By Mia V., Summer Student
Since my last update, I have been continuing to research and work on the design for next year’s exhibit on the resettlement of displaced people and immigration stories in Oshawa. Following the threads of research has led me to the significant network of Ukrainian churches that were found in the city. Despite sharing the designation of Ukrainian, it was clear enough that they all belonged to different branches of Christianity – one was Eastern Catholic, others were Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Baptist, and… two were Orthodox? Herein lay the confusion, since both Orthodox churches co-existed in time and on the very same neighbourhood block.
The ground on the corner of Bloor-Ritson was first consecrated for an Orthodox church in 1916. This church was alternately called Russian, Ukrainian, and Greek Orthodox in street directories and newspapers. Often the key descriptor of Orthodox was omitted and it was only called Greek – making it easy to confuse with the Greek Catholic church from just a few streets over. In fact, the Ukrainians of the (Greek) Orthodox Christian faith first called the Bloor-Ritson church home. The name confusion did not stop there, however, since the full name of the church differs greatly in translation. The Ukrainian would be “Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God.” However, in colloquial English it was known most often as “St. Mary’s.”
This Ukrainian Orthodox church was built by an early wave of Ukrainian immigrants to Oshawa, many of whom came from the area of Bukovina which borders (and finds itself partly in) Romania. Since religious life was inseparably intertwined with cultural and social life, the choice of a parish was central to how one would find friends and generally engage with their culture. Fortunately, Oshawa had many options.
Just a few streets over was the Ukrainian (Greek) Catholic church. In 1935, the majority of the congregation followed their priest into the Orthodox Church after his dispute with the presiding bishop (surrounding his ordination and time of marriage).
Just a few months later, the first building for the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church was built on the same location where it stands today – on the corner of Bloor and Simcoe streets. All of this is to say that, for several years, there were two Ukrainian Orthodox churches on Bloor Street. According to one participant in the Museum’s ongoing oral history project, both churches were consistently full, and members of each parish would attend the same events. It certainly seems there was need for both of them in this period in order to help service the influx of Ukrainian immigration to Oshawa after World War II.
In 1953, St. Mary’s was enlarged and rebuilt completely, on the same location as before. It now had, as the Toronto Star called it, “Byzantine-style domes” and overall resembled “a castle in a kingdom of bungalows.” Eventually, however, numbers dwindled significantly. Deciding against joining St. John’s from down the street, the aging congregation chose to accept no new members and sold the church only on the condition that they could still use it. Their designated service is in Ukrainian once a month, with a priest driving in from Scarborough.
In 1987, the church was sold to the Greek Orthodox community – making the church genuinely Greek for the first time. In 2012, the Greeks sold the church to the Romanians since they needed more space for themselves. This is, in fact, another kind of full circle since the original founders of the church would have been from the Ukrainian-Romanian border region of Bukovina.
Focusing on this one church, then, provides a great window into the past from which it is possible to see the interactions between the various Ukrainian religious communities and other cultural communities in the city. The way that the church changed ownership provides great insight into immigration trends as well – from the earliest Ukrainian, to the Greek, and the Romanian here in Oshawa.
Gerus, Mitrat Fr. S. Богослуження православної церкви: Підручник для недільних шкіл [Services in the Orthodox Church: A Sunday School Textbook]. Winnipeg: Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of Canada, 1956.
Leong, Melissa. “Time takes its toll on congregation.” Toronto Star, April 13, 2003.
Momryk, Myron. Mike Starr of Oshawa: A Political Biography. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of History and University of Ottawa Press, 2017.
Additional research from the Oshawa Museum archival collection.