Highlights in Ukrainian Church History

Kivot featuring St. Andrew blessing the hills of Kiev –
Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor, Saskatoon, SK

In Canada, Ukrainian churches are either “Greek Catholic” (Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada), or “Greek Orthodox” (primarily the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada but there are also a small number of parishes in the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church that are almost entirely ethnically Ukrainian). Aside from a nearly homogenous ethnic membership, the parishes from these churches also share a common history and, more importantly, they share what is variably called the Greek Rite, Byzantine Rite, or simply the Eastern Rite. The liturgy is practically identical in these churches. They also share a common heritage in iconography and architecture.

Regardless of whether Ukrainians are Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox, they share a religious legacy that originates two millennia ago. According to legends, the Apostle St. Andrew traveled the up Dnieper River in his mission to the Scythians (a people who occupied vast areas of what is now modern Ukraine). On the hills of what is today the city of Kiev, St. Andrew foretold that on those hills would someday arise a formidable city with a great many churches. While the evidence is insufficient to prove this legend, the 1621 Kiev Synod passed a resolution canonizing this story as being fact. Therefore, for many Ukrainians, this is a matter of faith regardless of any definitive historic proof.

While there is evidence that at least small pockets of Christians lived in the Ukrainian homelands throughout the first millennium, Grand Princess Olha (St. Olha), who ruled as regent during her son’s minority, was the first Kievan ruler known with certainty to be a Christian. Chroniclers speak of both her beauty and wisdom. However, while she brought in political reforms, she did not attempt religious changes for her people.

Grand Princess Olha  –
Sts. Vladimir & Olha Ukrainian
Catholic Cathedral, Winnipeg, MB

Arguably the most significant event in the history of the religion of the Easter Slavs was the “Baptism of Rus”. In approximately 988, Olha’s grandson, Grand Prince Volodymyr the Great (St. Volodymyr) converted to Christianity, married the Byzantine emperors’ sister for dynastic reasons, and also demanded of his entire realm that all people convert to Christianity. Chroniclers state that Volodymyr directed Greek priests to take vast numbers of Kievans into the river and baptise them. Today in Canada, there are many churches named for Volodymyr and Olga, including the metropolitan cathedral for the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada and the cathedral for the Western Diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada.

The Baptism of Rus  – St. George’s Ukrainian
Catholic Church, Edmonton, AB

When Volodymyr the Great died, his son Sviatopolk the Accursed killed his younger brothers, Boris and Hleb, for dynastic reasons and these two young men are recognised as the first Eastern Slavs that were glorified as saints. They are still greatly venerated by Eastern Slavs to this day. Another brother eventually in turn killed Sviatopolk. He is known as Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise. He became the greatest ruler of Kiev and further strengthened the institution of the Church throughout the realm. Yaroslav was responsible for building St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, which to this day is the arguably greatest landmark in all of Ukraine. When Yaroslav died in 1054, Kievan Rus had reached its zenith. However, fratricide again broke out among his sons and political stability was seldom long lived in Kievan Rus after Yaroslav’s rule.

In addition to political problems, Kievan Rus fell into economic diminishment for various reasons. The final blow to Kievan Rus was the invasion of Mongols in the thirteenth century. The Metropolitans of Kiev abandoned it and eventually moved the see to Moscow. By the fourteenth century the Lithuanians were pushing out the Mongols on one side while the Muscovites fought them on the other side. The Lithuanians re-instituted the Metropolitan See of Kiev and then there were metropolitans in both Moscow and Kiev. As Moscow rose in power, it eliminated the last vestiges of the Mongol yoke by the fifteenth century.

Sts. Boris and Hleb  – St. George’s Ukrainian
Catholic Church, Edmonton, AB

What had once been Kievan Rus was now mostly ruled by the Russians in the east and by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the west and there was also a devastated land in the south-central area in which bands of Cossacks lived. After the Union of Lublin in 1569, all the Ukrainian homelands conquered by Lithuania went under the crown of Poland. Thus, most of what is today Ukraine came to be in the political control of Roman Catholic Poland.

By the end of the sixteen-century the Ukrainian nobility had mostly become ethnically Polanized and religiously Latinized, while Jesuits eagerly sought to convert the Orthodox people. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church became poorer and under continual threat. With few nobles willing to protect them the Orthodox people began to form brotherhoods at a grassroots level. Many people flocked to the south-central area to join the Cossacks as a way of freeing themselves from dominating overlords.

Eventually, several Ukrainian bishops made a bid to gain equal status for their church by entering into union with Rome. The Union of Brest (1596) was an agreement in between Ukrainian bishops, the Pope, and the Polish Crown, in which the Ukrainian Church would switch allegiance from Constantinople to Rome in return for guarantees that the Eastern Rite would be protected by Rome and the Ukrainian bishops would have equal status with Roman Catholic bishops in Poland.

While the Ukrainian bishops must have been convinced that the Union of Brest would be the answer to their problems, they could not have imagined that the Union would deeply divide the Ukrainian people and plunge them into centuries of bitter fighting. The Union had left faithful Orthodox people without bishops, but in 1620 Cossacks belonging to an Orthodox brotherhood escorted the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to Kiev to consecrate a new Orthodox hierarchy. Bitter fighting broke out over the possession of churches and monasteries. Hundreds died, including the very controversial Greek Catholic Archbishop, Josaphat Kuntsevych who was later canonized and is venerated in Greek Catholic churches to this day. The violence became too much for the Polish government and it intervened to recognise the Orthodox hierarchy and divide the church property between the Greek Catholics and the Orthodox.

Josaphat Kuntsevych  – St. Josaphat
Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Edmonton, AB

After the Partition of Poland in the eighteenth century, most of what is today Ukraine came under control of the Russian Empire. Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox people were eventually forced to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church. A small part of western Ukraine called Halychyna (Galicia) came under the domination of the Austrian Empire and Ukrainians there remained Greek Catholics for the most part, although some would have been influenced to convert to the Roman Catholic Church. Additionally, the Austrians had taken a small province called Bukovyna from the Ottoman Empire and it contained a great many Ukrainian people who had always been Orthodox because that territory did not come under the jurisdiction of the Union of Brest.

An icon of some 20th century martyrs —
St. Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church, Yorkton, SK

When the Soviets came to power, religion in general came under great persecution. When eastern Poland was annexed by the Soviets, the Greek Catholic Church came under particular persecution as the Soviets attempted to snuff it out completely. This period, which ended with the fall of the iron curtain and the Soviet Union, was to be a bitter time for Christians with an unprecedented number of martyrs.

The animosity between Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainians flared up intermittently over the centuries and it reared its head again in Canada, particularly during the interwar period of the twentieth century. This animosity cooled during the post-war period and today, for the most part, Ukrainian parishes have more important things to worry about than the differences between being Ukrainian Catholic or Ukrainian Orthodox. Indeed, the two churches now get along very well notwithstanding their continuing differences.