The Underground Church in Ukraine
Under Polish and Austrian rule in western Ukraine from the 17th to the 20th centuries, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church had great authority among the Ukrainian people. Consequently, after the Soviet occupation Stalin acted quickly to abolish the Church. On 11 April 1945, Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj and the rest of the hierarchy were arrested. Most of the bishops subsequently died in captivity.
After failing to force any of the bishops to renounce their communion with Rome, the Soviet authorities convened an assembly of 216 priests at gunpoint. On 9 and 10 March 1946, the so-called “Synod of Lviv” was held in St. George’s Cathedral (the spiritual heart of western Ukraine). The Union of Brest, the council at which the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church formally entered into ecclesial communion with the Holy See, was revoked. The Church was forcibly “rejoined” to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Hundreds of priests, together with monks, nuns and lay faithful were arrested and deported to labor camps, in many cases with their wives and small children. Between 1946 and 1989 the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church was the largest banned Church in the world. It was at the same time the largest structure of social opposition to the Soviet system within the USSR. Despite relentless persecution, church life continued underground through the work of an elaborate system of clandestine seminaries, monasteries, ministries, parishes and youth groups until the Church was legalized on 1 December 1989.
Most of the underground history of the Church was not known to the public during Soviet times. But Lviv’s Institute of Church History was created in 1991 to record this history for future generations. The institute conducts interviews with survivors of the underground church and tells their stories to the world. Their archives contain more than 1000 interviews with participants in Ukraine’s former underground church.
Excerpts from two interviews taken from the archives of the oral history project of the Institute of Church History:
“You’ll freeze to death!”
from an interview with Maria Bashynska

When I was in Siberia, once they told us this story: there were three sisters there in the prison, and they were bitterly persecuted because they prayed. And the commandant who was in charge there, well, he was something awful. He wanted them to stop praying, and he wanted them to renounce their faith. Let me tell you, it wasn’t going to happen! So, he separated them and put each one in a different room for a few days. But they didn’t stop. Then he said to them: “It’ll be 60 degrees below zero, you’ll go out in the cold and you’ll freeze to death!”

One day the temperature dropped to 60 below. The soldiers were bundled up in heavy leather coats and boots and winter hats. They brought the sisters out into the barracks yard, barefoot and in shirt-sleeves and ordered all the prisoners out to watch the nuns freeze to death. The prisoners came out to watch. There were dogs near the soldiers, three dogs.

The commandant swore that in half an hour they would freeze to death. The sisters knelt down to pray the rosary. Half an hour passed. They didn’t freeze. They continued kneeling and all three prayed loudly. Then he set the dogs on them to devour them. The dogs rushed up to them, circling around the sisters. But then they lay down in the snow and wagged their tails. They didn’t do anything bad to the sisters; they cuddled up to the sisters.

Everyone could see that the dogs weren’t going to do anything to them, and the prisoners started to shout and sing “Praise be to God!” When the prisoners began to sing, the guards told the sisters: “Go back to your cell.” The sisters went back, and they never had any more trouble, and from that day on they prayed with the people as much as they wanted.

Maria Bashynska (Sr. Markiya, SSMI) was born in 1917 in the village of Hutysko, Zhovka District, Lviv Region.
(File P-1-1-215)

Just crackers?
from an interview with Fr. Mychaylo Holovatskii

Conditions in the camps had already improved a bit, so that we could celebrate the Liturgy in our free time or on Sundays. They didn’t forbid us. The wardens knew they had no right to stop us. We had certain work we needed to do, and when we had finished, we could celebrate the Liturgy. No one interfered. And on Sundays there was ample opportunity to celebrate.

How did we get the Communion bread? We got bread from home, already dried. There wasn’t much, but it was Communion bread. There were dried cubes. The package arrived, the guard opened it and asked: “What’s this?” I said: “Crackers.” And, so that he wouldn’t give me any trouble, I gave him a few.

Now the wine. They didn’t allow us to receive any wine, because no one in the camp was allowed to drink alcohol. We received raisins. (The Church authorities had already given us permission to use these for Communion wine.) We poured them into a flask with warm water and after some time it fermented and was very good wine. That’s the kind of wine we used for the Divine Liturgy.

Sometimes we had cantors singing the responses at the Liturgy, and sometimes we just had the congregation responding. It was easy to sing the responses. The priests celebrated the Liturgy by memory. Sometimes they might omit some prayers, if they happened to forget. But, in general, they celebrated the Liturgy from time to time, people went to confession and received Communion. They didn’t prevent us from doing that.

Fr. Mychaylo Holovatskiy, born in 1907 in the village of Stariy Zbarazh, Ternopil region, has since passed away.
(File P-1-1-334)

Reproduced with appreciation from text originally posted on the UGCC website.