Chicago’s Ukrainian history begins on the north side with the arrival of immigrants from western and Carpathian Ukraine in the late 1890s.
At the time, they called themselves Rusyns (Ruthenians), an anachronistic national appellation associated with Ukraine’s occupation as a nation within the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Ukrainian communal life in Chicago officially began on December 31, 1905, when fifty-one immigrants came together at 939 Robey (now Damen Avenue) to establish St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Ruthenian Catholic parish.
In 1906, a Danish Lutheran Church was purchased at Superior and Bishop Streets for $8,000. A twelve-member board of trustees was elected with the pastor, Fr. Victor Kovaletsky, as chairman, and Dr. Volodymyr Simenovych, a medical doctor, as secretary. Underscoring their commitment to their eastern-rite, Greek Catholic origins, (and fearing future incorporation by Latin-rite or Irish Catholic bishops) the board passed a resolution specifying:
…that all property of said church which may hereafter be acquired be held in the name of its incorporated name but under no conditions shall said church or its priests or pastors be ever under the jurisdiction of bishop or bishops except those of the same faith and rite.
The founders of St. Nicholas also stipulated that in addition to “religious-moral” goals, parishioners were pledged “To elevate ourselves through the support of a school, a reading room, political clubs and whatever else is deemed necessary.”
Fr. Kovaletsky left St. Nicholas in the spring of 1907. He was succeeded that same year by Fr. Nicholas Strutynsky, a recent arrival from Ukraine, who remained at St. Nicholas until 1921. It was during his – – and his equally energetic wife’s – – tenure that Chicago’s Ukrainian community grew, prospered, and became irrevocably Ukrainian in ethno-national thinking, feeling and action.
Immigrants from Ukraine continued to pour into Chicago and by 1911 it became clear that a new, larger church was needed. “Let us move west where much land is still available,” urged Dr. Simenovych at a parish meeting in March. “We can build a glorious new church; we can all purchase lots near the church; we can eventually build our homes on these lots and, with God’s help, we can have our own, ‘new Rus’ right here in Chicago.”
Twenty lots were eventually purchased on Rice Street between Oakley and Leavitt for $12,000 and building began immediately. Bishop Soter Ortynsky blessed the cornerstone of the new church in 1913. Within two years, a magnificent, Byzantine-Slavonic structure with thirteen domes (one each for Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles) was standing in the heart of Chicago’s renown Ukrainian Village. The first liturgy was celebrated at St. Nicholas Church on January 7, 1915 (Christmas Day).
Remaining loyal to their mission, St. Nicholas Council members established a Ukrainian heritage school (Ridna Shkola) which, by the time of Fr. Strutinsky’s arrival in 1907, had one teacher and 10 children attending on Saturdays. By 1922, Ridna Shkola had four teachers and 300 students attending classes weekdays from 4p.m. to 6 p.m. A full-time elementary school was built in 1935. As the post-war World War II immigration grew, a second school building was built in 1955. Full-time enrollment reached some 1,100 students in the early 1960s. Today, some 150 students attend St. Nicholas Elementary School.
St. Nicholas was also the home of the famed Lysenko Chorus which won first place in a 1930 multi-state choral contest sponsored by the Chicago Tribune.
In 1941, St. Nicholas parish was host to the Eucharistic Congress for Eastern Rites.
In 1961, Chicago’s prestige as a significant center of Ukrainian-Catholic life in America was greatly enhanced when the Holy See established a Ukrainian episcopal seat in the city. Msgr. Jaroslaw Gabro, a native son of the parish, became the first bishop of the newly created Ukrainian Catholic eparchy. A renovation process which began in 1974 restored St. Nicholas to its original grandeur.
When the newly consecrated bishop decreed that hence-forth all churches in the eparchy would follow the Gregorian religious calendar, a group of parishioners, choosing to believe that the change was an attempt to undermine their ancient religio-cultural heritage, left St. Nicholas and in 1974 erected Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Church at Oakley and Superior. They adhere to the ancient Julian religious calendar.
Bishop Gabro died in 1980 and was succeeded by Bishop Innocent Lotocky. The healing process between the two estranged Ukrainian churches began soon thereafter. In 1988, an ecumenical commemoration of the millenium of Christianity in Ukraine brought together all Ukrainian churches in the Chicagoland area, Catholic, Orthodox and Baptist. A fourth wave of immigrants from Ukraine began arriving in Chicago soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Finding their way to St. Nicholas Cathedral, they also are becoming involved in parish and school affairs.
Bishop Innocent retired in 1993 and was succeeded by Bishop Michael Wiwchar (left) that same year. Bishop Michael was succeeded by Bishop Richard Stephen Seminack (right) in 2003.
In December 2005, the parishioners of St. Nicholas Cathedral Parish began a commemoration of the centennial of the parish, including a year of celebratory events throughout 2006, concluding with a gala banquet and hierarchical Divine Liturgy in November.