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Rebuilding an abandoned church

During World War 2, a German army officer helped save precious icons from the ruins of an 18th century Catholic church in Bishche, Ukraine. Seventy years later, a priest from the United States, Fr Stanisław Żak, is helping to restore the building.

By Kostiantyn Chavaga - Lviv

Stanisław Żak was born in Poland into a family from Western Ukraine, where many Catholic Poles lived until the end of the Second World War. In Poland, communist authorities settled them in the western regions. From there, they were taken to Germany. In a former Lutheran church in Racławice Śląskie in southern Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic, Polish returnees placed a revered icon of Our Lady of Bishche.

Stanisław knew that Bishche was the village in the east, from which Soviet authorities had driven out his parents. The church housing the miraculous image of Our Lady was burned down during ethnic conflicts in the area. Stanisław was familiar with the names and surnames of all the inhabitants of that village. He remembered how his Ukrainian grandmother had taught him the language. But most of all, he remembered the stories his family told about the church of the Blessed Sacrament and the burned holy images.

Fr Stanisław Żak celebrates Mass in the church in Bishche
Fr Stanisław Żak celebrates Mass in the church in Bishche

Saving the icons

Fr Stanisław Żak tells of how his aunt rushed to the church when she saw it set on fire: "She was in charge of cleaning the altar, so she knew where the keys to the tabernacle were kept. She took the two chalices and the Blessed Sacrament with her, wrapped them in a tablecloth and hid them to the cellar of her sister's house. All night long the two women prayed before the Blessed Sacrament. At dawn my aunt sent her daughter to take the Blessed Sacrament to Berezhany, where their parish priest, Fr Filip Zając, was hiding. ‘If you have come all the way here with the Blessed Sacrament, then let's take it to the church,' the priest told her. Then Canon Adam Gącucki took the Blessed Sacrament and together with the girl took it to the church. Then he asked to thank my aunt, who had let the priests know that the icons of Bishche were intact despite the fire, because the fire was extinguished at the foot of the altar."

Fr Filip was determined to save the miraculous image of Our Lady and the other icons from the church in Bishche. He took the risk of asking a Wehrmacht officer for help: Georg Franz Moravеc was a Catholic music teacher who played the organ at church in Munich before the war.

"Moravеc called four soldiers and, together with my grandfather and another man, they went to Bishche, retrieved the images and took them to Berezhany," continues Fr StanisławŻak.

"They risked their lives. The Gestapo stopped them along the road and asked them what they were transporting. Moravec told the Gestapo the images from Bishchewere being transferred to a museum in Germany. And that is how he saved them. When the Poles from Bishche moved to Poland in 1945, they took the icons with them. But they lost track of them. After lengthy searches, Moravec traced the Bishche icons to Poland in 1975. He said Fr Zając had given him a medal with the image of Our Lady as a sign of gratitude. When he left Berezhany to fight on the front lines, the medal stopped a bullet and saved his life. He remained deeply devoted to Our Lady of Bishche until the day he died in 2005. He even had a copy made of the icon and made a regular pilgrimage to Racławice. That is why we honour him”, concludes Fr Stanisław Żak, “because despite the danger of death, he always remained firmly anchored to the faith”.

Returning home

Fr Stanisław Żak has worked as a pastor in Poland, England and the United States. Still, he always dreamed of going to Bishche, but the Soviet government refused to grant him a visa. Only after the independence of Ukraine and the apostolic visit of St John Paul II in 2001, did Fr Stanisław manage to return to the land of his ancestors.

Fr StanisławŻak celebrates Holy Mass
Fr StanisławŻak celebrates Holy Mass

"As I approached Bishche, I saw the ruined tower and the trees growing on the church roof," he recalls. The church door was barred with old wooden planks, but he managed to get in.

"I knelt down in front of the main altar and heard something strange. I felt something had to be done to rebuild this church. I took some photos and when I returned to my American parish, I spoke about my trip to Ukraine and showed people the photos. The Knights of Columbus were active in the parish, as they are today in Ukraine. One of my Armenian parishioners said, 'Father, we have to start doing something. He took out his chequebook and made a donation of $300”. Fr Stanisław opened a bank account and began to collect further donations".

Fr Andrii Reminets is the parish priest in Berezhany. In 2012 he obtained permission to begin restoring the church. On 31 July 2015, the Latin Auxiliary of Lviv, Bishop Leon Malyi, re-consecrated the church before copies of the original icons. The following year the new central altar was built and the walls were restored. Then the crypts, where priests and faithful are buried. Last year the four side altars were also reconstructed".

Prayer in the church awaiting restoration
Prayer in the church awaiting restoration

Today, almost all the inhabitants of Bishche attend the Orthodox Church, but for ecumenical services they also come to the Catholic Church.

"This was the oldest sanctuary of the Latin Archdiocese of Lviv”, says Fr Andrii Reminets. “Now, twice a year - on 15 August and 8 September –the descendants of former parishioners from Poland come on pilgrimage". A festival of young artists is also held under the patronage of the Archbishop of Lviv, Mieczysław Mokrzycki.

The work of young artists in the background
The work of young artists in the background

Fr Stanisław Żak continues to collect donations and visits Bishche every year.

"Every first Sunday of the month we pray for all the benefactors who help with the restoration of this church. But we are still waiting for a millionaire", he says with a smile. "If you know one, send him to the bishop or to me, because there is still much to do, and a lot of funding is needed to complete the renovation of the church”.

18 March 2020, 11:19