It may not have exactly fit with all the formality of the ceremony blessing the land for Red Deer’s first Orthodox church, but the sight of children handing out and laying dandelions around the first cornerstone was entirely fitting.
A patch of bare land in Vanier Woods became St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Sunday, named after the third century bishop revered as the patron saint of children — and many other things.
A special ceremony presided over by the bishop of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in the Canadian West got the ball rolling for a build that local parishioners hope will be completed in time for St. Nicholas’ feast day in December.
It is a build to serve a growing population of Eastern and Southern Europeans in Red Deer, and one that is a long time coming for local Orthodox Christians.
When Alex Ivanenko immigrated to the area with his parents in 1994, the family first attended St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church despite their Orthodox beliefs.
Five years later, they were able to join with other locals of their denomination, and for the last 15 years the community has held twice-monthly services in a funeral home, the Collicutt Centre, the college, and a community hall that doubles as an outdoor rink shack in winter.
Over the last six years, fundraising efforts have been underway in the city to get a church of their own.
A large donation by Jules and Theresa Klepak of Calgary helped the group secure the half-acre plot of land, and an additional $120,000 has been raised for the building construction.
An Orthodox church in Calgary has supplied Rev. Fr. Timothy Chrapko on a half-time basis for the local congregation, which has enabled the build in Red Deer.
“What happens oftentimes in Canada is communities bankrupt themselves paying the priest, and then they can never save up to build a building,” said Dobr. Julie Chrapko, the wife of the priest.
Julie said over the years many locals have travelled to Calgary or Edmonton for regular services, and some may still, as the twice-monthly services in Red Deer will remain until the last two-thirds of the build is paid off.
That may take around five years, after which point the church could likely support its own full-time priest.
The population of Eastern Europeans across Alberta is growing significantly; in Red Deer many Slavic peoples come over to work at Olymel.
While the local Orthodox congregation is small — nearly 40 were at the Sunday ceremony — Julie said there is solid potential for growth.
“From a visibility standpoint, we’re almost impossible to find unless you know where we are, because to this point we haven’t had much exposure.
“So here we have a visible building, a website that is launching today, all sorts of things to try to help have visibility increase and everything else,” she said.
Although the church is officially Ukrainian Orthodox and will be built in the corresponding architectural style, congregants said the church is not ethnically based.
Most of their service is done in English, and Orthodox believers from other countries are always welcome.
“That’s the great thing about Orthodoxy, it’s really one religion split across all of Eastern Europe and in Canada we kind of misrepresent it by labelling it Greek Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, because it’s one church….
“We came to Canada and that told the immigrants what language to expect walking into the building — that’s where we get those titles.
“Whoever comes, we do a bit in their language,” said Julie.