In death, as in life, Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky continues to have a major impact on the community around him.
Velychkovsky attracted thousands of followers prior to his death in Winnipeg in 1973. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 27, 2001 as a martyr on behalf of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and earned the title of Blessed for his sacrifices.
The Redemptionist bishop’s remains have been vested in a stainless steel sarcophagus at St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in West Kildonan since Sept. 20, 2002. His holy relics, including a series of items that were touched by his hand, were enshrined in the church at the same time.
Nearly 20,000 individuals have since visited the shrine and adjoining museum that chronicle Velychkovsky’s life and work.
"Our daily attendance increases during the summer. For example during Folklorama this year we had people from right across North America stopping by," said Mary Jane Kalenchuk, co-ordinator of the museum and shrine at St. Joseph’s.
Velychkovsky’s story is one of torture, violence and salvation.
Born in June of 1903, Velychkovsky entered the Major Seminary in Lviv and was ordained to the priesthood in the fall of 1925.
During the Second World War he volunteered to head to the Soviet front to continue his work where he was arrested.
"It was purely due to practicing his faith. Soviets said he could only practice Orthodox faith, which of course, was Soviet-controlled," said Kalenchuk.
After two years of interrogation and torture in a KGB prison in Kiev, he was sentenced to die by firing squad. His sentence was commuted to 10 years in Soviet labour camps, where Kalenchuk said Velychkovsky spent most of that time working in a coal mine north of the Arctic Circle.
Many of Velychkovsky’s Redemptorist compatriots weren’t as lucky. One was clubbed to death and another was crucified to a prison wall.
"Many suffered, were persecuted and many were executed," Kalenchuk said.
When his prison sentence was completed, he was sent to Lviv and by 1959, Rome appointed Velychkovsky to be a bishop of an underground church he’d organized. His own apartment became a hub of church activity. He was ordained as a bishop in 1963.
In 1969, he was again arrested and sent to Komunarsk in the eastern Ukraine region. There he underwent chemical, physical and mental torture as the Soviets attempted to extract information about the underground church from him.
Near death in 1972, he was released from prison, exiled from the Ukraine and was invited to Winnipeg in June of 1972.
Kalenchuk said Velychkovsky attracted a large following during his brief time in Winnipeg.
"When he was in Winnipeg he traveled a lot. Everybody wanted to hear him speak," she said.
Velychkovsky attempted to recount his experiences into a diary. However his penmanship often failed due torture endured at Komunarsk. His unfinished diary remains as a relic in St. Joseph’s today, as do many items from his life.
"He was physically and mentally broken, but he was spiritually very strong," Kalenchuck said.
Overcome by the tortures and drugs he received while in prison, Velychkovsky died on June 30, 1973.
Beatification is the final stage prior to sainthood in the Catholic faith. Kalenchuk said that in order for Velychkovsky to achieve sainthood, a documented miracle, such as a physical cure, must be credited to his intercession.
Kalenchuk noted St. Joseph’s is currently in the midst of attempting to track down medical records and statements related to a pair of intercessions.