St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox parish was founded in 1935. At that time Fr. Andriy Sarmatiuk of blessed memory was the pastor of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Oshawa. Due to the Vatican decree forbidding the presence of married priests in the new world, Fr. Sarmatiuk, as a married priest, was told that he could no longer minister to his congregation. This precipitated an intense negative reaction on the part of many of his parishioners, who understood that a married priesthood had always been an integral part of the Ukrainian Church. Father Andriy, along with many of the faithful, decided to leave the Greek-Catholic Church and return to their ancestral Ukrainian Orthodox Faith.
Father Sarmatiuk and the parish were quickly received into the jurisdiction of Bishop Zuk of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA (Ecumenical Patriarchate). During the Paschal season of 1935 services were held at Albert St. United Church, and within two months a permanent building was obtained – the very same building which later became our “Odesa” Hall.
The first years of the community were very difficult, as these were the years of the depression. But the generosity and self-sacrifice of the parishioners and the help of the non-Ukrainian population of Oshawa were instrumental in assuring the parish a quick and sure establishment.
A great debt of gratitude is due to the founders and pioneers of St. John’s Church, which include: Mr. Oleksa Luchka, Mr. V. Shewchuk, Mr. H. Cymbaluk, Mr. M. Shody, Mr. Vasyl’ Hercia, Mr. M. Dutchak, Mr. M. Tureski, Mr. T. Tychyj, Mr. T. Olynyk, Paraskewa Smoleniuk, H. Lysak, H. Sholdra, M. Zwarych, Yu. Frankiw, M. Magalushen, M. Starchewskyj, A. Osmok, J. Jacula, J. Tumochok, H. Rudka. May their memory be eternal!
The parish building needed much renovation, but with the hard work of our pioneers it was quickly renovated into a church and hall. The first service was held on October 6th 1935. After this service the activity of the parish intensified. Work continued on the building, a cultural program was instituted, both sacred and secular holidays were celebrated, and the social life of the community was vibrant. These truly were memorable days in the history of the parish.
The first parish council was composed of Fr. Sarmatiuk (honourary president), H. Cymbaluk (president), Andriy Osmok (secretary), Oleksa Luchka (treasurer), Mykyta Dutchak (financial secretary) and Andriy Tumachok (sacristan).
One of the most important events in the history of the parish was the formation of the parish “Holy Protection” sisterhood on August 17th, 1937. Since then the sisterhood has been of great support to the parish both morally and materially. There is no parish event where the presence and support of the sisterhood members is not felt and appreciated.
The community grew, and younger Canadian born members began to take leadership positions in the parish. After World War II many immigrants came to Oshawa from various parts of Ukraine. The parishioners did their best to make the new immigrants welcome and help them settle in their new homeland. The proof of their success is that on the 20th anniversary of the parish’s founding, in 1955, almost half the parish council was composed of post-WW II immigrants from Ukraine.
From its founding until 1948 St. John’s parish was in the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA (Ecumenical Patriarchate), under Bishop Bohdan (Shpylka). In 1948 the parish, at an extraordinary general meeting, approved a motion to leave the jurisdiction of Bishop Bohdan and enter the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Greek-Orthodox Church of Canada. This petition was granted, and since that time St. John’s has been a constitutive parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, fulfilling its spiritual and material obligations to the consistory in a responsible and respectful manner. With its entry into the UGOCC the parish also changed its liturgical language from Old Slavonic to Ukrainian.
The cooperation between the council and the membership was exemplary, and the membership took care to see that talented and hard-working people were both appreciated and encouraged in their work. Special mention must be made of the work of the priests: Frs. Sarmatiuk, Kushchak, Zazuliak, Forostei, and especially the work of Fr. Wasyl’ Olynyk, who served as pastor from 1941 – 1950.
Since its inception an important part of parish life has been the formation of the youth in a spirit of Christian virtue. The parish Sunday school has functioned uninterruptedly since the founding of the parish. For many decades the parish supported a Ukrainian heritage school. The children and youth have always taken an active part in all church activities and functions, performing, serving, singing, assisting, etc.
In addition to the spiritual and cultural development of the parish youth social interaction has always played an important role. Towards this end the parish converted the basement of the hall into a bowling alley. During the 1940’s and 50’s bowling was a very popular activity, and the bowling alleys even generated income for the parish. In 1948 the Oshawa branch of the Ukrainian Youth Association of Canada “CYMK” was formed, and this organization was active for approximately 50 years.
As the number of parishioners grew the church became too small. It was decided to build a proper temple in the Byzantine style. The construction was begun in 1949 and was finished in 1950. The Church was consecrated on July 9th, 1950, by Archbishop Mstyslav (Skrypnyk), the primate of the UGOCC. This event was truly a high point in the life of not only the parish, but of the entire Oshawa community. It was front page news in the Oshawa Daily Times-Gazette. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funds the cupolas could not be completed according to the original design which included Ukrainian-style domes, so the contractor simply did the best he could with the resources available.
Following the opening of the church temple, the original building was again renovated, this time into a community hall with a stage for theatrical performances, kitchen, etc.
During the 50’s the parish continued to grow. Following Fr. Olynyk’s departure in 1950, Fr. Michael (Mykhailo) Fyk served the parish for five years, followed by the one year pastorate of Fr. Kost (Konstantine) Zeliskewich. In 1955 the parish celebrated its 20th anniversary, and the Oshawa branch of “TYC” – the Ukrainian Self-reliance Association, was formed in this year as well.
1957 was a very significant year in the history of our parish. Mr. John Stezik Sr., who had been council president for a ten-year period between 1947 and 1957, stepped down. He was instrumental in the construction of the new temple, and his contribution to the life and growth of the parish in general were very great.
The Oshawa branch of “Association of Democratic Ukrainian Youth” – ODUM, was formed at our Church in 1957, and the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada “Barvinok” Branch was formed in November of this year as well.
Fr. Dmytro Luchak was named pastor in 1957. The six years he spent at St. John’s were very successful in regards to all aspects of parish life. Spiritually he continued to teach, minister, and serve. He and Dobrodiyka Justine were especially diligent in their work with the youth of the parish. Fr. Dmytro also took care to visit the elderly of the parish on a regular basis as well. Materially it was during Fr. Luchak’s pastorate that the land for the parish priest’s residence was obtained, and the residence built. Fr. Luchak and his family moved into the newly constructed residence on February 24th, 1962.
Following Fr. Luchak’s departure Fr. Rostyslav Panczenko became pastor. In addition to the spiritual work of the parish, two important issues during the 60’s were the question of renovating or rebuilding the hall, and the renovation of the church interior.
In 1967 Mr. John Kuney was chosen chair of the parish council, and the installation of a new iconostas was decided upon. The council and parish priest were charged with finding qualified artisans for this project. Throughout 1968 work on the preparation of the iconostas continued, as well as other work which needed to be done in the church, such as changing the floor, adaptation of the altar area for the new iconostas, etc. Following much hard work and fundraising the blessing of the new iconostas was done by His Eminence Archbishop Mikhail on May 25th 1969.
Many young members of the parish took part in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian Greek-Orthodox Church of Canada in Saskatoon in 1968. Both singers and dancers from our parish, together with choristers and dancers from all the parishes of Eastern and Western Canada prepared both cultural and sacred songs, and performed throughout Canada.
In 1970 the council again considered the issue of whether to rebuild or renovate the hall. Upon the advice of contractor and parishioner George Lysyk the decision was made to renovate rather than to rebuild. Messrs. George Lysyk, John Kuney, and Stefan Kisil were instrumental in bringing this ambitious project to a successful completion in 1971.
Another important event in the life of the parish was the arrival of Fr. Taras Slavchenko as our new pastor. Fr. Taras began his pastoral work at the end of August 1971 with his first Divine Liturgy, during which he preached a moving sermon which greatly impressed the faithful of the parish. During his 9 year tenure in Oshawa Fr. Taras was highly regarded for his dedication, intelligence, and erudition.
In 1973 the parish began its uninterrupted participation in the local multicultural festival “Fiesta”, sponsoring the Odessa Pavilion. Fiesta proved to be a great way to raise the profile of St. John’s Church in the community. The Odessa Pavilion as well as the Odessa Dancers have won many trophies for their outstanding performances, cultural displays, hospitality, and cuisine.
St. John’s parish celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1975. Walter Minosora was elected parish council president, and John Kuney, who had worked so diligently, serving for many years as parish council president, was named “Honourary Parish Council President”, an honour shared only by him and Mr. John Stezik Sr.
In 1980 Fr. Vitaliy Metulynsky was named parish priest. As in the previous decade, parish life continued to follow its own rhythm, revolving around the feast days, liturgical life, national celebrations and the various parish activities such as Fiesta. This was also a time when Ukrainians in the emigration were working diligently to make the plight of Ukrainians and other oppressed minorities in the Soviet Union known to the world. The parishioners of St. John’s in Oshawa took an active part in such activities.
In 1983 the 50th anniversary of the Great Famine – “Holodomor” – was commemorated. During the following years leading up to 1988 the clergy and parishioners of St. John’s, with all the clergy and faithful of the Eastern Diocese of the UGOCC actively participated in the various projects and activities organized in preparation for the celebration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Ukraine into the Holy Orthodox Faith. It was during the pastorate of Fr. Metulynsky that the iconography of the church interior was begun. At the initiative of the “Barvinok” branch of the UWAC, as well as with the help and support of the “Holy Protection” Sisterhood and all the parishioners and parish organzations this iconography was completed in time for the millennium celebrations.
Fr. Eugene Lewicki became pastor in 1985, and it is under his pastoral care that St. John’s celebrated the Millennium. The parish celebration officially began on July 4th 1987. St. John’s hosted a press conference regarding the Millennium, and that same evening a festive banquet and concert were held in our parish hall. On Sunday the 5th Metropolitan Wasyly, assisted by Fr. Lewicki and local clergy, celebrated a hierarchical Divine Liturgy.
Our parishioners took part in various local, diocesan and national celebrations of the millennium, culminating in the International Celebration of the Millennium by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church throughout the world which was held in Hamilton, Ontario, in August of 1988. Our choir was especially active in singing for the many services and concerts which were held during this period of celebration.
Following the untimely death of Fr. Eugene, Fr. Mikolaj Sidorski was named pastor of St. John’s in 1990. It was during his pastorate that the Centennial of Ukrainian Immigration to Canada was celebrated. This anniversary was celebrated with a major exposition of Ukrainian cultural artifacts in the parish “Odessa” hall. This event, and the other projects associated with this anniversary both within and outside of the Ukrainian community, served to emphasize the large contribution Ukrainians made in the Oshawa/Durham region, and indeed, to the life of Canada as a whole.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the declaration of Ukrainian Independence in 1991, the members of St. John’s intensified their work on behalf of their brothers and sisters in the homeland. Many of the parishioners were instrumental in obtaining much needed medical supplies, gathering material and monetary aid for orphanages, and aiding the social, political, and economic rebirth of the Ukrainian state. Such work, both on an organizational and personal level, has continued to the present day.
Fr. Gregory Mielnik was named pastor of St. John’s in 1995, and during his tenure a new era began at St. John’s. Fr. Gregory and Dobrodiyka Brenda brought youthful enthusiasm to the parish, which helped to re-invigorate the Sunday School program. The parish celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1996, and the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ at the dawn of this millennium. During Fr. Gregory’s pastorate the Altar project was completed, consisting of the addition of a new table of oblation, diaconicon, Bishop’s Cathedra and proper chairs for concelebrating priests. Beautiful, proper icons were installed in the altar as well. One of the most memorable events of Fr. Gregory’s pastorate was the pilgrimage made to Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, which made a great impression on all participants.
In 2008 Fr. Gregory was transferred to Holy Trinity Cathedral in Winnipeg, and Fr. Bohdan Hladio was named pastor. With Fr. Bohdan’s arrival the liturgical life of the parish intensified, with vespers, akathists, and Lenten weekday services being conducted on a regular weekly basis. Parish sponsored spiritual retreats were also introduced, and presenters have included Mother Gabriella of Holy Dormition Monastery, Bishop Andrij of Krateia, and Dr. Gayle Woloshchak of Chicago. Fr. Bohdan also put a high priority on working with the youth, and along with Dobr. Tania have organized many presentations, workshops, excursions and gatherings to enable the parish youth to come to know better their Orthodox Faith and Ukrainian heritage.
One of the pleasant and positive developments which we have witnessed in recent years has been the close cooperation of St. John’s parish with the neighbouring Orthodox parishes, our other Ukrainian churches, and our Ukrainian community organizations. This was manifest during the solemn commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor in October/November 2008 in which the entire Ukrainian community of Oshawa took part together, and also in the joint celebration of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which, with the blessing of Archbishop Yurij, is now served on a rotating basis in the various Orthodox Churches of our region.
Undoubtedly the greatest challenge which has faced our parish in the recent past has been the closure of our beloved “Odesa” Hall. The hall, which was the spiritual home of the parish from 1935 till 1950, and the social and cultural hub of our community since then, had to be closed due to structural deficiencies in September 2011. After thorough research and wide consultation with the parishioners, the decision was made to tear down the hall and build a new one which would better serve the needs of our community into the future.
Under the leadership of current parish president Dr. Paul Slavchenko, a very successful fund-raising campaign was organized in 2014, which yielded over half a million dollars towards the construction of the new hall. The building committee, under the capable leadership of Anna Kobilaski, engaged architect Ivan Franko of Toronto to design the hall, and it is with great excitement that we look forward to breaking ground early in 2018, with a projected official opening on October 14th of this year.
When the temple was blessed in 1950 the parish had about 110 families registered. In the 1970s this number had grown to about 250 families. Now, in our 83rd year, we have approximately 130 families registered. Over the past two decades many of the organizations which had served the needs of the community and the parishioners such as CYMK, TYC, ODUM, CYK, and the Credit Union have ceased to function, although a very positive development has been the revival of our parish “St. John’s Orthodox Youth” group, affiliated with CYMK (Ukrainian Orthodox Youth of Canada) in the spring of 2017.
Looking to the past we can say with full assurance that the founders, benefactors, supporters and leaders of our parish were people of deep faith and great courage. Had our pioneers not taken a great leap of faith and founded St. John’s 82 years ago all our lives would be poorer. As we look forward to the celebration of our parish’s 100th anniversary in 2035, our parishioners – and especially our youth – strive to follow their example.
Through the faith, commitment, and dedication of our parishioners we seek to ensure that the lives of coming generations will be enriched by the existence of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Oshawa just as our own lives have been.