'God opened up America' -- How faith united Ukrainian immigrants
Nearing the end of the nineteenth century, the steady trickle of eastern Europeans making their way to America turned into a full-on rush of eager immigrants seeking a new life abroad. While individual Ukrainians had come to the United States and the Dakota territories years earlier, the first mass wave immigrated to the Dakotas in the late 1880s.
"God opened up America and the people came here. My uncle bought our place. Our departure made it easier for those remaining in Ukraine," Pearl Basaraba, of Billings County, wrote in 1914.
Many of those Ukrainians who first ventured into the frigid Badlands of North Dakota came as farmers and quickly adapted to life on the prairie—despite tremendous hardships.
The Homestead Act gave each a quarter-section of land, or roughly 60 acres, which required that they improve the land and reside on the property to keep it. While the farmlands grew through the hard work and hearty spirits of the pioneers, so too did their faith.
"Many Ukrainians settled in groups and populated Billings County in a town that no longer exists called Ukrainia," Kate Kessel, executive director of the Ukrainian Culture Institute, said. "Deeply religious people, within five years of their arrival they turned to building a church."
Near the former town of Gorham, N.D., the St. Josephat Church—the first Ukrainian church—was built in 1912. The joys would soon turn to sorrow and ash, as the church burned to the ground during a nighttime fire in 1916.
"We don't know if it was a lightning strike, or what, but the church burned down," Kessel said. "But, they rebuilt a new church in 1917." In August of 2018, Father Ivan Shkumbatyuk and his family arrived directly from western Ukraine to head the services of the area. A graduate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminary in the Ternopil Eparchy, Shkumbatyuk has a long and acclaimed background.
"I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Theology in 2006 and a Licentiate in Oriental Sciences from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome," Shkumbatyuk said. "Today, in Belfield, I preach the Science of Christ and share the gifts that God left of us. These gifts are faith, love and hope."
For Ukrainian families like the Basaraba's, the church has always been a gathering place.
"At church they would comfort each other, they all felt the same way," Roy Basaraba, son of Pearl, said. "It's hard to leave your motherland, to leave everything behind and start a journey with nothing."
While many Ukrainian immigrants had to leave all of their personal property behind when they ventured to the United States from their motherland in the late 1880's, they did bring with them their cultural heritage and deep rooted faith.
Roy Basaraba explained the importance of the church to the Ukrainians, many of whom were isolated on their 60 acre plots of land, but would use the church as a place to gather, pray and comfort one another.
"It gave them a focal point to get together and have functions," Roy Basaraba said of the church. "After church they would bring lunch with them and spread out the blankets and have a picnic. It gave them time to visit, because other than that they lived too far apart from each other to get together."
When asked about the hardships his ancestors endured to get to America and what it means to him, Roy Basaraba was succinct.
"They encountered severe hardships on their journey, but thank God for America."
The Ukrainians have a long history of Christian faith, with the first conversions in the country dating back as far as the apostolic age, where missions across the Black Sea and the legend of Saint Andrew ascending the hills of Kyiv first brought the religion to the country.
It has remained the dominant religion in the country since its acceptance in 988 by Volodymyr the Great, who instituted it as the state religion following a trip to the Byzantine capital.
The number of churches and Ukrainian descendants has grown remarkably since those early pioneer days. Today, services are offered in English and/or Ukrainian at the Saint Demetrius Church in Gorham, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Peter and Paul in Belfield and the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic church in Belfield. Services are even offered at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute and area nursing homes for those unable to venture out to Belfield.