well-known finisher Phillip Pawluk completed the interior of the church.
The Nativity is a traditional Prairie Ukrainian Catholic church, set facing west in an open, well-maintained meadow. It has a conventional tri-partite design with porch, nave and apse, modified by enlargement of the interior space with two transepts.
The colourful, three-bayed 1938 fieldstone tower holds a single bell, Mary, donated by parishioners eight years earlier.
Visitors fortunate enough to be guided through the church by parish stalwart Linda Kotylak are in for a treat. Paintings rendered in 1928 by noted artist Peter Lipinski are everywhere, most done on canvas at his home in winter, but some, such as God the Father, executed directly on the tongue-and-groove siding of the church ceilings.
He regularly used several techniques to alter the humble wooden walls - imitation stone blocks for example, elaborate decorative borders and trompe - l'oeil pillars on projecting corners.
Focal point of the sanctuary (there is no iconostasis here) behind the original altar is his portrayal of the birth of Mary. The newborn babe, admired by St. Anne, is held by the midwife while attendants prepare a bath and St. Joachim offers a prayer of thanksgiving.
Other Lipinski works include images of Our Lady, in particular as The Protectress, watching over the people from high in the dome, the Resurrection, the Holy Trinity and a colourful processional icon of the Nativity.
Although only a few services and the occasional funeral are conducted now in the Nativity church, attempts by museums to purchase the paintings have been resisted by parishioners, determined to maintain their rural jewel intact as long as possible.
Leeshore church is featured in the guide Church Capital - published by Lamont County - which includes contact phone numbers for visitors anxious to view the interior of the locked church.