Pilgrimage in Ukraine (1994)

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Pilgrimage in Ukraine
12-26 May, 1994
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Fall 1994]

Ours was a mixed group from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec which arrived in Odessa on Friday, l3 May, 1994. For some, the primary aim was to visit holy places in Ukraine ; for others, it was to find family members or to get a taste of "roots". Joint leaders of the entire group of 25 were Savelia Curnisky of Saskatoon/Lviw and Father Dennis Pihach of Yorkton. Our pilgrimage sub-group, which included Protodeacon Cyprian Hutcheon, Ken Kolesnik, Lorne Kozaruk, Walter Litven and Paul Miklashevsky, was guided by Father Dennis, to whom we are most grateful for arranging the pilgrimage.

We came to be strongly aware, as we listened to various passenger comments on the flight from Vienna to Odessa, of the many sectarian and business interests now flooding Ukraine. We also came to be aware of the great concern for personal safety that is felt everywhere there at the present because of rising crime in the face of uncertain authority. The opening wide of doors to the West is a very mixed blessing.

Despite the economic, political and social turmoil in Ukraine, the activity of the Church is in full bloom everywhere. Monasteries for men and women are being opened ; Temples are being built or repaired ; hospitals are being acquired ; a tuberculosis asylum is opening ; hospices for the poor, and “soup kitchens” are being developed. Since the Ukrainian government does not seem to grant private ownership (particularly not to the canonical Orthodox Church), believers forge ahead under what are obviously very trying conditions.

On Friday, 13 May, we arrived at the Odessa aeroport, where we were slowly processed by the immigration authorities. We waited for some long time in a metal quonset structure, amidst considerable dust, under an intense sun. This process took long because this was at the very beginning of such international arrivals at this aeroport. We were then taken to our quarters near Odessa, where we stayed at the Ouspensky (Dormition of the Theotokos) Monastery, which is situated high on the hills overlooking the Black Sea. We were hosted by Metropolitan Agafangel of Odessa and Izmail.

On Saturday, 14 May, we were given a tour of the monastery and its facilities, and we were also given some time to rest. Although this monastery seems almost self-sufficient in food because of its land, the seminary is lacking in nearly all the necessities. The teachers educate in the face of obstacles and complete lack of resources which we can scarcely comprehend. Here there are now 200 students, more than double the maximum previously permitted by the state. Students pay part of their expenses, but in the current economy it amounts to little in reality. They supplement with much heavy work on the grounds of the monastery-seminary-diocesan headquarters. In the evening, we participated in the Vigil at the monastery. Afterwards, we shared supper with Metropolitan Agafangel, who told us many anecdotes.

On Sunday, 15 May, we served at the Dormition Cathedral in Odessa with Metropolitan Agafangel, and it was given to me by the metropolitan to ordain a deacon (Alexei Smirnov of Izmail), in order to establish a lasting relationship between us. After dinner with the Metropolitan at the monastery, we departed for a six-hour bus ride through the steppe country towards Uman.

After spending the morning of Monday, 16 May, touring the Sophia Park gardens of Uman, we drove the rest of the day westwards, through Vinitsa, Bar, and Borshchiw to a resort near Horodenka in the province of Ivano-Frankivsk. The resort is a former “Komsomol” centre, now a private local enterprise. Komsomol is a Russian acronym for “All-Union Leninist Young Communist League”.

On Tuesday, 17 May, in the nearby town of Kolomeya, we visited first the Hutzul Museum, and then the Annunciation Church (which is of wood), built in the 1500s, and presently the home of the canonical parish. There are weekly healing services here, and the rector, Father Nicholas, told us that in this Grace-filled Temple, people are healed sometimes by simply touching the walls. This parish also has a significant ministry to children, and to others in need. We heard of the many trials faced by the community, and had the blessing of venerating their relic of Saint Barbara. We also visited the beautiful new Temple which is lovingly being constructed in the “Byzantine” style (mostly by the volunteer labour of the faithful).

After a fine meal of homegrown products with Father Nicholas and Matushka Maria, we returned to Horodenka for dinner and entertainment in Galicio-Bukowinian style by local collective farm workers. They had left their work in the fields early in order to be able to sing and dance for us, and they told us of their suffering as Orthodox Christians. In fact it was very moving to be in the presence of these confessors for Christ in Orthodoxy.

Telephones in Ukraine will work, but it is very unpredictable when, how, and for whom. Nevertheless, they worked enough for arrangements to be made for me to be taken ahead of the rest of the pilgrims to the Dormition Monastery of Pochaiv. Because of my desire to be in the Pochaiv Monastery for the Feast of Saint Job, I was enabled to arrive early, and given the blessing to sit in a cell of this historic monastery for a few hours of silence and prayer. There were strong similarities in the structure of the cells there with photos I have seen of the monastic quarters of Old Valaam, and the place felt somehow familiar to me. The atmosphere of prayer was present enough, that I felt quite at home.

Soon there was dinner in the episcopal quarters with Bishop Sergei of Ternopil and Kremenets, who is the Archimandrite in charge of the Pochaiv Lavra, and Bishop Feodor of Pochaiv, who is namestnik, or vicar-abbot. Then after a short rest, it was time for Vigil in the Crypt Temple by the cave of Saint Job. I had the blessing to serve as the presiding bishop beside the others.

There were 2 choirs of monks and seminarians (Pochaiv has a newly reopened seminary too, with about 100 students), who sang to local melodies with much use of the canonarch. Vespers included Litiya, and before completing Matins, we served the Akathist to Saint Job. There was veneration of his relics which rest in the cave, and which are still incorrupt after several hundred years. It is remarkable that his hand is not cold, but warm.

The next day, Thursday, 19 May, dawned hot, with a prairie-like wind. There had been drought until this time, and molebens were being served, in which the Lord was being asked to send rain. At 0830 hrs, we bishops went together around the monastery to venerate Saint Job, the Foot-print of the Theotokos, and the Icon of the Theotokos of Pochaiv, which is normally above the Royal Doors of the Iconostasis. It was lowered for us to venerate the icon. We returned briefly to our cells. Then, from the cells, we went with the choir in procession to the Crypt Temple, while singing the Paschal Canon and Troparian in various melodies. We again venerated Saint Job during the Entrance Prayers, and we concelebrated the Divine Liturgy with many hundreds of faithful people present. Many of them received Holy Communion. At the conclusion, we served a Moleben to Saint Job. Afterwards, we went in procession to the Refectory Temple, while singing the Paschal Canon, for the festal dinner with the brotherhood.

On the tables, decorated kuliches and eggs were still present. It was clear to me that our Ukrainian brothers and sisters keep the paschal season with more energy than we manage in Canada ! After dinner, we processed again to our cells with the singing of the Paschal Canon and Troparian in a Bukovinian melody.

After a rest, there was a tour of this monastery founded in the 13th century by monks of Kyiv fleeing the Tartars. During this tour, we were given water to drink which flows from the Foot-print of the Theotokos, since we were not able to drink it before the Divine Liturgy. Later, we were also able to drink from a well dug by Saint Job. There is a wonderful Temple to the Holy Trinity in the older “Byzantine” style of early Rus’. The main Temple is in Baroque style, high and gilded and Italian-looking. The monastery, although briefly in Uniat hands in the past, has never been closed. It is situated on a solitary hill (which rises up sixty metres from the surrounding flat land), and the monastery has been protected from various attacks by the Mother of God herself.

We then went to see the nearby skete which is actually older than the main Lavra. Part of its buildings are still retained by the state as a mental hospital. As an indication of the situation, the Pochaiv Monastery must pay monthly 10 million coupons (the present Ukrainian currency) to the government. We then visited the graves of the monks, some of whom are recently known to have been wonder-working intercessors. This cemetery is not in the hands of the present monastic brotherhood : a non-believing family lives on the cemetery precincts and their children play there.

On Friday, 20 May, we set off on the road to our next destination, Kremenets. We stopped and waded in the waters of a healing cold spring beneath a parish Temple. Then, at the Monastery of the Annunciation, we met Igumenia Cheruvima and her sisters, who are rapidly rebuilding this monastery which was reopened a little over 2 years ago. Mother Cheruvima hid precious books and icons for over 30 years at the risk of her life. We venerated the plashchanitsa (the handiwork of the former community), now fragrant with the rosy scent of sanctity. We also venerated a relic of Saint Barbara in her icon, and a relic of Saint Panteleimon in his icon. His relic is very warm.

The sisters’ Temple had been converted by the communists into a sports arena, and their quarters into a hospital. Now, although the Temple is in use, it is still very much under repair. As Mother Cheruvima strongly emphasised, there is no-one helping them. Part of the monastic quarters still remains in the hands of the state, and these spaces are still used as a hospital. After enjoying the sisters’ hospitality (the vegetables of their own gardens and greenhouse), and viewing their sewing workroom, we drove to Ternopil, where we spent the night. It began to rain, thanks be to God.

The next morning, Saturday, 21 May, it was still showering, and by 0800 hrs, we were present in the little “home church” in Ternopil for the Divine Liturgy. It was on a videotape of this same “home church” that I first saw Bishop Sergei over a year ago, when I was visiting Archbishop Herman of Philadelphia. It was then that I heard of beatings that were endured by him, his clergy, his faithful, and even children, as they were driven out of their Temple by so-called brothers and sisters.

Their current little “home church” was crowded, inside and out. This attendance is obviously normal, since they did not expect foreign visitors that morning, and I was very moved by the fervent devotion of these faithful. Afterwards, I met the relatives of some of our Canadian people, to whom I had various items to deliver. It can be difficult to get things reliably to relatives in Ukraine, but it is still possible. There are some good agencies, and some reliable travellers and pilgrims. After dinner and a rest, Vigil was served in the “home church” at 1800 hrs. After this, Protodeacon Cyprian and I had supper with Bishop Sergei in his home in a nearby suburban village.

Sunday, 21 May, began with an interview for a local paper at 0745 hrs. By 0830 hrs, we were all assembled and ready to begin our procession of 5 km to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, and the blessing of the foundation-stone of the new Temple. With Cross, banners, protodeacons and choir in the forefront, a dozen or so clergy and 5 bishops led the faithful down Rusyn Boulevard and along Bandera Street to the new property, now owned by the parish and diocese. All along the way, we were singing the Paschal Canon and Troparian, and proclaiming “Christ is risen !” to which there was a warm response by many passers-by on the sidewalks and in buses along the way. There were still showers, thanks be to God, a sign of His blessing.

After we arrived and assembled on the new site, the Divine Liturgy (in the open air) was led by Bishop Sergei of Ternopil and Kremenets, Bishop Feodor of Pochaiv, Bishop Avgustin of Lviv, Bishop Nicholas of Ivano-Frankivsk, and me. Towards the end of the Divine Liturgy, Bishop Onufriy of Chernivtsi arrived. He had first served the Altar-feast Liturgy of one of his monasteries before driving to Ternopil. Then followed the blessing and the laying of the foundation-stone, and the planting of the Cross for the future Temple of the Martyr Sophia and her Three Children. During this time, there was another shower to confirm the blessing. Of course, there were speeches and presentations.

We gave an envelope of money (over $1200 US) to help with the construction, money which was collected mostly in Toronto through Father Nicholas Nicolaev (a priest from Bishop Sergei’s diocese who is presently serving in Canada). The money came from our parish of Christ the Saviour, and from two Greek Orthodox parishes – notably the church school of one (about half the money). Afterwards, a great crowd gathered at Bishop Sergei’s home for dinner, which had been prepared by the local women, and by some of Mother Cheruvima’s nuns. That evening, we drove north to Lutsk. We arrived at the end of Vigil in the Protection of the Theotokos Cathedral. There, we met several clergy, seminarians and faithful.

The next morning, Monday, 22 May, we were introduced to Archbishop Niphont of Lutsk and Volyn. He, too, is a Confessor. He had recently been severely beaten and cut with knives. He had had his larger cathedral taken away by military and gang force. Since then, he has had to move 12 times in just over a year, until he and his people were granted more permanent but shabby quarters. The seminary had suffered similarly.

When I met him, Archbishop Niphont had just returned late at night from part of a Cross-procession on foot around many villages with a wonder-working icon of the Theotokos from Pochaiv. This procession had already lasted for many days. The result of this procession and prayer is the reduction of hostile activity. The present cathedral (begun in the 1200s) was tightly-packed with believers for the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy which we two bishops served together, along with many priests and deacons. Many of our people were impressed with the system used for passing candles from the candle-desk at the entrance to the candle-stands near the iconostas. The candles are simply passed forward from person to person until they arrive at their destination. There were persons at each candle-stand whose responsibility it was to place these candles and light them. Afterwards, a Moleben to Saint Nicholas was served by us outdoors, with well over 2,000 people present. They especially enjoyed Archbishop Niphont’s vigour in blessing them with holy water. After dinner with the archbishop, who then departed to continue his rural procession, we went to tour the seminary with the cathedral’s rector.

What can one say about the poverty of resources in this and the other Ukrainian seminaries ? God says to us that we must find ways to help ! We had supper with the seminary’s rector, Father Peter Vlodek, whom many in western Canada will remember with love. Despite his age, Father Peter continues to serve with determination and faithful vigour, giving himself totally to the preparation of more than 100 young seminarians whose respect and love for him were clearly visible.

On Tuesday, 23 May, Father Anatoliy Mel’nyk took us to his village of Holoby, where we served a moleben at the Church of Saint George in the presence of several hundred faithful, and then answered questions for some time. We were told of various interventions in their life by the Mother of God, and we were shown a special icon of her. The older retired priest, Father Boris, had averted the destruction of their very old and historic belfry by standing in front of the tractors and refusing to move.

We next drove to another little Temple by a collective farm at Pohin, dedicated to the Protection of the Theotokos. There, we venerated a wonder-working icon of the Mother of God. This Temple, built of logs, was constructed several hundred years ago at the instigation of the Theotokos. When it was closed by Khrushchev, enemies of the Church tried to take the icons to destroy them. An older man attempted to protect them by sitting on them. He and the icons were then taken to a neighbouring village, and he saw to their protection in a parish church. Komsomol people then tried to use a crane to cut the Crosses off the cupolas. A woman who was present with us that day had run from the fields and worked the levers to get the young man away from this destructive task. She succeeded, to his painful surprise, and the Temple was left in peace until it was recently reopened. Always, there are such wonderful stories of God’s loving intervention in the lives of these fiercely faithful and brave people.

Before leaving Lutsk on Wednesday, 24 May, we had a wonderful but brief visit with Father Nikanor and Matushka Maria Shimko. Father Nikanor has warm memories of Alberta, and now serves faithfully in the Lutsk diocese. We next drove to Kyiv where we stayed in a hotel on the west bank of the Dnipro River.

On Thursday, 25 May, after breakfast, we began a city tour at Saint Sophia Cathedral. Dedicated to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God, this cathedral is now sadly in the hands of the government. It is simply rented to anyone who wishes to use it. Nevertheless, being almost as old as Orthodoxy in Kyiv, this Temple still retains the feeling of the presence of Divine Grace for the believer. In it were protecting, supervising women who are always happy to see visitors who are believers. I was allowed to stand in the Altar for a time.

We saw some other historic buildings and monuments, and some Temples which we could not enter because of the schisms. Then we went to the Monastery of the Kyiv Caves. Because Metropolitan Volodomyr had already left for Jerusalem, we met his secretary, and we were accompanied by a seminary student into the caves. In both the Far Caves and the Near Caves, we venerated the relics of saint after saint whose names we all recognised from our calendar. Although certainly not all were so, many of their bodies were incorrupt, even after many centuries. Some were exuding fragrant myrrh. We had the blessing to be anointed with oil coming from the skull of Saint Clement of Rome. We saw the chapels of both Saint Theodosius and Saint Anthony, and later drank water from their wells outside. In the caves, we were also blessed by the cap of Saint Mark the Gravedigger, a monk of great holiness. Currently, many people possessed by demons are delivered by the imposition of this cap, as we saw.

It was a joy to see that the Kyiv Caves are populated by people praying, and not by so many of the curious tourists. Still, because the government does not give the whole monastery to the monks, there are many irritating presences of moneymakers and opportunists (contrary to the will of the monks). However, the faithful try their best to protect the monastery.

We saw the facilities and some of the students of the Kyiv Seminary and Academy. The latter was recently reopened, and it will soon graduate its first students in many decades. There are over 260 full-time students, and another 200 extension students. Although some aspects of their life seem better here than in the other seminaries which we visited in Ukraine, there is still a very great need. We had a restful and refreshing cup of tea with the metropolitan’s secretary and one of the seminary professors, and then walked more around the seminary. We saw the Refectory Temple (which is currently Metropolitan Volodomyr’s cathedral), and the ruins of the ancient Dormition Cathedral (which had been blown up by the communists and blamed on the Germans). While on the way to meet our bus, we met some monks and nuns from nearby who were also on pilgrimage to the Kyiv Caves. We returned to our hotel.

Too soon, on Friday, 26 May, it was time to leave Ukraine. The Ukrainian people have suffered long and continue to suffer in various ways. However, the people of this land of a multitude of martyrs are clearly buoyed up by the shedding of the blood of their martyrs, and by the love in their prayers. Strength and patience flow from the faithfulness of the many living and departed Confessors of the Faith. It is useful to say at this point that through Project Ukraine and personal gifts, there were amounts of money in US dollars left in various places. Seminaries received some ; certain parishes received some, and several monasteries also received some. However, the receipts this year were less, and the need is great. It would have been good to have been able to give much more to our sisters and brothers.

When I returned to Canada, I was immediately driven to Pennsylvania to Saint Tikhon’s Monastery for the Glorification of Saint Alexis. There, I met Archbishop Makariy of Vinitsa and Bratslav who had come from Ukraine for the services. He told me of a recent government directive that any sect of religion should be allowed to use Orthodox Temples for their various activities, and that the Orthodox must share even with non-Christians. Vladyka Makariy has repeated the call to his people to defend the Temples against invasion, and to defend the truth. Meeting such valiant servants of Christ has put into sharper focus for me all the struggles faced by the believers in Ukraine in the wake of an antichrist government.

How are living here in Canada ? How are we responding to God’s love ? How are we measuring up to the standard of faithfulness of our suffering brothers and sisters in Ukraine ? Truly, in our Canadian comfort, we have let a lot drift and fall away. Nevertheless, it is not too late. There is still time to appeal to the Lord to renew our hearts. May He hear our prayer and quickly do so. May we become at least as loyal and faithful holders of the Orthodox Faith and the Orthodox Way !