The road in is gravel, dry ‘n’ dusty. Same as all in the area. And all are similarly devoid of traffic. Stop, roll down the window and you’ll be greeted with silence. The location here is rural, well away from any town. Look all around…nothing to see but fields and pastures in every direction, occasional patches of trees here and there, and perhaps off in the distance, buildings that must be a farm. Hard to tell though the shimmering haze of mid-day. It’s feels remote…might as well be on the moon.
But what’s that over there? It’s a church…a big one too…looking almost out of place given its size. Did they have that many in the congregation, out here in the sticks? Stupid question…they must have…or at least in the old days they did. This building begs a closer look and with that a cloud of dust marks our arrival at Kopernick Church, officially Ascension of Jesus Christ Ukrainian Catholic Church, Kopernick Parish; alternate spelling Koppernick or Kopernik; or Kopernik (Nowy Sokal) Ascension Parish. Now there’s a mouthful!
The location is Beaver County Alberta (SE of Edmonton), flat and mostly featureless, the endless plains heading off to the horizon with every point of the compass. Big skies out this way. Big everything here…except maybe when it comes population. It’s pretty sparse today…but was more in the old days.
The area was opened to settlement in the early years of twentieth century. Many of the early arrivals immigrated from the Ukraine. An church was needed, so soon after land was set aside and one built, the first of four “Orthodox” churches to be known as Kopernick on this property – read on!
The earliest one was constructed of logs circa 1904 and burned down soon after completion. A second was built right after and was in use until about 1914. The congregation simply outgrew it. The replacement, the third, many times in size, lasted until 1951 when unfortunately it too went up in flames, right around the holiday season. No explanation as to the cause that we could find. A search for photos of any came up empty. Too bad, we’d have loved to see what they looked like. Readers, we’re looking to you!
In the early 1930s, a Parish Hall was built. Containing a stage, seating area, kitchen and such, it could be used for all manner of social gatherings and events. Often the church basement was used for functions such as this…it’s not cleat they went with separate building here – it’s the first we’ve seen like this, by the way. Like the church, it’s festooned with “onion” domes, three in this case.
The current church dates from circa 1954-ish (some reports disagree a bit and say later) and is only slightly bigger than it predecessor. In the time between the old one going up in smoke and the new one being finished, it’s suggested the hall was used for services temporarily. By the way, the old cross from the burned church stands atop a monument out back. Warped and bent in the fire it was straightened before being put on display. One can looks at it today and see it suffered from the heat however – ripples in the metal suggest a smoking hot fire.
The walls of Kopernick Church are of brick, a costly material when compared to the traditional wood construction often used. The exterior is parged, hiding what’s underneath. That they went with this building material seems to speak of them wanting a more fire resistant structure – still, the roof and domes are of wood, so make of that what you will.
The church has five domes, one large and in the centre, flanked by four smaller examples perched atop towers, one per corner. The five-dome configuration represents Jesus along with the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The five dome configuration is common in the Orthodox world, but there can also be less, one or three, and sometimes, rarely more. By the way, the three dome configuration, which the hall has recall, represents the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). A single dome would be in reference to Jesus.
While these churches often have a cruciform shape, so when viewed from above, that of a cross, this one is rectangular, which is said to be a representation of a ship. Noah’s Ark I’m told. There are no longer regular services at Kopernick (no info when they stopped), but I guess it’s still used from time to time for funerals and stuff.
Ukrainian Catholic Churches are not unique in their architecture. Other religious institutions from Eastern Europe often have places of worship similar in look and collectively they’re listed as being Eastern Orthodox, or simply Orthodox, Russo-Greek, or Byzantine in style. There’s a huge number of them in various counties east of Edmonton. This one is well away from the biggest concentration however.
There’s a bell tower behind the church. The domes preclude the use of a steeple for housing bells so a separate building is generally used. These are typically placed to the west of the church.
There’s a large cemetery here, officially Holy Ascension Greek Catholic Cemetery (also: Ascension of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery), or to most people, simply Kopernick Cemetery (shown as Koppernick on the gate) – run on sentence there dude! It’s a good size, some ninety plus interments here, going back to the very early days of the Parish, the most recent from not all that long ago. There’s plenty of room for more “tenants”. The cemetery is partly surrounded by trees and is one nice peaceful place to spend the rest of eternity.
Grave makers can be quite elaborate and most are written in Cyrillic. As always, we wonder about these people…who were they, what’s their story, why did some pass on so young, and this and that? The mind races. But limited time means we can only ponder it for a moment or two.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (formerly Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of Canada) dates back to the 1910s when it broke away from the larger Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church worldwide organization. Today, they have some eighty five thousand members, many in western Canada concentrated either east of Edmonton or in parts of Northern Saskatchewan.
Joining us this adventure was film photographer Rob Pohl. We collaborate all the time. Far too many photographers who do what we do are…full disclosure here…overly serious, self absorbed and zero fun, but not so here. Our styles are totally different, but it works. So we shoot together a lot.
Not a single vehicle broke the silence the hour or two we spent exploring Kopernick. Not one. We had the place to ourselves as though the last people on the planet. Love the feeling of being alone.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: June, 2017.
Location: Beaver County, AB.
Article references (and thanks): Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton. Findagrave.com.
If you visit Kopernick Church grounds please be respectful.