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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Honoring Fortitude and Sacrifice

An oral history project preserves memories of terror and faith from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic underground

Until it emerged from the underground in 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the world’s largest illegal church. It was also the most extensive network of civil opposition in the Soviet Union.

Despite relentless persecution, church life continued through an elaborate system of clandestine seminaries, monasteries, ministries, parishes and youth groups until the church was legalized on 1 December 1989. The Institute of Church History, part of the Ukrainian Catholic University in the city of Lviv, is recording this church’s undocumented history when hundreds of priests, nuns, monks and lay people – even children – were arrested or deported to labor camps.

“We have a unique opportunity to preserve something that is of universal importance,” said Father Borys Gudziak, the institute’s founder.

Scholarly interest and “personal allegiance” led Father Gudziak, a Harvard graduate born in 1960 in Syracuse, to take up residence in post-Soviet Ukraine in 1992.

Father Gudziak’s parents fled Ukraine in 1944, but he did not forget their homeland, which in the 20th century suffered war, revolution, civil strife, famine, invasion and occupation. Called to serve the Ukrainian Church as a priest, he studied in Rome as a seminarian in the early 1980’s under Josyf Cardinal Slipyj, exiled head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. In the late 1980’s, Father Gudziak traveled to Soviet Ukraine to research his doctoral thesis on the Union of Brest, by which certain eparchies of the Ukrainian Church (those under Polish control) entered into full communion with the Church of Rome in the late 16th century. While there, he had an opportunity to learn about, and meet with, members of the underground church.

In the final stages of his doctoral work in 1991, Father Gudziak was looking for “the next big topic to study.” He decided to move to newly independent Ukraine in 1992, having received a postdoctoral grant to research the underground’s history.

The institute’s beginnings were modest. A desk in a small room attached to the Studite Fathers’ Church of St. Michael in Lviv, the heart of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and a 31-year-old director did not fit the locals’ idea of a research institute. It took Father Gudziak months just to find a secretary.

His first task was preparing questionnaires for the interviews he would conduct. Eventually, he recruited staff. Dr. Oleh Turij, current institute Director, joined early.

Traditional history is usually based on archival documents, but the history of the underground church required a different approach. The institute eventually gained access to archives of the Communist Party and the K.G.B. (Soviet secret police), where documentation of how the regime attempted to liquidate the church was found.

But how did the church survive?

“The only way to answer that question has been to gather information from the survivors while they are still alive,” said Dr. Turij.

So the focus of the institute’s work in the early years was to interview the more well-known members of the underground: clergy, religious and laity. It was hoped these people would mention additional, obscure underground members they knew, who were then interviewed. And so the circle increased.

“Each interview is subjective,” Dr. Turij said. “People forget. They try to make things look better than they were, they are silent about some things. But when we have numerous interviews, together with archival documents, we can determine what is true.”

This is the process by which Father Gudziak and his staff began to piece together the history of the underground church, which was the most significant form of resistance to the Soviet regime.

The first wave of the Soviet occupation of western Ukraine in 1939 and the establishment of total Soviet power in 1944, with atheism as a part of communist ideology, resulted in confiscation of all the material resources of the church. All religious institutions and organizations were closed and their property nationalized. There was a gradual elimination of the church from public life.

In April 1945, the Soviets arrested the head of the church, Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj; six bishops; 500 priests, and the church’s intelligentsia. The next year, a “re-union” with the Russian Orthodox Church was proclaimed at the controversial Synod of Lviv. There were no Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops at the synod, although 216 priests attended, at gunpoint.

By the end of 1947, some 1,124 Catholic parish priests had become Orthodox and were serving in parishes. Male and female religious, lay faithful and hundreds of priests who refused to convert, often with their wives and children, were arrested and sent to labor camps, where they endured horrific hardships.

Parishes where the pastor had been arrested were to become the backbone of the underground.

The faithful sang outside closed churches or worshiped at churches not registered with the regime. Priests who had avoided arrest tried to make pastoral visits to these underground communities. Nuns maintained contact between the priests and the laity, arranging secret religious services and catechizing children.

With Stalin’s death in March 1953, many priests who survived the camps were allowed to return home where they often resumed their pastoral activities. Priests celebrated the sacraments in forests or in private apartments, late at night or early in the morning, in addition to their legal jobs. Sometimes they were caught and again sentenced. Other priests took advantage of eased conditions to minister to the faithful who remained outside Ukraine, such as in Kazakhstan or Siberia.

The Communist Party tried to prevent the ordination of new bishops and priests. But the bishops continued ordaining new priests and new bishops, as eventual successors.

Religious lived in groups of two or three and held secular jobs. The Sisters of Mercy of St. Vincent de Paul had operated a Catholic hospital, Lviv’s Sheptytsky Clinic, before the war. They were allowed to continue there when it became Soviet Hospital No. 3, though they now wore civilian clothes. They would bring priests in to hear confessions of the sick. Old-timers in Lviv say that party officials allowed the nuns to remain because they were competent and the officials wanted at least one good hospital open in case they needed it for themselves.

However, Metropolitan Slipyj was not among those freed. He was arrested again, while in a prison infirmary in 1958. Sent from camp to camp, he was released in 1963, in an agreement brokered by President John F. Kennedy, Pope John XXIII and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

On his way to exile in Rome, the Metropolitan managed in a Moscow hotel to ordain Basil Velychkovskyi as bishop with right to succession, naming him locum tenens (acting head) of the church.

Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, clergy continued to be arrested, often abused and sometimes killed. The church continued its ministry, regardless of the consequences. In 1969, the army had to be called in when the faithful rioted after police arrested a priest celebrating Divine Liturgy in a closed church.

With Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika in the 1980’s, Greek Catholics, coming out of the underground in 1989, demanded the legalization of their church. They openly celebrated liturgies, often outside churches that were still closed. Religious wore their habits publicly. Eventually, the government began to return churches.

There were 3.6 million Greek Catholics in Ukrainian territories before the war. Even after more than 40 years of persecution, there are still about 3.5 million, but this is difficult to estimate – there is no parish registration in Ukraine’s large cities.

As institute staff conducted interviews with survivors of the underground, they noticed that many were in need of moral, and often material, support. Active underground members had been marginalized in Soviet society. If they survived life in prison or in the camps, upon release they were given only the most menial jobs, if allowed to work at all. Consequently, in their old age they receive pensions lower than most in economically troubled Ukraine.

To help these pensioners, the institute opened its pastoral department in 1993, which is headed by Iryna Kolomyiets.

With erratic support from individual donors, the pastoral department tries to provide financial and spiritual support for about 100 underground survivors. Aging priests, priests’ widows and lay survivors of the underground come to the institute to socialize every month; they also pick up a little extra money. For those who are housebound, Ms. Kolomyiets visits them. She also keeps in phone contact and sends local Catholic high school students to visit the survivors a few times a year. They are also invited to the university for various occasions and are honored guests at seminars on the underground church.

Ms. Kolomyiets herself is the daughter of an underground priest who was sent to a work camp because “he never made any compromise with the atheist government.”

Many of these underground survivors knew her father, so, “when I’m chatting with them,” Ms. Kolomyiets said, “it’s like I’m with my father. For me, they are each a little part of him.”

In 1998, thanks to her efforts, 35 of the aging priests were honored by Pope John Paul II in recognition of their 50 years of service. Forty-five were nominated, but 10 did not live long enough to attend the ceremony.

The institute, which now has a staff of 37, has gathered over 1,500 interviews, each lasting from one to 10 hours. Each cassette is transcribed word for word. The transcriber’s work is then checked to correct any mechanical copying mistakes or to clarify certain words, but not to alter the authentic text. Because magnetic tape deteriorates over time, the institute has begun re-recording them digitally.

The next step in the process is scholarly work. Staff members use the interviews while writing articles or planning courses on church history that they teach at the university. And more and more outside researchers come to the institute, from other universities, even from other countries.

The Institute of Jewish Studies in Kiev, for example, has used the institute’s methodology – questionnaires, forms and all – for research on the Holocaust in Ukraine.

A nongovernmental organization, the institute receives no financial support from the Ukrainian government or the church, although it has “the moral support, blessing and interest” of the bishops.

International grants for scholarly projects have been one source of funding and charitable contributions from individuals is the other. “Much of our time is spent writing grant proposals and looking for partners,” Dr. Turij said.

As the survivors of the underground die, the institute’s tasks are changing. Analytical articles and an authoritative history of the underground church remain to be written. Some materials from the institute are available, in English or Ukrainian, on the institute’s Web site ( The institute also looks at other themes in church history, in particular the Union of Brest. After a series of conferences in 1995 and 1996, “people started to discuss the union, from a scholarly point of view, without polemics, without shouting,” Dr. Turij said.

Though Borys Gudziak finished his seminary studies in 1983, he delayed his ordination to the priesthood. He said he was ordained in 1998, finally convinced “by the people, by the needs of the church.” During the intervening years, he helped revive the Lviv Theological Academy (shuttered by the Soviets in 1944), becoming its Vice Rector. Father Gudziak was later named Rector of the academy, which has since developed into the Ukrainian Catholic University. In 2002, Dr. Turij succeeded him as the institute’s Director.

Born and reared in Soviet Ukraine, Dr. Turij is passionate about the institute’s mission:

“We don’t want to do propaganda,” he said with a shrug. “We had enough of that in the past. We are simply trying to present the truth. We are convinced this will strengthen our faith and that of other people.”

Matthew Matuszak is Director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.

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