The Museum of Civilization, Canada's national museum of history and one of North America's oldest cultural institutions, undulates along the north bank of the Ottawa River directly opposite the Houses of Parliament. Within the museum has been reassembled the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St Onuphrius, originally built in Smoky Lake, Alberta, in 1907 and moved intact in 1996 as a permanent exhibit complete with all of its ritual objects, decor and furnishings. The church is used for occasional services indeed, the divine liturgy had been held earlier that morning. Today's service took place outdoors on a snowy field.
This is not a permanent church community, but most of those attending today's service were either from the Ukrainian Catholic Seminary of the Holy Spirit, the Metropolitan Sheptytsky Institute at St Paul University, or local Ukrainian Catholic parishes.
Most of the Hull section of Gatineau had been destroyed in the great fire of 1900, so most of the surrounding buildings date from the Edwardian period. The grey stone Collge de Saint Joseph, a Roman Catholic girls school, faces the museum. The museum itself is but a few hundred metres from the former location of the voyageurs church, at which mass had been said by St Gabriel Lalemant, St Isaac Jogues, and St Jean de Brbeuf.
I believe I recognized the Revd Michael Winn, rector of the seminary. Father Stephen and Father Roman were mentioned by name.
What was the name of the service?The Great Blessing of Waters
How full was the building?
I suppose that you might fit about 400-500 in the open space. I counted 30 men, 41 women, and 20 children, but as we were all in a circle around the clergy, it seemed fine. The largest single age group was in the 20s and 30s: seminarians with their wives and batch of recent offspring. About five of those present were likely Chinese or Filipino in origin, either children or teenagers. Perhaps I heard about 15 speaking Ukrainian; the others spoke English.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I had come about five minutes late, as is not improper at events of the Eastern churches. I received friendly nods from two of the seminarians and a young woman managing a one-year old child in her arms.
Was your pew comfortable?
Pew? Ha! I looked for a spot where I would not have to stand in the snow, as that gets uncomfortable after half an hour or so. I was able to move about to keep warm although it was perhaps unnecessary, as it was unseasonably warm at -5C.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As I was late, I could not say. Everyone was fairly relaxed, but attentive to the service. Small children were well-behaved and ambling about. Teenagers were huddled in their conspiratorial clumps, all under the eyes of their parents.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I came as the rector was singing: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A 24-page booklet had been prepared for the event, with the English, French, and Ukrainian texts pointed for chanting.
What musical instruments were played?
In the Byzantine manner, there was no instrumentation. The choir of the local Ukrainian Catholic seminary led the music.
Did anything distract you?
I enjoyed looking beyond the choir and the young people holding the icons and banners, over the field and the ice-covered river to the gothic Parliament buildings on the other side of the river. I liked seeing the children and teenagers quite at home during a long service, without being turned into zombies.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was complex but relaxed, perhaps the result of much practice and rehearsal. The clergy appeared zoned out, but didn't miss a beat. The young women holding the icons by the ice cross looked as if they did this every day. The seminarians knocked the snow from the hems of their cassocks. A gaggle of a half-dozen pre-schoolers of different colours and origins stood by the choir and joined in the chanting. A similar service from three years ago can be found on YouTube.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon this year. A ten minute discourse in a previous year at -25C had apparently caused a rebellion!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Kievan chant of the ending troparion of the feast wafting over the field toward the river and over the ice to Ottawa. A dozen or so onlookers and museum staff stopped to listen, perhaps puzzled, but certainly transfixed.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Feeling like an outsider, which sometimes happens in Eastern Christian churches I have visited, where everyone knows everyone else. I did not feel any ethnic exclusion, however.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were funneled back into the museums lower floor into an entranceway, where we were blessed and given a chunk of antidoron (blessed but unconsecrated bread). We were also provided with bottles for the blessed water from the service, as the custom is to take it home and sprinkle it about ones icon corner.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Everyone toddled into a reception room by the museums great hall, where mulled cider and coffee was available. My cider was quite agreeable. I stood at one of the tables and made brief conversation with a Latin-rite acquaintance who was bemused at the sight of the cassocked seminarians playing with their children.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – This is a special service, held once a year, but I make an effort to attend.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, for two reasons: Outdoor services have a certain magic, and for me it is doubled in wintertime. It was also magical to see how the Ukrainians had been able to bring their practices to Canada with them, and had fashioned a Christianity that reflects both societies.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The pre-schoolers joining in the chanting.