A focal point to pray for peace Church honours life and ministry of persecuted Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky

Built to commemorate the memory and legacy of a modern martyr, a shrine at a North End church now provides a focal point for Ukrainian Catholics praying for peace in their homeland.

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Built to commemorate the memory and legacy of a modern martyr, a shrine at a North End church now provides a focal point for Ukrainian Catholics praying for peace in their homeland.

Visiting the shrine

Bishop Velychkovsky National Martyr’s Shrine is located inside St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, 250 Jefferson Ave.

Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Holy Rosary for Peace in Ukraine, 1:30 p.m. Wednesday

“It’s a very peaceful place. We found people want to spend time here,” explains Mary Jane Kalenchuk, one of several people running the Bishop Velychkovsky National Martyr’s Shrine, located in an annex of St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Located just steps away from Main Street, the shrine — and its accompanying museum — honours the life and ministry of Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky, and also documents his persecution, torture and death. He died in Winnipeg in 1973 at age 70 after being exiled from Ukraine the previous year.

Since the Russian military invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the shrine has held special rosary for peace prayer services at 1:30 p.m. every Wednesday afternoon at the Jefferson Avenue church, offering a place for Ukrainians to gather as they pray for their homeland.

“A couple said to me that coming together to pray makes it bearable,” explains shrine director Rev. John Sianchuk of why people attend the hour-long service.

“It’s a thing we can do.”

Before February, Velychkovsky’s story was seen mostly through a historical lens, says Sianchuk, but now people recognize parallels to the current situation in Ukraine, as the country is bombed by Russian military and the freedoms of Ukrainian citizens are threatened.

“This for me is like an echo. We’ve been talking about this for 20 years here, about the persecution of the Ukrainian Catholics and (other) people of faith by Soviets,” says Sianchuk, a member of the same Redemptorist order as Velychkovsky.

“Now we have this repeated and for those who are there (in Ukraine), it’s worse than before.”

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press
Rev. John Sianchuk says a prayer at the shrine.

Ordained in 1925, Velychkovsky was first imprisoned by the Soviets for refusing to deny his faith and leave the Catholic church to serve as a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, the only church recognized by the Soviet regime. He served 10 years at a Soviet labour camp, where he ministered to fellow inmates.

After his release, he was secretly ordained as a bishop in 1963, and then became known as the Father of the Underground Church as he administered sacraments, led the divine liturgy and prepared seminarians for the priesthood from his apartment in Lviv.

Arrested again in 1969, Velychkovsky was subjected to repeated torture over three years, and then was abruptly exiled from Ukraine, moving to Winnipeg at the invitation of then-metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk. He died a year later from chemical agents administered to him in prison.

After being beatified as a martyr in 2002 by Pope John Paul II, his remains were moved from All Saints Cemetery to the newly completed shrine at St. Joseph’s, designed by Winnipegger Ben Wasylyshen.

“For us, it’s a physical connection,” says Sianchuk of the importance of the shrine to Ukrainian Catholics in Winnipeg and across Canada.

“Having him here is a very concrete connection to what’s happening in Ukraine.” – Rev. John Sianchuk

“Having him here is a very concrete connection to what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Ukrainians Canadians are inspired by Velychkovsky’s faith in God and ability to stand up to the Soviet regime, says Kalenchuk.

“Our people now are very strong in their faith and this is what is giving us courage — our blessed bishop,” she says.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians Catholics fear their church will be forced underground, just as it had been for decades before independence in 1991. Instead of worshiping openly in their church buildings, Catholics listened at home to Ukrainian language radio broadcasts from Rome.

After more than three decades of freedom, some fear history will repeat itself, says Bohdana Kornelyuk, a Ukrainian citizen who came who came to Winnipeg three years ago for graduate studies in religion.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press
Rev. John Sianchuk fears Velychkovsky’s shrine and story may also become a cautionary tale for the future.

“My Baba (grandmother) was very much traumatized when this started,” says the native of the western Ukraine city of Komarno, namesake to the community north of Winnipeg.

“She never imagined this would happen again.”

Neither did Canadians with Ukrainian roots, says Sianchuk. For two decades, the shrine and the museum has educated visitors about the past and served as a memorial to honour the bishop who died for his faith. Now he fears Velychkovsky’s shrine and story may also become a cautionary tale for the future.

“We speak of him being tortured and persecuted and suffering and now it’s happening again,” he says.

“He’s the only one in Canada who has that connection as a martyr.”

brenda@suderman.com

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