Under the banner of his patron he carried the Word of God and preserved the spark of faith, hope and love

Saturday, 23 November 2013, 09:57
Unfortunately in our journalist lives, it often happens that we remember individuals either when they are celebrating a jubilee or they are passing on to their eternal rest. Sort of in that order… I wanted to write about Father Holovatsky earlier, however for some reason everyday tasks always seemed to hinder this realization. I am sorry that I did not talk with the priest, did not hear his wise words and advice. It is difficult to compensate such a loss. All who told me about him were united in that: we have lost a Pastor with a capital “P”, a patriot, a person of immense goodness -- one who was decent and generous. So, may this small narration of the path of his life be intertwined into the wreath of esteem and veneration which graces the grave of Father Mykhaylo.

He was born in 1907 in the village of Staryi Zbarzh in Ternopil region in the family of  Rev. Stepan Holovatsky.  This was already the seventh generation of priests, whose roots  reach into the gray past.  This was the family line of one of the members of Ruska Triytsia, Yakiv Holovatsky.  Father Mykhaylo’s grandmother  was the sister of the renowned Ukrainian composer, Mykola Leontovych.

Young Mykhas (as he was then known to all) grew up in a very educated and intelligent family.  During World War I their house burned down.  The Holovatsky family was left with little.  However, this did not influence their peace and harmony, neither did it their belief in God nor their love for Ukraine.  In spite of their difficulties, the family of Father Stepan readily provided lodgings for poor students. It is noteworthy that that the head of the family was not only a spiritual leader, but also an artist – woodcarver.  His hands carved a chapel of unusual beauty in the village of Vyspa in the Rohatyn area , which is in Ivano-Franivsk region, and which was destroyed in 1988 by unbelievers.  Recently the village residents restored this sacred place and Father Mykhaylo went there to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

After completing the Lviv Gymnasium, the youth’s road led to Krakow where he studied medicine for three years.  Father Mykhaylo’s first parish became the famous Lolyn, a village often visited by Ivan Franko.  In 1928-50 Father Holovatsky served in the Rohatyn area : in Yahodivets,  Dychky, Vyspa. 

Extremely pious, he very zealously fulfilled his priestly duties.  His blessed hand baptized children and they grew up healthy and beautiful.  Couples wed by him remained strong and happy.  When the Communists forbade confessing and catechizing children, the priest gathered them around him, inculcating in them a love of the Christian faith, teaching them to be faithful to the Catholic Church.  Whoever communicated with him even once could not help but be stricken by his spiritual beauty and his strength.  His prayers had almighty power.  They truly performed miracles.  Travelers, even from distant Siberia, came so that the priest would read a prayer over their child to avert fear.  People grouped around him, asking for prayers, and he with great earnestness beseeched the graces from the Almighty.  Examples of this abound.  One of them was described by the daughter of the priest.

“The Koziar family lived in Vyspa and they had five sons,” -- remembers Ms. Vira (married name Berezovska.)  The youngest son, Peter was taken to Afghanistan.  His mother Maria – a very pious woman – came to Father Mykhaylo (he was already retired then) with tears and begged him to pray for her son.  For two years the priest in his liturgies would pray for his safety and return.  On the altar there lay a photograph of the son.  God heard the prayers and Petro returned healthy and unwounded.  Immediately he came to our home.  He kneeled in front of the priest, said his confession and received the Eucharist. Now he lives in Ivano-Frankivsk and has three children.  The oldest son Ivanko this year entered the Ivano-Frankivsk Theological Academy.  Petro and his wife Olia are very pious:  they together with their children they receive the Eucharist every Sunday…” 

However, Father Mykhaylo was not only a warrior for Christ, but also a great patriot of Ukraine.  He accorded much time and effort to the activities of the organizations Prosvita [Enlightment, local education-cultural center] and Plast [Ukrainian Scouts].  Already during Polish rule, when OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] was beginning to develop its activities, their members would gather at Father Holovatsky’s home, particularly Mykola Lebed.  Since his gymnasium days, he continued an on-going friendship with the future commander of UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army], Roman Shukhevych.   The spiritual pastor could not stand aside of the national – liberation struggle.

Bolshevik rule, which followed the German occupants, did not for a moment relax their watchfulness of the religious activity and the community work of the priest.  On Christmas night 1950 he was arrested.  This was the third day, the feast day of St. Stefan, the priest’s father’s name day.  During the entire night the Moscow     henchmen searched the house inside out, took up the floor, speared the walls, and shattered the brick stove and heating constructs.  However, they did not find anything, although they were looking for a kryivka  [partisan bunker] with Bandera affiliates  (the informer  provided wrong information) .  However, all this was only the impetus for an arrest.  In the morning they nevertheless took him away.   

The farewell was heartbreaking because there was a wife with four small children and also a very ill father – Father Stepan.  The children cried, screaming “Don’t take my father” And the youngest one, 5 years old, held on to the knees of the father and did not let him go.  The Rohatyn MDB investigator Dzhendzera kicked the child’s leg, as if he was a cub and forcefully tore from the children, their dearest person.   

At first the priest was taken to Stanislav, and then he was transferred into the ill-fated Lviv torture center of Lonskyi.  He was questioned about contact with Roman Shukhevych.  No word escaped from his lips.  Then    the torturers resorted to brutal means.  They hit him a hundred times with a rubber bats.  Bloody tears blinded his eyes and the pastor gritted his teeth from the ruthless pain so hard that they began to fall out.  Exhausted and bloody he was carried to his cell and dumped on the floor.  There 30 incarcerated were lying side by side and could only turn upon command all together because there was so little space.  After questioning the victim was not allowed to sleep, therefore the officer, looking through the window, would immediately wake him up.  On the next day, the inhumane torture continued.  His kidneys were damaged and his liver was mutilated.                                             

Eventually a witness of the torture, a deacon from one of the Lviv churches, related the story.  Only a sincere belief in God and prayers helped him to survive.

Some more information about this episode in the life of Father Holovatsky was contained in an article  by Oleh Rosov, “Hunting for ‘Wolf’.   The Liquidation of Roman Shukhevych,” published on October 22, 2010 in the weekly 2000.   The author, referring to SBU archival documents, presents in details the special operation “red” penal organs of the liquidation of the legendary UPA commander.  The article deals especially with the creation by the workers of UMDB search groups at the end of 1949 – beginning of 1950’s  and directing  them to the train routes of Lviv-Khodoriv, Lviv-Stryi, and Drohobych-Stanislav.

These units included agents who personally knew the face of Shukhevych and his connections.  However, the decisive information the Chekists used was not at all from monitoring the railway routes.   During the events  they established that R. Shukhevych had tight contacts among the patriotically-minded Greek-Catholic clergy, part of which although formally switched to Orthodoxy, continued to support their ancestral faith.   General Shukhevych engaged the clergy in underground work, guaranteeing a line of connection in the quality of the fulfillers of special requests and the owners of conspirator apartments for personal hiding or for meetings with other OUN members. Special attention was concentrated  to the search and development of contacts of Shukhevych  with Greek-Catholic clergy places of his most unlikely hiding – in the Rohatyn district of the Stanislav  region and the Novostrilyshchyn district of  the Drohobych region.  For this the Checkists formed the residential MDB URSR (Ministry of State Security of URSR) and also deployed qualified UMDB agents.

On January 10, 1950, in Stanislav and Drohobych regions, a special operation of arresting Greek-Catholic priests, regarding contacts with OUN underground and contact officers of Roman Shukhevych about which there was concrete proof. They thoroughly searched the churches and affiliated buildings , in an attempt to locate the hideouts of the UPA commander.  Among the arrested was also Father Mykhaylo Holovatsky, who in 1926-28 studied together with Shukhevych in the Lviv Academic Gymnasium.  In 1943 he came to inspect the UPA units to the village of Dychka, where then Rev. Holovatsky was the pastor.  Shukhevych proposed that the priest undertake an organizational and educational work in the patriotic raising of  youth.  The priest accepted the proposal.  In 1943-44 in his home and with his participation meetings of the members of the local chapter of OUN were held.  In July 1949, already after Father Mykhaylo was transferred to the village of Vyspa in Rohatyn region, he was approached by the head of the area leader OUN “Myron” and was asked to ready a hiding place for Shukhevych.  The priest personally stocked the kryivka in the cupola of his church.  Shukhevych periodically stayed here until Christmas and on January 8th together with Father Mykhaylo celebrated the Nativity of the Son of God.  Obviously, the priest hosted the dear guest with the traditional cutie (poppy seed dish).  Eventually during questioning the priest testified that due to the extremely cold weather, he advised Shukhevych to spend the cold season in Liubsh or Pidmykhaylivtsi.

… After a year in prison, a totally weak and exhausted, Father Holovatsky heard the sentence – 25 years of  camps and 5 years of  exile.  The sentence was carried out in the areas of Karsnoyarsk and Irkutsk.  During -50 degree weather he worked on clearing the forest.  Here fate united him with Cardinal Josyf Slipyi.  In letters to his family he voiced thoughts full of faith and hope in the victory of good over evil.  The penal hard labor undercut his health.   Once he lost consciousness and was taken to the medical division.  And a miracle happened : a person who was to be buried, was saved by doctor Makohonsky – also incarcerated but who performed the duties of the camp physician.

… The years in the concentration camp were difficult -- yet also there Father Mykhaylo zealously served Christ, secretly celebrated the Liturgy, heard confessions and administered the Eucharist.  And together with Cardinal Josyf Slipyi, he secretly celebrated all the feasts.  In the  tapes of the Institute of Religion at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, there are preserved some reminiscences of the pastor which concern his camp life, recorded by the then UCU rector Father Borys Gudziak (today UGCC bishop and Apostolic Exarch for Ukrainian Greek-Catholics  in France, Switzerland, and the countries of Benolux ) during his visit to Khodoriv.  Here is what they say:

 “When the situation in the camps improved somewhat, we could celebrate services in the free time or on Sundays. This was not forbidden.  The supervisors knew but they had no grounds on which to forbid because the work was done. 

After work we could, for example, could in the camp conduct our services.  This was not hindered by anyone. And on Sunday – all the more. 

How did we get the Ahnets (the liturgical one which is a square cut out of unleavened bread – author’s note).    We got the Ahnets from home – already dried out small as it had been done in the past.  When we received packages and they were opened, the official would ask, “what is that?”  I said, “simple wafers,” and they gave it to me.

Wine:  They did not permit wine because no one in the camp had the right to drink any alcohol.  We received  raisins (there was a simple recipe given to us by the Church authorities).  The raisins were covered by hot water in a bottle. This fermented for a while and the wine was very good. We used this wine for our liturgies. 

Thankfully, sometimes there were deacons.  The priests celebrated the Liturgy from memory: they could skip some sections of prayers.   They had that right if they did not remember.  But, generally, they celebrated the Liturgy from time to time, heard confessions and administered the Eucharist. In this we were not hindered…

The six years of imprisonment passed and Father Mykhaylo was released.  The amnesty which took place  immediately after the death of Stalin, enhanced this.   However, he still was not allowed to go home, because he still had to spend five years in exile.  Exhausted from the prison and the hard labor, the priest could no longer work.  He was in danger of dying from hunger. His legs swelled.  But again a miracle happened.   God is always with those who love Him, who sacrifices himself for the sake of others.  It happened that the priest was saved by a Siberian doctor, Vira Popova.  The world does not lack good people.  Many of them are also among the Russians.  She took him into her hospital.  The priest had a cross on his neck and in his hands a prayerbook.  So she understood that she was dealing with a priest and was not afraid to save him.  She brought needed food from home and did whatever possible in taking care of him.   

Finally, the long-awaited time of returning home was here. However, there was a catastrophic lack of money for the trip.  The priest was also weak, with swollen feet and face.  In this pitiful state he could only sit at the train station and see Ukraine in his dreams, as well as his family and friends.  And here once again, an unusual event – a miracle occurred.  A stranger appears who gives him a ticket to Stanislav.  Thanks to him, the priest was able to get to his native place.

On his return home, the priest did not forget about his pastoral calling.  At first he served in Stari Strilyshcha and Suhrob in Zhydach region and eventually in Slavsk.  After the death of his wife in 1077, physically weak, he went to live under the care of his daughter Vira in Khodoriv.  But even then people came to him for confession or to baptize their children.  They asked him to read a prayer for their children to avert fear, to marry a couple, to bless those who were going on their last journey.  Witnesses say that people came to confession with him with excitement and exaltation.   They claim that it was a spiritual conversation during which the priest was totally giving and radiated the incredible strength of a great energy.  After that he felt totally exhausted and weak.

It is worthwhile to note that the material angle was always secondary to him.  Due to this he always said that food existed in order to live and not the reverse, that one lived in order to ear.   A well-known fact is that the priest was very kind to the indigent and assisted them in whatever way he could.  He loaned money to some without expecting its return.  He embraced his enemies and they became his friends.

Father Michael healed not only the souls of the faithful but also their bodies.  Medical knowledge gained during his studies in Krakow, helped him.  He always found medicinal plants for the sick, he prepared all sorts of ointments, gave useful advice.  He was even consulted by physicians.

It is said the children follow the footsteps of their parents.  The priest had four children – a daughter and three sons, who followed in the footsteps of their father and became priests.  The eldest, Vasyl, is the deacon of Skoliv-Stryi Eparchy, Father Iryney serves in the village of Letnia in Drohobych-Sambir Eparchy and Father Oleksandr is a pastor of a parish in Rykhtach of that eparchy.

Let us also remember the fact that Neonila, the sister of Father Holovatsky, was the wife of the Ukrainian poet-patriot Bohdan Krawciw .  Her son, Mykola Krawciw is a U.S. Army Major General and a consultant for the Ukrainian Army.

The banners are lowered to the ground while in tribute, the faithful bow to the ground, expressing respect and love for their leader, their adviser, the Servant of God. May the memory about him never fade. 

Photo: Father Mykhaylo in his youth with his sister.


Lubomyr  KALYNETS, Madrid


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