On our Lenten Pilgrimage of Sacred Spaced in 2010 we journeyed out from Yorkminster Park early one Friday morning with one hundred pilgrims and visited three sacred spaces in the Hamilton area followed by an unforgettable visit to St. Elias the Prophet Ukrainian Catholic Church east of Brampton. Since opening almost twenty years ago, the wooden structure has been a beacon for all who immigrated from Ukraine. In a land where everything was so different, it was one of the closest reminders of home.
St. Elias the Prophet was built in the style of the Boyko Wooden Churches of Western Ukraine. The tall timber structure built with its majestic onion domes stood out from a significant distance. With nothing but farms all around it, one might easily happen upon it and wonder if they weren't in Ukraine, rather than in the countryside west of Brampton, Ontario. But to step inside with the icons 'written' as they say, rather than 'painted,' was to get a glimpse of heaven itself. This is the very intent of orthodoxy to remind the faithful that heaven has come to earth, whereas in the west we tend to think of the church as a place to lift earth up to heaven and so it is we have built our churches in the shape of the cross and spoken of them as the nave or ark. In the east the church gathers beneath a dome where it is intended to be the focal point of heaven's love and mercy.
The Ukrainian church was unlike anything most of us had ever seen, but even we felt strangely at home. The priest, Father Roman Galadza explained with humour many of the traditions and insisted we sing a Baptist hymn in a church where hymns like ours are not part of the liturgy. Our co-leader, Corey Keeble, Curator Emeritus of the Royal Ontario Museum, had prepared us all for our visit by describing Father Galadza as kind, open-hearted, witty, generous and wise. In fact the description was so generous that we were quite certain no one could live up to it, but the Ukrainian priest did not disappoint. He was outgoing and energetic and so warm in his welcome.
Once he had us gathered inside, Father Roman sang some of his own liturgy with us and even had us chanting with him, but it was when someone asked him who St. Elias was, that Father Roman did something people are still talking about. He said, "I always thought St. Elias was a Baptist, because you are the ones with a hymn about him and then he started to sing the old spiritual, "Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home..." In no time he had a hundred voice Baptist choir singing its heart out beneath the dome of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. In that moment it was as if all that divides the church was lost and forgotten and heaven had come to earth and we too were home.
The church was named for Elijah and like her namesake she, who had been heaven on earth, left this world in a chariot of fire. In the sake of Elijah it was a liberation from death, but in the case of St. Elias Church it was as Father Roman has said, "Good Friday two weeks early." On Saturday morning, St. Elias the Prophet Church caught fire and in no time the timber building was tragically destroyed. For the faithful, there are few things worse than the sight of one's beloved church going up in flames. And this was no ordinary church. "Yet the church is not a building," Father Roman insisted. "It is the people."
One of the things that impressed me most about Father Roman was his desire to spread the gospel to all people. He spoke about the importance of holding their services in english because that is the language of the world around. He was not trying to keep Ukrainian culture alive in a strange land, but rather responding to the living Christ here and now by reaching out to the world beyond. The magnificent structure that was destroyed on Saturday, may appear to have been his legacy, but in fact his legacy is alive. It is the hundreds of people who lent their voices to the hymns and chants during yesterday's liturgy at a nearby school.
Judging by the tremendous coverage the fire has received in local and national media, I believe God will use this tragedy to speak of the power of faith and love. As eloquent an interpreter as Father Roman was of his sacred space, he is even more faithful as a witness to the power of Christ. St. Elias has had Good Friday come early, but Easter will not let them down. One day they will rebuild, but I believe God has already started.
Yesterday we prayed for the St. Elias Church, but as they rise out of the ashes in the days to come there will be much to learn from them.
All of the above photographs were taken by Henry Regehr on the occasion of our pilgrimage to St. Elias. Thanks Henry!
p.s. We will be visiting a very similar wooden Ukrainian Catholic Church on our upcoming pilgrimage of sacred spaces in May 2014.