Monday, November 20, 2023

“A Man of Trust” -- Father Vasyl Lonchyna

 We'd like to share with you the story of the life of our very own, Mother Iliana's, great-grandfather, Father Vasyl Lonchyna, who was martyred for the faith on November 21st, 1946. Recently, his story was translated into English by Christine Gilbert, and so we are blessed to be able to share his story with you.

He was born on February 1, 1886, in the family of a wojt* in the village of Derniv in the Lviv region. He finished German gymnasium and Theological faculty of the Lviv University. In 1912, he got married (in marriage he had three children) and was ordained a priest. Until 1915, he was parochial vicar in the village of  Hlyniany (Lviv region). After that, he labored in the church of St. Paraskeva and its daughter church of St. Nicholas, both in Lviv.  He was a prisoner of  Thalerhof. He was very active in church ministry. Father Lonchyna was imprisoned on October 22, 1945, and in the spring of 1946 he was condemned to ten years  imprisonment and was sent to a camp in the Donetsk region. There, after  a brutal beating during an interrogation, he died on November 21, 1946.

Humble and gentle by nature, with a soft and compassionate heart, Father Vasyl showed amazing resilience, courage and uncompromisingness when there was a concern about important things  –  his faith in God, Church and parishioners. He never left his faithful, he never renounced the Greco-Catholic faith, he despised threats because, as he used to say, “I know what I will die for.” He consciously accepted his arrest, exile, and, eventually, his martyr’s death.

Born in a family respected among the villagers (Father Vasyl`s father was the wojt) and the boy was raised well and obtained a good education. While he was studying at the Lviv University in Theology Faculty, he attended the Third Velehrad Congress. The young student became enamored of the idea of the union of churches towards which Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky was striving. The young man dreamed to become a genuine apostle of Christ, sacrificial and selfless…

Already in the first month of the 26-year-old priest’s ministry in the village of Hlyniany, he was noticed as the person with excellent pastoral and organizational skills. In 1915, Father Lonchyna was transferred to St. Paraskeva Church and the daughter church of St. Nicholas in Lviv,  where he labored until his arrest in 1945 (first as vicar, later as a pastor). 

Before long the priest faced a serious challenge:  he was suspected in “russophilism” and the Austrian government sent him to Thalerhof  (one of the most terrible concentration camps  of   the  20th Century;  there, in a picturesque area at the foot of the Alps, the imprisoned died from cruelty, hunger, and inhumane conditions).Who knows if Father Lonchyna would come back if the protohegumen of the Basilian Fathers had not interfered. After almost two years of imprisonment, the priest returned again to his family and parishioners. Being thankful to God for salvation, the shepherd returned to work with zeal. At the parish, he founded fellowships and fraternities, which developed successfully, in particular, The Apostolate of Prayer, the Fraternity of St. Nicholas, the Fraternity of Good Death (the first one in Lviv), and the Marian Sisterhood. In addition to that, Father Vasyl during a long period of time was head of the “Cantors’ Mutual Help” fellowship, since  he understood very well the value of the art of cantorship in the preservation of the Ukrainian tradition of liturgical singing. On the whole, Father Vasyl’s activity was multifaceted and active, and so his part in Theological Scientific Society should be mentioned here. 

Father Vasyl was not only a wise and good spiritual father for his flock, but also a wonderfully practical man. St. Nicholas church was not in its best condition, so the pastor, together with the help of his faithful (mostly poor residents of Zhovkva and Krakow suburbs), did not only rebuild his church:  thanks to his efforts the exterior of  the church was decorated by the work of the famous painter Petro Kholodny. 

Despite his comprehensive and fruitful activity, Father Lonchyna remained very mild and modest in everyday life. His daughter recalled: “Daddy was gentle, calm, noble, and very much loved by all. He always prayed with me before bed, teaching me to be good, kind, obedient, and to obey the elders…” 

The priest`s calm and sincere nature did not impede him to stand for his principles, for in such cases he was completely imperturbable and unbreakable. For example, in the so called “language case” in 1930 when he and two other priests were sued for daring to use the Ukrainian language in correspondence with the government. The priests managed to win the case, which was a great rarity at that time. 

Father Vasyl showed indomitable character in those difficult times when Soviet soldiers occupied Galicia and started the first persecutions of the Ukrainian Church. He did not have any illusions about the new government and said to his family that the priesthood will be in relative safety as long as Metropolitan Sheptytsky lives. The pastor, as his faithful, understood well the danger. More than once parishioners tried to convince the priest to leave the region. He invariably answered, saying that he will remain with his congregation until the end, and will not betray his vow. 

They began to call the priest in for questioning. One day when he was at the district prosecutor’s office, he heard a loud noise behind the door – it was indignant parishioners come to free their priest. The enraged prosecutor promised to release him. Amazed by the father`s authority among those people, the prosecutor tried to persuade Father to enter the service of the new government. He asked the priest does he not fear imprisonment and death… No, Father Lonchyna was not afraid, because “he knew what he will die for”. This whole story ended with the wife of that same prosecutor (who  really  did release him) bringing her child to Father Vasyl to be baptized. Obviously, they decided that such priest can be trusted. 

But the government didn’t leave Father Vasyl in peace, and he continued to be called in for  questioning. Fr. Havryil Kostelnyk who was infamous for his“reunification” activities, tried  to convince Father Vasyl to  transfer to Orthodoxy. Finally, on October 22, 1945, they arrested the unbreakable  priest. The “socially dangerous priest” was accused of many “sins,” such as being “a man of trust” during the German occupation (as the Ukrainian Central Committee called community representatives who protected their community’s interests).  Being in that position, Father Lonchyna especially cared for poor families in need of help. 

Father was convicted to ten years in prison. The priest was sent to Donetsk region in Novobutovka’s mine in the Makiyivka district where there were truly inhumane conditions: exhausting work, hunger, and dysentery, since the prisoners often ate straight from trash cans. And in all this horror, Father Vasyl preserved his human dignity and faith. He drew his strength from prayer. This made an impression on the prisoners: when they were unable to think about anything else other than finding something to eat, they saw someone next to them calmly, praying over a crumb of the daily ration and consuming it nobly as is from God’s hand. They often saw the priest  as he sat tired on a bench,  and having humbly bowed his head, spoke something to the Lord… 

In the camp Father lost his health very quickly. But even in this state the government did not leave the nearly powerless priest in peace. They again started to call him for questioning. During one such interrogation he was beaten so hard that he could not stand on his feet again. In his 60th year of life, on the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, November 21, 1946, Father Lonchyna departed into eternity. Another wonderful person passed away, a person who knew how to love God and people and be faithful to the ideals of his own faith up until his last breath.

*“A Polish senior civil administrative officer and the highest representative of the government of a rural gmina, i.e., of a commune (gmina) comprising only villages... The word wójt is derived from Latin  advocatus  via German Vogt.” –Wikipedia.

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