Honoring Fortitude and Sacrifice

An institute records the history of Ukraine’s underground Greek Catholic Church

by Matthew Matuszak

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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.

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Tags: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church