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Saint Omelian Kovch

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1 Saint Omelian Kovch on Sun Jan 16, 2011 1:07 am

Easter-won

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“I understand that you are trying to get me released. But I beg you not to do this. Yesterday they killed fifty people. If I am not here, who will help them to get through these sufferings? They would go on their way to eternity with all their sins and in the depths of unbelief, which would take them to hell. But now they go to death with their heads held aloft, leaving all their sins behind them. And so they pass over to the eternal city.
This is part of a letter from Fr Omelian Kovch to his family from the Nazi concentration camp, Majdanek, Lublin, in 1943.

“I thank God for His goodness to me. Apart from heaven, this is the one place where I wish to remain. Here we are all equal: Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Latvians and Estonians. Of all these here I am the only priest. I cannot even imagine how it would be here without me. Here I see God, who is the same for all of us, regardless of our religious distinctions. Perhaps our churches are different, but the same great and Almighty God rules over us all. When I celebrate the Divine Liturgy, they all join in prayer. . .
They die in different ways, and I help them to cross over this little bridge into eternity. Is this not a blessing? Isn’t this the greatest crown which God could have placed upon my head? It is indeed. I thank God a thousand times a day for sending me here. I do not ask him for anything else. Do not worry, and do not lose faith at what I share. Instead, rejoice with me.
Pray for those who created this concentration camp and this system. They are the only ones who need prayers . . May God have mercy upon them.”

Fr Omilian Kovch was one of the 27 Ukrainian martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II on 27th June, in front of 1.2 million faithful at Mass in Lviv, Western Ukraine. He was the only one who died at the hands of the Nazis – the rest were all victims of the Soviet State apparatus.
Omelian Kovch was born on September, 20 in 1884 near village Kosiv in the beautiful region of Western Ukraine that is located among the Carpathians mountains. His father was Fr Gregory Kovch, a Greek Catholic priest, from a family with many priests.

Having completed school in Lviv, Ukraine from 1905-1911 he studied theology at the Collegium Russicum in Rome, Italy.
In 1911 he married Maria-Anna Dobrians’ka, and the next year was ordained priest by the Bishop of Stanislaviv (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) Gregory Khomyshyn.

After a short while in parish work, he volunteered to serve among Ukrainian émigrés in Bosnia, near Prijedor. It is said that he had a great gift of preaching – consoling, joyful, and converting almost every listener back to God.
He returned to Galicia (Western Ukraine) in 1916 as a curate. From 1919-21 he served as a military chaplain in the Ukrainian army fighting against Poland, during a multi-sided war where seven different nations or factions had taken the battlefield.

“I know that the soldier on the front line feels better when he sees the doctor and the priest also there . . You know, lads, that I am consecrated, and a bullet doesn’t take a consecrated man easily.”

He was captured, briefly interned, then released and appointed parish priest of Peremyshliany, a small town 30 miles from Lviv in Western Ukraine, that was a home town for three nations: Ukrainians, Jews, and Polish people.

Thereafter his activity was in parish life. He organized local Eucharistic congresses, cared for the material needs of his flock. He bought shoes and books for poor children, supported local cooperative movements and the Ukrainian independence movement.

This brought him into conflict with the local Polish administration. Forty times his house was searched. He was fined and imprisoned in a Studite monastery. He and his wife had six children of their own, and frequently offered shelter to orphans as well.

However Fr Kovch’s support of Ukrainian independence was not accompanied by any enmity towards the Polish people.

He organized help for Polish widows and orphans. In these first two years of occupation the Soviet secret police murdered or deported 300,000 persons from west Ukraine. In June 1941 the NKVD carried out mass arrests in Peremyshlany, Ukraine including Fr Kovch and two of his daughters. They miraculously escaped, just as the Germans invaders reached their town, but as Fr Kovch celebrated the first Mass back in his parish, news arrived that all the other prisoners had been murdered by the retreating communists.
Many Ukrainians hoped that Hitler would liberate them from the Bolshevik occupiers, and grant them some measure of independence. But their hopes were rapidly dashed. Fr Kovch did not join in the general euphoria, but strongly urged the youth to avoid criminal deeds and to resist the encouragement to anti-Semitism, especially in the newly-formed police force under Nazi control.

Fr Kovch did not cease to publicly condemn the criminal deeds of the new Fascist regime, who treated the Slavs as sub-humans, and soon began deportations to German factories and labour camps.

The Jewish question rapidly took on particular gravity. An Nazi SS detachment had driven a group of Jews to the local synagogue, and thrown firebombs inside with the intention of burning them alive. Alerted by a Jew to what was being perpetrated, Fr Kovch ran quickly to the synagogue, and with the help of some parishioners blocked the doors so that the Nazis could not throw more bombs inside. He spoke German fluently, and shouted at the soldiers to go away. By some miracle, they did. Then together the priest and parishioners saved as many Jews as they could from the already blazing building.

However, it was impossible to save the Jews en masse from the Nazis, since in Peremyshliany they formed a majority of the population. Jews came asking for baptism, in the hope of avoiding extermination, and Fr Kovch catechised and baptized them, at first individually. As the Nazi persecution grew more intense, a delegation representing 1000 Jews came to his door requesting baptism. Fr Kovch went to consult Archbishop Andrei Sheptytsky of Lviv (who was secretly sheltering some 1500 Jews in his metropolitan palace and other church buildings), as to what course of action to take.
Since time was running out, on his return he administered a short catechesis and mass baptism. This was strictly against Nazi law, but he disregarded their warnings.
What is more, after the closure of the ghetto, he applied to the Nazi authorities for permission to enter to ghetto in order to baptise any who wished. It is on record that the newly baptized Jews formed their own Christian community for prayer even within the ghetto. With hindsight it now appears naïve, but Fr Kovch even wrote to Hitler denouncing the Fascists’ crimes.
There could be only one outcome to this moral resistance. On 30th December 1942 the Gestapo came for him, arrested him, took him to Lviv and imprisoned him. Under interrogation, not only did he admit having baptised Jews, but refused to sign an undertaking that he would not do so again in the future, in spite of its being contrary to Nazi law. He was severely beaten, but refused to give in, and tried to serve his fellow prisoners as a priest.
Having failed to extract compliance from Fr Kovch, the Gestapo sent him to Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, prisoner number 2399, block 14. Here he showed the measure of his heroism, bringing priestly consolation to his fellow-prisoners of all races and confessions. He saw his mission in the camp as a gift of Divine Providence and as a responsibility to be fulfilled.
The block inspector was a Pole, Sigmund Miller, who kept his position by beating the other prisoners without exception. However he turned a blind eye when Fr Kovch celebrated the Liturgy in a corner of the barracks, heard confessions and distributed Holy Communion.

After Christmas of 1943 Fr Omelian fell seriously ill with stomach problems which he could not hide. He was sent to the dreaded camp hospital, where it was well known that healing treatment was rare. Instead, the Nazi doctors helped one die more quickly, by injection or perhaps by starvation, in the manner currently proposed by the British General Medical Council draft guidelines.
His fellow prisoners saw him last at the beginning of spring, but thereafter did not know what became of him. Only in 1972 did his daughters manage to obtain his death certificate: the camp records stated that he died on 25 March 1944 with infection and inflammation of the right leg, which had blocked the circulation – probably gangrene.

In September 1999 the Jewish Council in Kyiv declared Fr Omelian Kovch one of the “Righteous of Ukraine.” Now along with St Maximilian Kolbe and Titus Brandsma, he is a blessed martyr of the Catholic Church.

Father Omelian Kovch was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 27th of June, in front of 1.2 million faithful at Mass in the city of Lviv, Western Ukraine.


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