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Historical Bonnyville church gets a second chance

Russian Greek Orthodox Church renovations lead by community, in honour of pioneers

BONNYVILLE - A piece of Bonnvyille history has received a much needed facelift thanks to the support, hard work and donations from the community. 

The St. Peter and St. Paul Russian Greek Orthodox Church dates back to the 1940s, and was built not long after a group of immigrants from the village of Zagorowo in the Cholsk district of the USSR arrived in Canada and settled on farms in the Bonnyville district, according to historical information from the Canadian Orthodox History Project.

The small church now sits between 51st Street and 52nd Street in Bonnvyille. For Stefania Zuk, the secretary-treasurer of the parish, the church remains a tribute to the pioneers who settled in the region, many years ago, which include her own in-laws who immigrated from Poland.

In the early 1940s, a parish committee was formed, and a small frame building was purchased for $40. It was set on a foundation on the farm of Michael Babkiewich, 16 km north of Bonnyville.

In 1952, members decided to move the church from the farm location to the Town of Bonnyville. Sava and Roman Yewchuk, and Vladimir Zuk were elected to a committee to locate a new site. Land was chosen, and the church continues to sit on that same site.

Over the years, the church fell into disrepair. Stefania recalls how one person recommended simply burning the church down.

"I wasn't going to go watch. It would have been too hard for me," she admits.

Although she was born into a Catholic family, and even had a brother who was a Catholic priest, Stefania says her in-laws were committed to the Russian Greek Orthodox Church.

"My husband (Walter) was for the church," says Stefania. She believes it's important to let the church stand because it allows for a connection between the current generation and their late grandparents to be kept. 

The church is only used a couple times a year, but for Stefania, that's enough. The building isn't heated, and sits empty most of the time - the only costs typically associated with the church are mowing the lawn in the summer months.

At first, a renovation project did seem out of reach to Stefania. But, thanks to efforts and encourgaement from Archpriest Igor Kisil from St. Barbara's Cathedral in Edmonton, the project began to move ahead.

Kisil was involved as a priest with the parish in Bonnyville for 21 years, and says some of the members became like family to him, including Stefania.

"When they started to collect money, of course I tried to help them," says Kisil. So, he approached the brotherhood at St. Barbara's cathedral, known as the Orthodox Fellowship Club of Edmonton, and was able to donate $3,000 to the project, "and they are still working to get more donations."

When asked how he feels about seeing the renovation project take place, he says simply, "I feel very happy." He adds, by taking on the renovation project, "they gave new life and thereby prolonged the spiritual life of this parish."

Kisil is glad to see the church, despite being such a small parish, will continue to exist - even if there are only one or two services held each year.

“It’s a very small church community, but we will try to do our best," says Kisil, adding, "I pray for Stefania and the parishioners.”

Over the summer, the outside of the church got a new paint job, new windows, and work continued to take place as the weather cooled. A new metal roof, interior paint, and other repairs have been done.

"It looks so nice right now," says Stefania.

Now, Stefania is hoping to see the rest of the project through by finishing the floor in the spring. Volunteer work by her own family members, along with donations and contributions by community members have allowed the project to come this far, which is something Stefania is proud of.

Once the shadow of COVID-19 lifts, it is hopeful that a service of some sort can be held at the newly renovated building, as a way to celebrate.

Paulette Levasseur, Stefania's daughter, confirms this, saying, "We hope to be able to hold more masses once the renovations have been completed."

"If there is a God, the way they said, and if my in-laws are in heaven, they are watching their grandkids do so much for this church," says Stefania. "The grandparents would be very, very happy."

"We are very thankful for everyone who gave generously to the church renovation," says Levasseur, whose own daughter and son-in-law helped paint the exterior of the church this summer.

Also, due to the coordinating efforts of Nester Zuk, Stefania's son, the inside of the church was repaired and repainted. Contributions from Dr. Reno, Hiliary's Contracting and Marci Smith in the form of hard work and materials were also important factors in the renovation project.

More funds are needed to finish the project and anyone interested in contributing to the renovation project can contact Levasseur at 780-645-4509. Tax receipts can be made available to those who choose to donate.

The current priest of the parish is V. Rev. Evgeniy Protsenko.