Saturday, February 28, 2009

Metropolitan Mykhayil Visits Eparchy of Mukachevo

After many years of anticipation and several visits to Ukraine, I had the opportunity to visit the cities of Uzhorod and Mukachevo, in the Transcarpathian Oblast. This beautiful area has so much meaning to me, not only because it is the area where my grandparents were born and from which they came to the United States with their parents, over 100 years ago, but because it is the seat of the historical Eparchy of Mukachevo.

The Mukachevo Eparchy is believed by some, to have its origins in the ministry of SS. Cyril and Methodius. History first records a Bishop Ivan of the ancient St. Nicholas Monastery on Cherchna Hora (Monk's Hill), as Bishop of Mukachevo in 1491.

Be that as it may, the faith certainly took deep root in the region, in the period of Kyivan-Rus. Bishops administered the eparchy from their residence at the St. Nicholas Monastery. In 1780, Bishop Andriy Bachinskyj moved the headquarters of the eparchy to nearby Uzhorod, and obtained the present cathedral church for use by Bishops of Mukachevo. This he accomplished with the help of Hapsburgian Empress Maria Theresa, a rather good friend to church during the long period of Hungarian rule in the area of Subcarpathian-Ukraine.

A special meeting at the city limits of Mukachevo took place with Fr. Taras Lovska, the rector of the Uzhorod seminary. He and several students were traveling from Uzhorod to Ivanivtsi for a liturgy, as our car was passing through. Fr. Taras, whom I had met a month earlier in New Jersey, during the seminary concert tour, was kind enough to take the time to stop and visit for awhile with us.

I was blessed to have my good friend, Fr. Ivan Shemet, vice-rector of the seminary in Uzhorod to guide me to the historic sites. I know Fr. Ivan from his time doing pastoral internships in the United States during his summer breaks from seminary studies in Rome. He showed us around the newly-built seminary, dedicated to the memory of Bishop Feodor Romzha, which, with the help of donations from the US and elsewhere, is progressing according to the most modern of educational standards. There as the opportunity to reacquaint with some of the students I had met during their US visit.

Father Shemet then took our party to the Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The cathedral is a striking structure with its neo-Greek columned facade and two imposing towers. It stands on a hill, above the Uzh river and is visible from almost every vantage point in the city. Unfortunately, the current Bishop of Mukachevo, Vladyka Milan Sashik was out of the country at the time of our visit and could not meet with us.

Inside, the church furnishings, altar and iconostasis are of the Ukrainian baroque style, very similar to the Church of St. Andrew the First-Called in Kyiv (the patriarchal cathedral of the UAOC).

To be in the Uzhorod cathedral was a heart-moving experience. This was the church of which I had only heard about and seen pictures of for my entire life. I did not rush through the visit, but much time in prayer, thought and meditation.

Perhaps the most moving of all opportunities, was to pray before the relics of the Blessed Bishop-Martyr Feodor Romzha, located beneath an altar on the left side of the cathedral. He was the last bishop of Mukachevo, before the Soviet liquidation of the eparchy and its subsequent takeover by the Russian Orthodox Church. Bishop Romzha was martyred - poisoned in a Mukachevo hospital by order of the NKVD, after an unsuccessful attempt to take his life in an orchestrated roadside "accident." I felt the spirit of the holy bishop in the cathedral that day, guiding as he would, the revival of the Ukrainian Church in Zakarpattya. I certainly prayed for his intercession for the work of our church in the Diaspora.

Fr. Ivan introduced me to a priest of the cathedral, Fr. Andriy, who was preparing to celebrate an afternoon Divine Liturgy. Together, they took me on a special private visit to the cathedral crypt.

There, in the catacombs beneath the church, are buried many of the former bishops of Mukachevo and other important clerics and nobility. Disgracefully, the Russian Orthodox disturbed much of the crypt and scattered the remains, when they were forced to vacate the premises after the independence of Ukraine. DNA research, with the assistance of samples from living relatives in the United States, positively identified the remains of Bishop Romzha. The work is continuing today for many of the others interred there.

An inspection of the exterior premises of the cathedral showed the restoration work being done on adjacent building of the chancery and consistory offices and bishop's residence. During the totalitarian regime, they had served as a library, and other uses convenient for Soviet needs. Now, having been restored to the eparchy, they are in need of much repair, before they can be occupied once again.

Fr. Ivan also showed our party (which included my friends from Chortkiv and my cousin Mariana from Snyatyn), to the historic "zamok" or Castle of Uzhorod, which stands just a few blocks from the cathedral. Dating from the 12th century, the castle has gone through many renovations. In 1646, it was the site of the signing of the Union of Uzhorod. Later, in 1648, it was host to a large delegation of Kozaks, escorting an emissary of Bohdan Khmelnytsky to the Transylvanian Prince Rakotsi. For many years, it was the seminary of the Eparchy of Mukachevo, right up to the time of the Soviet liquidation of the church. Today it is a historical museum of Ukrainian culture and folklore.

Later that evening, upon our return to Mukachevo, we stopped at the ancient St. Nicholas Monastery. Amazingly, it looked just like pictures I had seen for years. The wall along the approach to the compound, the church building, all seemed quite familiar. What was not familiar was the atmosphere that dominates the location.

Unfortunately, the monastery on Chernecha Hora is one which has not yet been returned to the church and remains a convent for Russian Orthodox nuns. Vespers was just about to begin upon our arrival. As with other visits I have made to monasteries that are under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, (Pochaiv, Percheska Lavra, etc), the experience tends to be more militaristic than spiritual. While the services are certainly celebrated with compunction, it is not without its disadvantages. The watchful eye of a nun carrying large candle-lighting instrument made sure no one was out of order. We can only pray for the day that this beautiful and historically important religious gem is once again in the hands of the native church.

That day ended with a return to the Mukachevo city-center and an evening meal and stay at the apartment of relatives. We were all happy to be together. For me, I had so much to reflect on and many memories to treasure, from this visit to the heart of my religious heritage.

My personal thanks to Father Ivan and Father Taras for their gracious hospitality. Our prayers are with all those in the Eparchy of Mukachevo, as they continue the process of the restoration of the church in Zakarpattya in a free and independent Ukraine.

+Vladyka Mykhayil

Click on each image to view a larger version.

A visit with Father Taras Lovska and seminarians at the city-limits of Mukachevo

In front of the main entrance to the Blessed Feodor Romzha Theological Academy in Uzhorod

Father Ivan and myself by the icon of Blessed Bishop-Martyr Feodor in the seminary foyer

One of the students is completing the iconographic mural on the wall of the seminary refectory

The interior of the new seminary church. It stands separate from the main facility and is still uncompleted.

The main doors of the seminary church

Mosaic icons grace the beautiful facade of the Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

The majestic classical iconostasis of the Uzhorod Cathedral

Standing before the holy table within the cathedral altar

The "high place" with the bishop's throne and icon of the Resurrection of Christ

Above the gates to the cathedral crypt are the words, "We will arise, in old Church Slavonic orthography

Above the steps leading down to the crypt is an icon of the Resurrection of Lazarus with the Gospel passage, "The one who believes in me, even though he should die, will live(John 11:25). Below the icon is quoted the prokeimenon of the liturgy for the departed, "Their souls shall dwell with the blessed."

The resting places of various bishops of Mukachevo, canons of the Uzhorod cathedral and others, still under restoration after desecration by the Russian Orthodox

A plaque marks the place where Bishop Romzha was originally entombed

After his martyrdom, Bishop Romzha was buried in this vault. After the Soviet takeover, no one was allowed to visit the spot for many decades.

A granite memorial to Bishop Romzha was placed near the original burial spot, before the transfer of his relics to the main body of the cathedral. Candles are still often light there.

With Father Andriy in the cathedral crypt

A larger view of the original vault of Bishop Romzha

The tomb of Bishop Andriy Bachinskyj, who led the church during a period of great progress and organization of eparchial life

Father Ivan Shemet and I in front of an altar in the crypt used for memorial services

Upon returning to the church interior, another view of the beautiful baroque altar and baldichino

The sanctuary walls are covered with beautiful frescos. The altar table and baldachino, liturgically proper and typical of the Ukrainian baroque style, is similar to that in St. Andrew Church, Kyiv and many others.

The relics of the Blessed Bishop-Martyr Feodor Romzha, beneath an altar on the left side of the cathedral.

The episcopal throne of the bishops of Mukachevo

Matching the bishop's throne is the ornate pulpit, with an icon of St. John Chrysostom, known among the church fathers for his preaching.

A discussion on the cathedral steps draws attention to a plaque honoring Bishop Bachinskyj, who acquired the Uzhorod cathedral for the eparchy.

The historic 12th. century Castle of Uzhorod

With Father Ivan Shemet at the Castle of Uzhorod

The St. Nicholas Monastery on Chernecha Hora in Mukachevo

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