August 10, 2020

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Open invitation

Martyr's shrine, former bingo hall part of local architectural tour

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Rev. John Sianchuk stands next to the sealed coffin of Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky at St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church.</p></p>


Rev. John Sianchuk stands next to the sealed coffin of Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky at St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/5/2019 (450 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With dozens of architecturally interesting and historically significant buildings to tour next weekend, Rev. John Sianchuk hopes Winnipeggers take a few moments to stand in the presence of a Christian martyr.

During the Doors Open Winnipeg event on Saturday, May 25, and Sunday, May 26, the Redemptorist Ukrainian Catholic priest invites folks to ponder the sacrifice of Ukrainian-born Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky, who died in Winnipeg in 1973 from the effects of torture in Soviet-era prisons.

"It’s a beautiful way of exposing people to this place," he says of why the national shrine at St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church takes part in Winnipeg’s free annual architectural tour sponsored by Heritage Winnipeg.

"It’s a holy place and God has been doing great things through this place."

Velychkovsky died at the age of 70, a year after he moved to Manitoba after being exiled from his native Ukraine. Due to Soviet persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, he spent months on death row and 10 years in prison camps, administering sacraments and praying with fellow prisoners during that time.

In 1963, he was secretly ordained as a bishop, and in 1969 he was arrested again, and tortured repeatedly during his three years in jail.

He came to Winnipeg in 1972 at the invitation of then-metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk and died a year later from chemical agents administered to him in prison. In 2002, after being named a martyr along with 24 other Ukrainian Catholic bishops, his body was moved from All Saints Cemetery to the newly completed shrine at St. Joseph’s, designed by Winnipegger Ben Wasylyshen.

"Martyrs should not be kept in a cemetery," Sianchuk said of the reason to move the remains.

"He should be brought into a church."

Before being placed in the shrine, the bishop’s casket was opened in the presence of about 30 people, including a medical examiner, and found to be almost completely intact 29 years after his death, Sianchuk says.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The shrine to Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky at St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church features relics such as his vestments.</p></p>


The shrine to Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky at St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church features relics such as his vestments.

The shrine consists of two rooms, one on each side of the rectangular mid-century modern church. The museum at the west side contains the bishop’s vestments laid out in a coffin-sized glass display case, and drawers underneath displaying artifacts such as a small chalice, a pocket watch belonging to his grandfather, documents from Rome and parts of the file kept on him by the KGB.

The room on the east side is designed so visitors can move into an atmosphere of prayer, Sianchuk says, beginning with a large icon of Velychkovsky by Edmonton iconographer Marianna Savaryn.

"You can’t just walk in, you have to have a journey in," he says of the switchback hallway leading to the shrine.

Visitors can sit on benches lining the walls of the shrine, light a candle or kneel in front of the sealed stainless steel coffin.

Attracting about 5,000 visitors annually, Sianchuk says, the shrine honours the work and faith of Velychkovsky, as well as setting an example of standing up for one’s beliefs.

"It’s a constant reminder to die to your own self," he says about the example of the Christian martyr, also the patron of prison ministry.

Although the shrine has been open to the public since 2002, many Winnipeggers don’t know much about Velychkovsky and his sacrifice, says volunteer Joan Lewandosky, who met the bishop in 1972.

"I don’t think the faith community realizes what they have here," she says.

Including the shrine, 24 religious institutions are participating in this year’s Doors Open, which features a total of 92 buildings.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God, More Than Conqueror Parish opens its two-storey brick-and-stone building constructed in 1906 at the corner of Sargent Avenue and McGee Street. It features an upper-level meeting space with a U-shaped balcony, still sporting the original columns and arches, and a lower-level meeting room with a pressed tin ceiling.

Originally used as a meeting space for the International Order of Good Templars, an organization promoting abstinence from alcohol and caffeine, the building was a bingo hall for decades until the non-denominational Christian church purchased it in 2015 and spent $350,000 to upgrade it.

"We will tell them the history and let them know what we’re doing in the neighbourhood as well," Rev. Joseph Okunnu says of why the church is participating in Doors Open.

Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
Faith reporter

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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