By Colin McGregor
In a corner of the Eastern Townships along Lake Memphremagog, just north of Vale Perkins in the Township of Potton, on Chemin du Lac, a modest sign says: Vorokhta (Bopoxтa, in Ukrainian). It was here that in 1954, Ukrainians fleeing communist persecution in their home country made a life for themselves in a new country.
Ivan and Stefania Telishewsky bought a farm on this site and let other Ukrainian refugees live on their land by renting rooms. Soon some Ukrainians bought small plots and built their own houses here. The Telishewskys gave the Vorokhta site the name of their native village, a seaside resort in the Ukrainian Carpathians, which they were reminded of by the landscape around Vale Perkins, and Potton.
About 30 Ukrainian families settled in the area. Most used their homes as summer residences and weekend retreats, and lived the rest of the year in Montreal.
Ukrainians were quickly accepted by their more established neighbours, recalls a retired engineer who spent more than 60 summers in Vorokhta: “I think the English and the French quickly understood that the Ukrainian community was not there to overwhelm them, that they were honest and hardworking, and that they were here to stay.”
They missed their homeland, but not its government: “Most Ukrainians who came to Montreal after World War II ended up there because they didn’t want to go back to Ukraine because of the communist regime there,” recalls the retired engineer. “It is true for all Ukrainians who ended up anywhere after the Second World War. So yes, there was a displacement and a loss of residence. There was also a feeling of ‘we’re not going to be able to go back. Let’s make our own Ukraine here: churches, businesses, schools, newspapers, etc. etc., and let’s keep Ukraine free and alive here.”
A wooden chapel was built on the site in 1954, dedicated to John the Baptist, patron saint of Quebec and Ivan (John) Telishewsky. It was rebuilt in 1985 to mimic the style of a 17th century church found in Vorokhta, Ukraine. This rebuilt chapel is now visible from Chemin du Lac, but you need permission to enter.
How much of a shock was the Russian invasion to our retired engineer? “It wasn’t a real ‘shock’, because I knew it would happen,” he laments. “It was more of the suspense of ‘when will it happen?’ From the news, you could see the start and daily buildup of Russian invasion forces, more, more, more each day, until you got the feeling that there were enough troops to start the invasion, then it happened. And, the daily denials that there would be an invasion, you couldn’t believe it. ‘What and how’ it happened wasn’t much of a shock either – watching the news in recent years has prepared you for what to expect in urban warfare. The saddest thing is that it is yours that is being destroyed. And why?”
The Potton Valley Church recently held a fundraiser for the Ukrainian Red Cross, symbolizing that the long-standing ties between the Ukrainian community and this region have never been extinguished.