A Lesson In Humanity – Volodymyr Sterniuk & St. George’s Cathedral (Lviv: The History of One City Part 48)

Tens of thousands of people visit St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv each year. They marvel at its rich Baroque-Rococo architecture, admire the emotional expressiveness of the sculptures surrounding its portal and sense the pervasive spiritual power of its ornate interior. The Cathedral is one of the most important religious sites in Eastern Europe. As such, the figures dramatized in sculpture and statuary around the cathedral showcase some of the most revered men in church history. They include Saints George, Athanasius and Leo. The latter being the man for whom Lviv was named. There is also a new statue just outside the cathedral gates of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptysky, the man who did more than anyone to keep the cause of Ukrainian nationhood alive during the first half of the 20th century. One person not represented in this pantheon, at least on the surface, was Volodymyr Sterniuk. He was the major figure in keeping alive the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church during the dark days of communism. If not for men like Sterniuk, it is doubtful that St. George’s would be the revered home of Greek Catholicism today. The only place to find Sterniuk there is in the Cathedral’s tomb. This is a bit of historical symmetry, since he spent most of his church tenure working in the underground.

There are people who are witnesses to history and there are those who make history. There are also those who do both, moving from historical observer to historical actor. In such cases, an event someone has witnessed may have such a profound effect upon them, that they dedicate their life to taking action. This is what happened to Volodymyr Sterniuk, a priest who witnessed a shattering historical event at St. George’s Cathedral. Many decades later he would become one of the main actors involved in reversing this event. Sterniuk’s story is not just a lesson in history, but also in humanity. The story begins in a place few take time to notice as they are gazing at the awe-inspiring beauty of the cathedral’s interior, the choir loft.

St. George's Cathedral in Lviv

St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv – one of the most important religious and national sites in Ukraine

A Historic Liquidation – Subterfuge at St. George’s
At the end of winter in 1946, a synod (assembly of clergy) of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was held at St. George’s. This meeting took place under the watchful eye of the Soviet NKVD (precursor to the KGB). Noticeable was the fact that there were no bishops or other high level officials of the church present. That was because they had all been arrested and sent to gulag camps deep inside Russia or murdered. Ever since the Red Army reoccupied western Ukraine during the latter half of World War II, the Soviets were in the process of implementing hardline Stalinism throughout Ukraine. What this meant in practice was that any institution or person considered a threat to the omnipotence of the Soviet state must be either marginalized or destroyed.

At this time, the most powerful institution representing Ukrainian national interests was the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). It was headquartered out of St. George’s. The Soviet authorities had been working to get the UGCC under their control, but it was a delicate matter. Outright destruction was out of the question since the Soviets were already fighting a guerilla war against Ukrainian nationalists. If they were not careful, the entire population could turn against them. They had to be sly, clever, duplicitous and deceitful. In other words they had to be everything their leader, Josef Stalin, was in order to Sovietize Ukrainian society.

Lofty Ideals – The Beginning of a Resistance
The preferred method of Soviet control would be to subsume the UGCC under the Russian Orthodox Church. This meant reversing the 350 year old Union of Brest which at the time had united millions of Ukrainian and Belarussian Orthodox Christians with the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox Christians involved had agreed to recognize the Pope’s authority. In return they would continue to perform all the traditional Orthodox rituals and customs. Most importantly, they would no longer submit to the Russian Orthodox Church’s authority. This created what became known as the Uniate Church and turned millions of Orthodox believers to the west. This had been a thorn in the side of the Russian Orthodox Church ever since, but by 1946 Russian Orthodoxy was a shell of its former self. It was totally under Soviet control. The church leadership had been hollowed out and was now staffed by regime loyalists. The same was now planned for the UGCC at the synod.

That “historic” assembly took place during the second week of March 1946 at St. George’s. The clergy involved did not have any high church officials or real leadership to look toward for guidance. All the archbishops and bishops of the UGCC had been asked earlier by the Soviet authorities to endorse unification with the Russian Orthodox Church. They refused, thus sealing prison or death sentences for themselves.  Over 200 handpicked “representatives” of the UGCC were at the synod in St. George’s Cathedral. They were asked to vote by a show of hands on unification. Voldymyr Sterniuk was hidden in the choir loft during the vote. He was a UGCC priest with a conscious, but he could say nothing for fear of arrest. He watched helplessly as a unanimous vote was carried out in favor of unification.  The Soviets authorities surely thought this event would mark the end of the UGCC, but Sterniuk along with many others ensured that it was the beginning of a decade’s long resistance. This would not be the last time Sterniuk would be involved in a historic moment in St. George’s, but the next time he would be one of the principle actors rather than a silent witness.

Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk

Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk in his later years

Keeping Faith – From Repression to Resurgence
The next year Sterniuk was arrested and sent to a gulag camp in northern Russia, where he cut trees in the frozen forests. For five long years he toiled in forced labor, but at the same time his faith never wavered. At one point he was reduced to using bread crumbs for mass. After Stalin’s death, the gulags emptied out and Sterniuk regained his freedom. Unfortunately repression continued. He was not allowed to work as a priest in any official capacity, thus he was forced to find employment in a wide variety of jobs, everything from a janitor to a nurse and even a gatekeeper. Throughout these years he continued working in the underground church. It has been estimated that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the Soviet Union was the largest clandestine religious organization in the world at the time.

Sterniuk lived an austere existence, inhabiting a single small room over a paint shop that was often raided by Soviet authorities. He nonetheless heard confessions and held masses there. Sometimes he was forced to carry out these spiritual services deep in the woods. A little over a decade after he was released from the Gulag, Sterniuk was ordained as a bishop. Then in 1972 he became the UGCC’s leader, a role he would continue to play until the Soviet Union’s collapse and the rise of an independent Ukraine. A year before the collapse he led the first divine liturgical services in St. George’s since before the fateful synod in 1946. Sterniuk acted as an example to all members of the church with his steadfast devotion. He had endured suffering and privation for years on end, yet he continued carrying out the most important spiritual functions in the name of God.

Sterniuk turned out to be the atheistic Soviet regime’s worst nightmare. He led by example, an example of hope and faith while the Soviets led by fear and repression. Eventually something had to give and it was not Sterniuk. When Ukraine became an independent state, the UGCC became one of the most powerful institutions in the newly formed nation. Sterniuk and thousands of others had kept the faith alive long enough that a free and independent UGCC could rise again. This resurgence happened in concert with the movement that would establish an independent Ukraine.

Memorial plaque at St. Nicholas Church in Pustomyty, Ukraine

Memorial plaque at St. Nicholas Church in Pustomyty, Ukraine – birthplace of Volodymyr Sterniuk (Credit: Mykola Swarnyk)

A Way Of Life – Sterniuk’s Achievement
In 1997 thousands marched through the streets of Lviv to St. George’s in a funeral procession for Sterniuk. His life as both an historical witness and actor had come full circle. He had witnessed the UGCC very nearly being destroyed at the infamous synod in March 1946. He then took an active role in the church’s endurance during the darkest years of hard line repression. Later he helped lead it to freedom. The power of belief had won out. There was no longer a need for any member – let alone a priest – of the UGCC to hide in a choir loft at St. George’s, because the Cathedral was now home once again to the church’s bishops, priests and parishioners. More than anything it was a spiritual home to the nation of Ukraine. That was as it still is today, in large part due to the work of Voldymyr Sterniuk.

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