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The Wooden Church: Keeping Ukrainian Tradition Alive

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JOHNSON CITY, N.Y. -

Driving around the hills off of Lower Stella Ireland Road in Johnson City, you may have come across "the wooden church" overlooking the valley. Sacred Heart Ukrainian Catholic Church stands out, while also fitting in with the landscape around it. Made entirely out of wood, the three-domed structure rises 80 feet in the air.

“It is modeled after the kind of churches that you would find in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine," says Father Teodor Czabala.

Father Ted says the church is "traditional Ukrainian inside and out." As soon as you step inside, you can see why. The vivid colors associated with the culture stand out against the wooden backdrop.

“If you look at the icons of Jesus or Mary, you can see it’s like a little bit of embroidery that’s put in there because embroidery is very popular in Ukraine," says Czabala, pointing out the added detail on the church's icon screen.

The church was built in 1977, but was founded in 1944. It took a while for the group of Ukrainian immigrants, the church's first parishioners, to build their own space to their specifications.

Czabala says Ukrainians came to the area as early as the 1880s. It was right after World War II ended that there was a big bump in Ukrainians immigrating to Broome County. Coming over after the war, they worked in the cigar factory and Endicott-Johnson and attended mass at St. Micheal's on Clinton Street.

Czabala says that was the one central church for Eastern European Catholics until the 1930s when St. Micheal's converted to Orthodox. That's when Czabala says groups that wanted to remain Catholic started splitting off and forming their own churches. In 1944, a group of Ukrainians bought a former Methodist church, just down the street from St. Micheal's, on the corner of Clinton and Holland Streets. They worshiped there until the 1970s, when they finally started planning for their own church.

"And actually that was kind of an interesting couple of years in the parish," says Czabala, laughing.

Apparently, not everyone agreed that the church should be wooden. The parishioners were divided, some wanting a stone church and some wanting wood.

Czabala says one of his parishioners once told him a story about her husband being on the committee to choose the church design.

He comes home and he tells her, 'Oh, dear, we’re going to build a wooden church.' She goes, 'What, are you crazy?'

After the church was built, Czabala says she had to tell her husband he was right.

There are currently around 75 families in the congregation and the church is celebrating 75 years since its founding. Czabala says it's a tight-knit group and an active one. The church just held its annual Easter Bazaar over the weekend.

Father Ted says there have been a few updates over the years (A new roof, more modern windows, and a refinished floor.), but the essence of the church and its community has remained the same. All in all, it's a space to keep traditions alive and a place to call home.