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Hailed as a hero for saving Jews from the Holocaust, a long-departed Ukrainian Catholic priest continues to illuminate his faith for a Winnipeg parish.
"He was a priest and that was respected in our church," Rev. Michael Kwiatkowski says of Rev. Omelian Kovch, now immortalized in stained glass in Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church at the corner of Munroe Avenue and Watt Street.
"But he was a priest in prison garb and he continued to minister to the people around him."
The stained-glass triptych in the southern side of the church's dome features Kovch in a blue-and-grey vertical-striped shirt, emblazoned with his prison number, holding a cross and a scroll with the words "Don't cry for me, rejoice with me!"
A smaller panel to the left includes a Jewish Star of David and a shell, symbolizing Kovch's baptism of at least 600 Jews to save them from the Nazis.
A loaf of bread and metal cup in the right panel point to Kovch's ministry among fellow prisoners after he was arrested in 1943 for helping Jews.
The entire triptych, created by Lucinda Doran of Prairie Stained Glass, is set into a wall containing a large fresco depicting the christening of the people of Kyiv in 988, putting Kovch into the context of the larger Eastern rite tradition.
The father of six died in Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland, in 1944 at the age of 59.
Before his arrest, he hid Jews in his home in Peremyshliany, now part of Lviv province of Ukraine, baptized hundreds more, and shouted down Nazi soldiers who fire-bombed the local synagogue.
During his imprisonment, he served as a chaplain to his fellow inmates, earning the nickname Pastor of Majdanek. He also resisted efforts by his supporters for an early release, writing in a letter that "besides heaven, this is the only place I would want to be."
The new windows help tell Kovch's story in Winnipeg, as well as preserve his legacy for both the Ukrainian Catholic and Jewish communities, says Rabbi Alan Green of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, who spoke at the dedication of the windows last November.
"It speaks loudly, not only about Father Kovch himself, but also about the new openness of the Ukrainian Catholic church to acknowledging Jewish suffering, even to the extent of vividly portraying it as part of church iconography," Green writes in an email. This certainly is a revolutionary development."
The windows also shine light on a story of humility and dedication to serve others, says Kovch's grandson, Rev. Taras Kowch, a hospital chaplain and priest at Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church in Cook's Creek.
"He was actually one of God's heroes who fought for truth and freedom and for justice of the oppressed," says Kowch, pronounced "coach," who changed the spelling of his last name.
The windows depicting Kovch, sometimes spelled Kowcz, are among 25 in the 60-year-old East Kildonan church designed by Rev. Philip Ruh. Most of the windows, including eight by Winnipeg artist Leo Mol, portray biblical characters, saints and historical figures, including a triptych on the north side of Bishop Nykyta Budka, installed in 2011 to commemorate the first bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada.
Budka and Kovch were both beatified as martyrs by Pope John Paul II in 2001.
"It sort of gives you inspiration about a man who had opportunity to get away, but he stayed and served the prisoners," says parishioner Ed Swiecicki, chair of the windows committee.
"If he could do it, maybe we can do it (too)."
The congregation is still pondering who to portray in the only unadorned space left in the building, an arched trio of windows over the front entrance along Watt Street, says Kwiatkowski.
The parish plans to hold another dedication next month, this time for an iconostas, a carved wooden screen at the front of the sanctuary displaying 21 icons — recently purchased from an Ontario monastery that closed its doors.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
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