Sanctuary Project preserving Ukrainian religion in the Prairies, one church at a time | Work of Arts
Sanctuary Project preserving Ukrainian religion in the Prairies, one church at a time | Work of Arts

Sanctuary Project preserving Ukrainian religion in the Prairies, one church at a time

Part 4 of an in-depth look at the Arts-based KIAS Cluster Grant research projects

The Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) marked its fifth anniversary this year with the announcement of a $500,000 research cluster grant awarded to six research projects across UAlberta’s social sciences, humanities and arts faculties.

This is the fourth in a series profiling the four Arts research projects chosen to receive cluster grant funds.

Nothing lasts forever. It’s a simple truth, and the driving force behind “Sanctuary: the Spiritual Heritage Documentation Project.”

Sanctuary’s team of researchers – led by Modern Languages & Cultural Studies professor and Kule Chair of Ukrainian Ethnography Natalie Kononenko – conduct fieldwork across the Canadian Prairies photographing Byzantine rite – primarily Ukrainian – churches, and their contents.

Kononenko, who’s in charge of interviews and digital technology for the project, says the research comes at a crucial time as the domed Ukrainian churches, once a familiar sight in Western Canada’s prairie landscape, are rapidly disappearing.IMG_3879

Since 2009, the team has been working hard to record as many of these churches and their contents as possible, across Alberta and Saskatchewan. Kononenko says it’s simply demographic change in the region that’s led to the closing and destruction of the churches.

Creating a record of the buildings and objects within them is important from both a cultural and historical standpoint, she explains.

“Very often these static objects can’t be preserved, sometimes due to structural issues, but they can be recorded,” says Kononenko. “It is a dynamic project and it’s a question of negotiating cultural identity.”

The KIAS Cluster Grant funds will help support Sanctuary over the next three years, as the team of researchers continues their mission to document the post-Byzantine cultural colonization in the prairies before it’s too late.IMG_0199

“The funds will go half and half toward fieldwork for the project and the Sanctuary project database – which is a big, big deal,” explains Kononenko. “The image thing is really impressive. No one has photographed churches with this degree of detail.”

Kononenko and her team have already photographed nearly 600 churches so far. Fortunately, for the people of Thorhild, Alberta, one of those was their landmark Thorhild Church, which burnt to the ground in March of this year.

“We had already photographed the church before the fire, so when they went to the insurance company, they were able to show complete documentation of contents,” says Kononenko.

The funds will also help the team continue conducting interviews about ritual practice and add information about sacral sound to the project.

The documentation from the Sanctuary Project will become a permanent record, housed in the Peel Prairie Provinces collection of the UAlberta Library.  Once complete, Kononenko says it will allow scholars and decision-makers to better understand Canadianization.

She also hopes their work chronicling the Ukrainian churches can set a precedent and provide a template for other religion documentation projects.

“We’re going to be working with other cultural centres to see which ones do want to do some kind of documentary project – we could help provide best practices and show them the methodology,” she says. “I know the Anglican Church is interested.”

In the short term, the grant will fund a fieldwork trip to North Saskatchewan, where the team will collaborate with partners in Saskatoon and Winnipeg in an effort to link their databases.


To read more about Sanctuary: the Spiritual Heritage Documentation Project, visit their website.

For more information about KIAS and the research it supports, follow this link.


Filed under: Features, Research
Tagged with: , , , , , , ,