A Maine Immigrant Scourge

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Congregational Church, Yarmouth Maine courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

The transcontinental railroads brought both of my parents to North America — my father from Denmark to Seattle, and my mother’s parents to Alberta, Canada from Ukraine. North America has always offered new lives to immigrants.

But not always without conflict. Long before they came, by the 1790s, early American churches were losing parishioners. Delancey Place’s January 6, 2017 blog features excerpts from the book, Taming Lust by Doron S. Ben-Atar and Richard D. Brown. Church ministers believed that the loss was due to the influence of Godless  “European immigrants … convicts of the worst kind, guilty of murder and rape.”

The mixture of politics and religion led to explosive rhetoric. Fears of Christian decline blended with partisan warnings about  revolutionary radicalism.

the New England elite feared European radicals might possibly turn the U.S. into New World France. A reporter noted that “Most European immigrants were convicts of the worst kind, guilty of murder, rape, and sodomy.” It was felt that the French Revolution had generated “‘evils’, which without experience, cannot be known.” Immigration had to be checked because ‘the fortune of every community must depend upon the character and conduct of its members.”

Senator Uriah Tracy stated that “these immigrants must never flood into New England because they posed political, cultural, and sexual threats.”

Maine Writer Elizabeth Strout Meets Immigrant Writers

“The novelist Elizabeth Strout left Maine but it didn’t leave her,” states Ariel Levy in the May 1, 2017 New Yorker.

Strout’s books resonate with me. Maine claims my heart too.

Strout’s people do not live in Maine tourist towns along the coast. The characters in Olive Kittredge, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, either cannot  leave the state that defines them, or or else they feel driven to leave it. The Congregational minister in  Abide With Me must work his way through the family tragedy with his daughter in the inland hamlet away from the coastal Maine town favored by his wife’s summer-season parents. Drama is understated, inexpressible. People cannot communicate their feelings. In one interview Strout states that when growing up she had a sense of “just swimming in all their ridiculous extra emotion.”

Levy says “a recurring theme in Strout’s novels is the angry, aching sense of abandonment small-town dwellers feel when their loved ones depart.” It is almost as if they are emigrating to another country.

My parents were both immigrants to the U.S; my father Hans Pederson from Denmark, my mother Doris Huchulak, a Ukrainian Canadian from Alberta. My Danish friend and fellow blogger, mariaholm51, sent this wrenching painting that shows the pain of immigration to the Facebook page currently celebrating my memoir, (same title for both)  “Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks.”

 

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Edvard Pedersen, Emigrants at Copenhagen Harbor 1890

 

My January 22, 2016 blog, “Maine Nonprofit Helps Immigrant Kids” described one young immigrant’s experience at The Telling Room a Portland, Maine youth writing program. On a recent visit to The Telling Room, Levy tells us that  Strout met refugee and immigrant  high schoolers mostly from Africa and the Middle East.

“The students stood in a circle and told Strout what they were working on. ‘My name is Abass and i’m trying to define what home is,” a teen-ager from Ethiopia said.’ Steff rom Burundi told her, ‘I’m writing about how I find my voice in America.’ Another boy said, ‘I’m writing about second chances.'”

After wrenching leave-takings from towns, cities, or countries, lives becomes either better or worse for those who leave and those who remain. They are never the same.

 

Rural Canadian Immigrant Customs

 

 

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Pysanka at Vegreville, Alberta Arthur Sri Mesh courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Both my mother’s parents, the Huchulaks, and her grandparents, the Tokaruks, left Ukraine in 1898. Canadian government representatives came to Eastern Europe and urged the people to leave their lives as serfs on overcrowded farms in Bukovina to settle the northern Canadian plains.

They crossed the Pacific on ships to Halifax, then on Canadian Pacific Railroad trains that made such settlement possible. Where they settled the plains in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and east central Alberta, their onion-domed Orthodox churches served both as places of worship and also as community centers.

 

 

I met 50 cousins and their families at a 2009 Huchulak reunion in Alberta. We toured the living history museum and bought Pysanka, intricately decorated Ukrainian eggs, still made by my family members. We stopped for a photo at the giant Pysanka Ukrainian egg at Vegreville. These eggs remain a symbol of new life after the hard winter. In Russia this symbol evolved into the priceless Faberge eggs.

We gathered at the cemetery on the Orthodox Church grounds to meet our forebears. Each gravestone held a Ukrainian cross with a characteristic slanted crosspiece.

Life was hard and often short for pioneer families. At Easter celebrations people brought food and braided bread to be blessed by the priest. After the service families gathered to eat outdoors. Adults brought cakes, fruit, and candy for the children. To this day the custom continues for families to gather at the cemetery on Easter for a picnic — a custom reminiscent of the Mexican  Day of the Dead.

So many of us bury our roots. My Ukrainian Canadian forebears celebrate theirs. I’m glad I’ve been able to add my branch to the family tree.

 

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