This past Sunday I had the honour of chairing the annual general meeting of the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church here in Oshawa where I live. It is not a large parish, and most Sundays you will only see maybe sixty or seventy people attending the services, though official membership is double that number. Predictably, on the major feast days such as Christmas or Easter, the church is packed with a standing room only crowd. The church and parish have been around since 1935, though I have only been a member for the past twelve years since I moved to this city.
Even in that short space of time, I have seen significant changes in both the makeup of the parish as well as in its governance and scope of activities. When we first joined the parish, it was made up mostly of an older generation of Ukrainians, whose values and interests were primarily what you would expect of the older generation of Ukrainian immigrants. The parish council reflected this reality, and the finances and activities of the parish were run in a fairly traditional, conservative and insular manner. Although not overt, it was clear that there was a somewhat tacit and skepticism-driven resistance to change.
Over the past decade, there has been a noticeable change and it was evident during both the service as well as the parish meeting afterwards. If you scanned the attendees, you would first notice a good mixture of young, middle aged and older parishioners and guests. Secondly, a significant number of those present were of ethnicities other than Ukrainian. I have gotten to know some of them, and they include English Canadians, Romanians, Lithuanians, Belorussians, Russians, and people of African descent.
On this particular Sunday, as I subsequently learned, there was also a large contingent of Syrian Orthodox Christians, who had come to Canada as refugees as a result of the ongoing devastating conflict in Syria. Some of them worked for a building contractor who is currently finishing the construction of our new church hall addition, and had accepted an invitation to attend our services. Back in Syria they had belonged to the Orthodox Church that was under the ancient patriarchate of Antioch. The horrendous civil strife in Syria, which has been aggravated by Russian interference, had forced them to flee their homeland, and I am proud that Canada has played a significant role in helping them find a new home here.
I was also pleased to learn that the youth of the church had participated this past Saturday in the “Coldest Night of the Year Walk” in support of The Refuge, a local charitable organization that works with local “youth at risk”. They managed to raise $2,355 for the cause. This is but one example of our parish expanding its engagement and support efforts beyond just the Ukrainian community. The parish actively supports local food banks, women’s shelters, and other needy causes in the greater Oshawa community within which we live.
This expansion of perspective and engagement beyond the boundaries of the parish and the Ukrainian community, is due in large part to the encouragement and drive of our parish priest, Fr. Hladio. Compared to most Ukrainian clergy that I have known, he is considerably more broad-minded and motivated to be a Christian first, and a Ukrainian second.
In this he is actively supported by a parish council that is significantly more open, young, progressive and professional than what it was ten years ago. Our President is a medical specialist with presence and exceptional leadership skills. Most of the executive are from the professional and managerial ranks in both the private and public sectors at the peak of their careers. Over the past few years, they have succeeded in raising the significant funds needed to build a new church hall to replace one that had to be torn down due to age and crumbling infrastructure. The project has been extremely well managed and is coming in on time and on budget.
The parish also boasts of a talented dance group by the name of the Odesa dancers, who have been going strong for decades under the tutelage of a talented couple, John and Chris Stezik. They are a staple of the vibrant Ukrainian cultural life here in Oshawa, and particularly of the annual week-long multicultural festival known as Fiesta that takes place here every June.
As a small parish fighting off the ever-present forces of assimilation, the future of the church and parish is by no means secure. However, the changes that I have seen in the past decade give one hope that they will still be around to celebrate the 100th anniversary in 2035.