When I was in Grade 3, our teacher asked the class what we would do if someone came into the room and threatened to shoot anyone who was Christian. It was an incredibly scary prospect back then and it still is today. Yet there are brave and faithful people who resist any temptation to deny their faith and face martyrdom instead. Blessed Vasyl Velychkovsky did exactly that.
Vasyl Velychkovsky was born in 1903 into a priestly family in Western Ukraine. His father was a priest, as were both his grandfathers. After serving as a rifleman in the First World War, Vasyl entered the Major Seminary in Lviv, Ukraine. During his diaconal year, in 1924, he joined the Redemptorist Congregation. He was ordained to the priesthood on Oct. 9, 1925, in Stanislaviv. Early on, his gift of preaching was recognized and he was assigned to give parish missions in the Volyn region.
During this period, the region was under Polish control and there was strong pressure for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to become polonized. Father Vasyl refused to do this. Instead, he strived to unite the faithful under Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. Because of this, he was forced to leave Volyn in 1935. He returned to Stanislaviv where he spent the next several years giving traditional Redemptorist two-week-long missions. In June 1940, with the Soviets occupying Western Ukraine, Father Vasyl led a procession of some 20,000 people through the streets of Stanislaviv on the occasion of the feast of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Several days later, Father Vasyl was arrested for alleged anti-Soviet activity. For the first, but not the last, time, Father Vasyl was tortured. After a day the police released him fearing growing protests mainly from women and children who had taken part in the procession. Father Vasyl continued to preach to Ukrainian Catholic faithful throughout the war. However, in 1945, with the war coming to a close, the Soviets renewed their oppression of the Catholic Church. On April 10 many of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops and clergy were arrested. Father Vasyl managed to continue to give missions in small villages but was finally arrested on August 7, 1945, at the monastery in Ternopil. He was given the opportunity to join the Russian Orthodox Church and be released. Father Vasyl refused. With an authoritative voice he replied: “No, never! Under any circumstances . . . I have said NO once and for all; and you can shoot me, and kill me, but you shall get from me no other word.”
Over the next 10 months Father Vasyl was tortured until he confessed to crimes he never committed. He was interrogated 11 times. Usually these were conducted at night and lasted up to 12 hours. Sleeplessness, isolation, food deprivation, physical and moral abuse helped to breakdown his willpower until he finally confessed to anti-Soviet activity.
His trial was held on June 26, 1946. Without representation or witnesses, he was quickly found guilty and sentenced to execution by firing squad. He spent the next three months on death row, but even there preached, heard confessions and help prepare fellow prisoners for death. One day his name was called. He left his cell ready to give up his life for his beliefs. However, his sentence was changed to 10 years of hard labour in the Soviet laager camps, working under the worst possible conditions. During this time Father Vasyl heard confessions, preached and even celebrated the divine liturgy daily, using a large tablespoon as his chalice and wine made from raisins.
In July 1955 Father Vasyl was released and sent to Lviv. By this time it was illegal to openly practice the Ukrainian Greek Catholic faith. For the next 36 years, until the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church survived underground. Father Vasyl’s apartment became a centre of religious activity as he organized a secret church. A cabinet became an altar, an ordinary wooden jewelry box a tabernacle and a plastic flowered lamp the eternal flame. Working clandestinely, he gave retreats in homes. More importantly, he accepted apostate priests who had signed with the Russian Orthodox Church. They were required to confess the symbol of faith and receive a penance for their action.
In 1959 the Vatican appointed Rev. Vasyl Velychkovsky to the episcopacy. Unfortunately, there were no bishops in Ukraine who could consecrate him. Thus, he was eventually forced to travel to Moscow. On Feb. 4, 1963, he was secretly consecrated by Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj in a hotel room. During this period, secret seminaries were organized in Lviv and Ternopil. Text books for philosophy and theology were copied by hand. Seminarians did not know each other and even family members rarely knew about their sons’ vocations. Only the bishop was aware of all the priests. Looking into an uncertain future, Bishop Vasyl consecrated fellow Redemptorist Father Volodymyr Sterniuk to the episcopacy on July 2, 1964. Bishop Volodymyr’s identity was kept secret. He was not to function as a bishop until such time as Bishop Vasyl was either exiled or died. It would prove to be a prophetic action.
In 1968, a new wave of persecutions began as the Soviet government sought to eliminate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church once and for all. Fearing arrest, Bishop Vasyl consecrated four more bishops who would remain secret and not function unless absolutely necessary.
Many priests were discovered and arrested. Then, on Jan. 27, 1969, Bishop Vasyl was arrested. He was taken to a prison in Lviv where he remained for the eight months prior to his trial. Once again, he was interrogated numerous times in order to make a solid case for his trial. His health deteriorated and at one point he was declared clinically dead.
Bishop Vasyl’s trial took place in Lviv on Sept. 23, 1969. The charge was “since he was an adherent of the Greek Catholic Church, he systematically and knowingly spread verbally and in written form false information about the Soviet communist government.” Inevitably he was found guilty and sentenced to three years’ incarceration in a hard labour correctional institution of strict regime. The sentence was served in Komunarsk in a prison hospital for the psychologically ill. In fact, he was gravely ill. Years in the laager camps had taken their toll. Several toes had frozen off and now his feet became so swollen that he was unable to walk. He recovered from this only to be subjected to an insidious form of torture. He was injected with drugs, which systematically caused heart disease and destruction of the nervous system. He was also tortured with electric shocks. On his release in early 1972, those who saw him said he wasn’t a person, only a skeleton.
Their work of destroying Bishop Vasyl done, the Soviet authorities now wanted to be rid of him. He was sent to visit his sister Vera in Zagreb. However, his passport did not allow his return to Ukraine. Unknowingly, he had been exiled. After two weeks in Zagreb, on Feb. 22, 1972, Bishop Vasyl travelled to Rome on the invitation of Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, himself living in exile. Here Bishop Vasyl had an audience with Pope Paul VI.
While in Rome, Bishop Vasyl received an invitation from Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk to come and live in Winnipeg. Taking up the offer, he arrived in Canada on June 15, 1972. Here in spite of the damage done to him during his second incarceration, Bishop Vasyl visited all five Ukrainian Catholic eparchies in Canada and even summoned enough strength to give priests’ retreats. However, death was inevitable. On June 30, 1973, Bishop Vasyl died a martyr’s death.
On June 27, 2001, Bishop Vasyl was beatified by Saint Pope John Paul II in a ceremony in Lviv. Then, in September 2002, Bishop Vasyl’s body was transferred to a shrine built in St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Winnipeg. Upon exhumation, it was found that his body remained fully intact, considered a sign of sainthood.
Today, the Blessed Vasyl Velychkovsky Shrine is visited by thousands of pilgrims annually, with many denominations represented. His story is a source of inspiration and his relics have become a source of healing. Moreover, in no small measure, Bishop Vasyl’s faith, enthusiasm and courage ensured the life of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in her homeland during a time of fierce persecution. May his memory be eternal.
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 36 years and have eight grandchildren.