Keeping the heritage alive UCI names first recipient of Spirit Award

On the far eastern side of North Dakota, by the Candadian border, sits a little church on the prairie. The little piece of pioneer history was formerly known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. John before being given to Fort Pembina Historical Society (FPHS) in 1987.

Ukrainian Cultural Institute honors the efforts of Fort Pembina Historical Society with inaugural Spirit Award. (Josiah C. Cuellar/ The Dickinson Press)

FPHS have worked to preserve the church and last December were successful in getting it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To honor their efforts in preserving this historical monument, the Ukrainian Cultural Institute (UCI) has awarded FPHS with their first ever Spirit Award.

"We’re very honored that UCI selected the Fort Pembina Historical Society …,” said Pat Cayley, FPHS spokesperson. "It truly is the best piece of news we’ve had all year as with COVID our group was inactive this year, much to our dismay. However, we look forward to 2021 and hopefully will hold an event at the church museum to formally roll out the designation of St. John’s listing on the NRHP and at that time will present the Spirit Award."

Much like the UCI North Dakota Hall of Fame, the Spirit Award was created to shine a spotlight on an individual or organization that has shown commitment to a project or goal that favors Ukrainian heritage.

“It is something we came up with because every year we usually do a North Dakota Ukrainian Hall of Fame award but that is for lifelong and multi-year contributions where the Spirit Award is recognition for a shorter term.” said Richard Volesky the UCI board member who nominated FPHS for the Spirit Award.

Volesky came across FPHS after the media brought attention to their accomplishment of getting the church onto the federal register. The board voted this past November on who would be the inaugural recipient of the award after defining the criteria.


“The FPHS is deserving of the Ukrainian Spirit Award because of its effort to preserve the church building and because of its success with having the building listed on the National Register,” said Richard Volesky, “It took foresight from the people of Pembina to perform upkeep all these years because otherwise it would have gone to ruin.”

The historic and weathered church has endured the test of time, including floods in 1948, 1950 and 1997. The small church, that members of the FPHS call their ‘little jewel of the prairie’, now serves as a church museum and its 1,400 square feet host a variety of exhibits on Ukrainian heritage and history in the area. Originally it was built by Icelandic immigrants from both the United States and Canada in 1885.

In 1937, due to the limited numbers in their congregation, the Icelandic Evangelical Lutheran Church was sold to the Ukranians who had settled in the area. It was at this time that the church was renamed the Ukranian Orthodox Church of St. John. Over the course of several decades, the number of Ukranian parishioners at Pembina had declined from 20 to only five families by 1987. It was this year when the church disbanded and the property was given to the FPHS, with an understanding that orthodox services could still be held in the premises for the remaining Ukrainian members.

In 2018, FPHS board members began the national registry process for the former Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and collected donations to hire an architectural historian who devised a 50-page nomination that was used by the State Historical Society of North Dakota - and later the U.S. Department of the Interior - as the basis for having the building named to the register.

The UCI Spirit Award is a framed certificate and will not be handed out annually, but rather on occasions when projects or nominations are deserving.

Josiah C. Cuellar was born in San Angelo, Texas, a small rural community in the western part of the state known for its farming, ranching and beautiful Concho River. A Texas A&M San Antonio graduate specializing in multi-media reporting, Cuellar is an award winning photographer and reporter whose work focuses on community news and sports.
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