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A visit to a resurrected monastery


The Univsky Monastery is one of the many spiritual and architectural landmarks which were closed or destroyed by the Bolsheviks during their atheistic campaign, or neglected to such an extent that the buildings crumbled to ruin; at the same time it is one of such landmarks that have been rebuilt or restored in recent years. Among the revived landmarks we find such magnificent churches as the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral in the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery and the Mykhailvsky (St Michael's) Cathedral in Kyiv.

The Univsky Monastery plays an important role in the life of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; it scrupulously maintains age-old traditions and church rituals; it brings back spiritual values which were suppressed or forgotten in the militantly atheistic decades of the soviet rule.


Ivan BONDAR explores the past and present of the Univsky Monastery in the village of Univ in western Ukraine.


Early morning contemplations

On that day I woke up early. As I opened my eyes, I felt I wanted to stay in bed a bit longer and at the same time I wanted to get up and take a walk around the monastery. I heard the creaking of wooden steps coming from somewhere in the morning quiet. When I came to the monastery gate, it was already wide open. The monastery sits in the valley among tall hills overgrown with trees. The rising sun was greeted by the cheerful, life-asserting twittering of many swallows that had made nests in the recesses of the white monastery walls.

The remaining sleepiness in me was completely gone thanks to the cool, invigorating air and to the ice-cold water from the spring  I drank the water right from my cupped hands.

I headed towards the Uspinnya Presvyatoyi Bohorodytsi (Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God) Church. I saw monks walking fast in their flowing robes in the same direction. Once in the church, I stood still and listened to the chanting of psalms which did not lull me back to sleepiness but made me alert in the right way.

The morning service lasted almost for three hours and I had enough time to take a good look around. The wall paintings were inspirational and their colour schemes were warm and pleasing to the eye. My gazing at all the Cherubim, Seraphim, and other angels of the angelical hierarchy, saints, representations of God the Father and Adam who stand one in front of the other ready to touch hands put me in a contemplative and elated mood. I felt the unity of God and man.


The Svyatouspenska (of Holy Assumption) Univsky Lavra Monastery has once again become a place visited by many pilgrims and tourists.

The Univsky Monastery and, in fact, the village of Univ to which it is adjacent, came into being thanks to the spring of the sweet water from which I drank that morning.

According to tradition, in the mid-sixteenth century, Vanko Lahodovsky, a prince, who, after an illness, lost the use of his legs, had a dream at night in which the Virgin told him to get on a horse and ride until he saw a spring of water, adding that she would guide him. He did as he was bidden. And he did discover the spring that he had been told about. Close to it he saw fire-ravaged remains of a wooden monastery. There is a written mention about the monastery in that area in a chronicle which dates from the year 1549; the chronicle says that the monastery was burnt down by the Tartars. The prince, acting on an impulse, washed himself in the spring water and a miracle occurred  he regained the use of his legs. Overjoyed, he made a vow that he would build a new monastery at that place. The monastery was built, and later, a village grew up close to it. When Lahodovsky died, he was buried at the monastery wall, and his wife had a tomb erected at his grave. The original can be seen in the Olesky Castle Museum, and what we see at the Univsky Monastery today is a faithful replica.

The monastery is a square in plan with the church in the centre of it. The windows of all the monks cells faced the church so the monks could always see it. Now the church is leaning slightly to the side, not as much as the Pisa Tower does but quite noticeably. The thing is that the monastery stands on the ground that used to be a swamp, and the underground waters must have eroded the foundation somewhat on one side. The church was reported to start leaning to one side back in the seventeenth century. In more recent times, the church was provided with buttresses for additional support.

In the eighteenth century, it was one of the most important monasteries in the Land of Halychyna, but later it began to decline. A certain revival began in the twentieth century thanks to the efforts of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytskiy (later, it was to Univ that his brother, Archimandrite Klimentiy Sheptytskiy, formerly a doctor of law at the Krakow University in Poland, was exiled by the Bolsheviks). An icon painters school was founded, and the print shop printed religious books.

The soviet authorities closed down the monastery and turned it into a home for the aged. Access to the spring was closed but when, at the end of the 1980s, it was opened again, pilgrimage to it picked up with hundreds and thousands of people coming to the spring. They collect the water with miraculous, as many people believe, properties into all kinds of vessels, including plastic bottles of all sizes, and many also wash their hands and faces with this water.


The monastery, with its beds of roses and bright green lawns, is a joy to the eye and a source of the spiritual uplift to the soul. Walking around it, I took in the murals painted anew in the Ukrainian-Byzantine traditions, the representations of saints cleaned and restored, the small chapel dedicated to the Virgin which was erected by Atanasiy Sheptytskiy, one of the founders of the Svyaty Yury (St Georges) Cathedral in Lviv; the graves that contain the remains of the people buried in the monastery in the earlier centuries, the coat of arms of Atanasiy Sheptytskiy, carved in stone.

The reconstruction was made possible thanks to the donations of patrons of the church and of art.

The monastery runs the Summer Theological School which is attended by students from many parts of Ukraine, and the Deacon and Preceptor School at which Ukrainian and foreign teachers conduct classes.

Those of the tourists or pilgrims who come to the monastery and who wish to stay longer, can do so on condition they help the monks do some chores. Snow-white bed linen and three meals a day are guaranteed.

When I was taking my leave of the monastery, I thanked the monks and the Abbot Venedykt for their hospitality.


Some facts about

the Uniate Greek Catholic Church

Soviet policy toward the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church can hardly be explained in terms of Marxism or Leninist atheism alone. For the models and precedents for Stalinist church policy in Western Ukraine, one should also look at the treatment of the Greek Catholic Church during centuries of tsarist rule and to the traditional, caesaropapist pattern of relations between the Muscovite/Russian/ Soviet state and the Orthodox Church.

Russian hostility toward the Uniate (Eastern Catholic) Church goes back to the churchs inception at the Union of Brest (Berestia) in 1596, when the majority of Orthodox bishops in Ukraine and Belarus (then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) recognized the primacy of the pope in return for Polish promises of equality with the Roman Catholic Church and for papal guarantees that the Uniates would retain their Byzantine-Slavonic rite, the Church-Slavonic liturgical language, Eastern canon law, a married clergy, and administrative autonomy. Coming only seven years after the establishment of the Moscow patriarchate, which claimed jurisdiction over the Orthodox in the Commonwealth, the Union of Brest was viewed by the Muscovite state not only as a Polish-inspired ecclesiastical obstacle to the realization of the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome, but, even more importantly, as an attempt at permanently separating Little and White Rus from Great Rus  that is, Ukraine and Belarus from Muscovy  while setting the spiritual foundations for the Polonization of the Ukrainians and Belarusians.

Fortunately for Muscovy, the union with Rome did not have the support of all Orthodox bishops, priests, and monastics in Ukraine and Belarus nor of the Orthodox magnates and nobles and the increasingly vocal church brotherhoods there. At the two concurrent sobors (councils) in Brest held by the supporters and the opponents of the union respectively, the two groups anathemized each other. The most important source of hostility toward the church union became the Cossacks, a rising military estate whose raison detre  the protection of Christian Ukraine from recurrent raids by the Muslim Crimean Tatars  was now extended to protecting Orthodoxy against the imposition of the union.

The revival of Kyiv as the centre of Orthodox theological learning, education, and national culture and, above all, the victorious Cossack-peasant war of liberation from Polish oppression, launched in 1648 by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytskiy, sealed the fate of the church union in the Cossack-controlled territories.

Meanwhile, under Polish rule, the Uniate Church was abandoned by most Ukrainian nobles who had originally embraced the union. As the Uniate parish clergy became progressively more culturally Polonized, so too did the Basilian Order (and, to some extent, the episcopate that sprang from its ranks). Thus Latin-rite innovations were introduced in the church. In Polish-ruled Right-Bank Ukraine, influences from the Left-Bank Hetmanate, occasional Cossack-led uprisings against the Poles, and the violent rebellion of the anti-Uniate Haidamaky known as the Koliyivshchyna, with its massacre of the Catholics in Uman in 1768, all contributed to the weakening of the Uniate Church.

While the Austrian annexation of Galicia in the first partition of Poland (1772) saved the Uniate Church in this part of Ukraine, after the second partition (1793), in the newly Russian-annexed areas of Ukraine and Belarus, Empress Catherine II launched a widespread campaign aimed at converting the Uniates to Russian Orthodoxy and persuading the Uniate clergy to return to the mother church. Recalcitrant priests were subjected to a variety of repressive measures. By the end of Catherines reign, out of five thousand Uniate parishes only two hundred survived.

Under Nicholas I (182555), the frontal assault on the remaining Uniate parishes (most of them now located in Belarus and Lithuania) gained momentum, especially after the failed Polish Insurrection of 1831. Support for the insurrection by some Polonized Uniate clerics and Basilian monks was used as a pretext by the tsarist authorities for severe new measures against the Uniate Church.

The reunion campaign culminated in a sobor in February 1839, when an Act of Reunion was signed. Despite precautions, the tsarist regime still had to suppress Uniate resistance to the reunion in some localities by military force.

In the twentieth century, WWI offered tsarist Russia the first opportunity to mount a direct attack on the Galician Greek Catholic Church on its home territory. On September 3, 1914, tsarist troops took Lviv; before long they had occupied all of Eastern Galicia. The occupation authorities immediately banned the public use of Ukrainian and closed down all Ukrainian institutions, organizations, and publications except those that were run by collaborationist Russophiles. The Galician Russophiles welcomed their liberation by the Orthodox Russian military. Reinforced by the pro-Russian emigres who then returned to Galicia, they supplied the occupation authorities in Galicia with detailed information about Ukrainian leaders and activists who had not retreated with the Austro-Hungarian forces. The only national institution that remained after the anti-Ukrainian crackdown was the Greek Catholic Church headed by Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytskiy, a religious and cultural figure of great importance.

Soon after Sheptytskiys death in 1945, the Soviets who reoccupied the western part of Ukraine, abolished the Greek Catholic Church and arrested and exiled most of the clergy. But the Church did not die and continued to exist underground until the time Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 when it was granted the right to function legally. Unfortunately, in some parts of Ukraine resentment to Greek Catholic Church on the part of the Orthodox clergy and faithful remains rather strong. n


Photos by the Ivan BABIYCHUK


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