Today we’ll take a look at Spaca Moskalyk Ukrainian Catholic Church, impressive, photogenic, with perhaps a uncertain future. Located along a lonely back road on the vast northern Alberta plains, the majestic building is not aging as well and is suffering from some potentially serious structural issues. If these problems are not addressed and the work tackled soon it might mean the end. Right now, it sure could use a little love.
Built by Ukrainian settlers in 1924, the church is known by many names, Spaca Moskalyk, Spasa na Moskalykakh, Ukrainian Catholic Church of Spasa (Muskalik), Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church and others. It’s not completely clear which is official.
Moskalyk was the family name of the person who donated the land it sits upon. The name Spaca sometimes shown as Spasa or Spas, well, we’re not really sure. Anyone care to chime in? This was not the first church at this site. An earlier one dating from the early 1900s, stood here before being replaced by the current structure. A search for photos of it turned up nothing.
Much of the region was where the Spaca Moskalyk Church stands was settled by Ukrainians and as such the building reflects the Byzantine style common to their culture. The Byzantine Empire was at its peak, some fifteen-hundred years ago, a great influence on the places it conquered, which included much of present day Ukraine. This church is one of countless examples built to this style that exist in the general area. There’s a lot of them here!
The onion-shaped metal-clad domes are typical of the style (and oh so impressive), and are made up of one large centralized main dome sitting on a octagonal tower and two smaller examples forward of and lower than it, on smaller octagonal towers flanking the entrance. The three domes together are said to represent the Holy Trinity: God the Son, God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit.
The domes themselves, it’s suggest, represent the shape of a flame on a candle (perhaps reminding us the significance of candles to religion). Topping each dome is a St. Nicholas’ Cross, sometimes St. Olga’s Cross, with their distinctive clover shapes ends. Windows were stained-glass throughout, although many are boarded up and not visible and others removed (saved maybe?). The footprint of the church is in a cruciform or cross shape. That wouldn’t be obvious unless it was viewed from above (say…from heaven).
The building is wood framed with clapboard siding. It rests upon a concrete foundations, which in places is failing (not easily photographed, but it’s not good). A tall red-brick chimney can be seen on the north side. Part has broken away and might soon fall. A large cross once sat to the right of the building near the entrance – only the vertical pole remains in place.
We were given keys to the church, but give its deteriorated state, were asked we be quick. Seen inside are pews, altars, desks and the like. Interesting bit: parishioners and clergy both faced west here instead of the normal east – not sure why. Tongue and groove walls are pleasantly decorated. Icons, symbolic paintings of religious significance, often on plaques and common to the faith, have been removed (and hopefully rescued), ghost marks on the wall showing exactly where each was. Looking up at the spacious central dome, one is struck by how large it is. It’s much bigger than it looks outside and must have been a real challenge to construct, certainly requiring the skills of a true craftsman.
The soft light of the interior, soft colours, the open airy feel, it really is quite spiritual. The view from the choir loft overlooking the entire interior, accessed via a steep spiral stair, is simply stunning.
Beside the structure is a bell tower built in 1938. This was a common form for this style of church. In many faiths, the bell tower is usually atop a steeple attached to the church itself but the dome design here would not lend itself well to this. The main floor of this structure once housed a class room of sorts. Not sure if there was a bell before the belfry nor where it may have been housed.
To the south of the church is a large Ukrainian cemetery that’s still in use. The grounds here are pleasant, park like and very serene, with much of the land surrounded by trees.
The building was used continuously up until the 1990s when declining membership forces its closure. People today don’t go to church like they used to. Boarded up, it’s been pretty much forgotten about ever since. A few years ago, the foundation started buckling and the building declared unsafe for any use (we just couldn’t get photos of the damage). With this, plans were made to ritualistically burn it to the ground, however there was a last minute reprieve and it was spared. Much work needs to be done to stabilize the structure and various solutions suggested, but nothing has really been done to date.
Money of course, or lack of it, is the big roadblock. Hard for a financially-strapped parish to spend a dump truck load of cash, hundreds of thousands of dollars minimum, for a building that isn’t and likely won’t ever be used. They love the old church, it’s clear, but face a common dilemma when it comes to old but disused structures such as this: sure they’re nice, historic, revered, but where’s the money to come them? Small town church groups rarely have huge bank accounts.
Some wood framing needs attention too, and the roof, but the foundation is the most pressing problem.
At best, the building’s future is uncertain.
Spaca Moskalyk Church has been historically recognized since 2006. This speaks of the historical and architectural significance of the building, however it does not assure its future. It’s no less threatened even with that designation. Still, it adds a level of importance, official importance, which may help in some way.
In Lamont County where this church is located, there are almost fifty others places of worship that are of historic interest. A good number are Ukrainian Catholic (like this one), Ukrainian Orthodox or Russo-Greek Orthodox and would be in appearance similar to this one.
This trip we joined up with Edmonton based art photographer, large format film aficionado and good friend Rob Pohl (his site: Robert S Pohl…photographs, travels and stuff) who showed us just a small sampling of some of his favourite haunts in the area. There is some fine subjects out there so stay turned for more articles born of this trip. We will absolutely, for sure, a million percent, most definitely, be coming back!
If you’d like to host the BIGDoer crew we’d love to hear from you.
More churches we’ve visited…
St Henry’s Catholic Church Twin Butte.
Calgary then and now – St Matthew Lutheran Church.
St Joseph’s Church Courval SK.
Claresholm then and now – Latter Day Saints Church.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: March, 2016.
Location: East of Edmonton AB.
Article references and thanks: Historicplaces.ca: Canada’s Historic Places, Hermis Alberta, Lamont County, Rob Pohl.
BIGDoer.com visited the church with permission.