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Reverend Blazejovskyj — his life and art
The Reverend Dmytro Blazejovskyj, 93, doctor of theology and history, was born in Ukraine, but is an American citizen (he keeps his dog-eared US passport in the breast pocket of his jacket “just in case, you know; it’s a great help in travelling from country to country”) who lives in Italy; he creates embroidered icons, studies the history of the Ukrainian Church, and there is only one thing in the world that worries him: “What am I going to do when I get too old?”
When the Reverend Blazejovskyj walked into the offices of the Welcome to Ukraine magazine, he immediately showed an avid interest in everything he saw around himself, and started asking questions: Who is the painter who created all these wonderful pictures hanging on the walls? Where does the paper to print your magazine on come from? What kind of readership you target? When answers were provided, he would take a little time to digest the information, and then plunge again into an unending stream of questions. We could not help being impressed by his quick, clear and inquiring mind. He peppered his talk with jokes, laughed raucously at our jokes, joshed the publisher, could not sit still for more than several minutes in a row. At the end of his visit, we, the thirty-year olds, felt our heads began to go round and round.
He was born in the village of Vyslik Horishniy, in the land of Lemkivshchyna, in 1910. Probably it’s the only thing, in addition to his getting a secondary education at a school in the town of Peremyshl, which fits a traditional biographical story. Upon graduation, the winds — or rather hurricanes — of history and life carried him hither and thither, dropping him once in a while in various parts of the world, only to pick him up again and carry further.
Blazejovskyj: You can’t find my native village on the map of Ukraine now — it’s under Poland now. In 1947, the villagers were chased out, the house I lived in was burned down, and my family was scattered — some found themselves in Prague, others in Ternopil, Mykolayiv and Lviv.
Myroslava Barchuk, Welcome to Ukraine Senior Editor, asked the questions.
And you? Where did you go?
Oh, I left my native place much earlier — back in the thirties. First, I went to the Polish city of Gdansk where I began to study electric engineering, but I did not finish my training — it turned out to be too expensive for me, and after six months I wanted go to Czechoslovakia. I applied for a visa, but they were not in a hurry to give me one, and I crossed the border illegally — through the Carpathians — and got to Prague where I wanted to complete my studies. In 1933, during the summer vacations, I decided I wanted to see Rome — and I walked there. I was one of many pilgrims who flocked to Rome that year.
Yes! I packed a backpack and walked, crossing the Alps on my way. It took me about six weeks or so. Oh, but it was great! Rome did not fail to meet my expectations! I was fascinated with it, charmed, you may say, and stayed there for about four weeks. The architecture, the museums, the sculpture — tremendous! On my walks through Rome, I discovered a Greco-Catholic seminary; I talked to students and to teachers, one of whom asked me: How about studying theology? I said I’d think about it. I did a lot of thinking and decided, yes, why not? And that was that.
What do you think you would have become if not for that proposal?
I would have been an electrical engineer, and would have probably returned to Ukraine, and consequently would have lived under the Soviets. But thank God, I was consecrated priest in 1939, and then I got my doctorate in theology, and then, up to the year 1946, I studied history.
And then you moved to the United States?
Correct. I went there in 1946. I just couldn’t go back to Ukraine that had been run over by the Soviets. In fact, I don’t think they’d let me in even if I wanted to — I did not have a passport, my only ID being a paper from the Red Cross saying that I was “homeless.” And I chose the USA to go to because I knew there were many Ukrainians living there. But there was the dearth of Ukrainian priests and when I got to the States I was immediately given eight Greco-Catholic parishes to take care of in different states — Missouri, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska. The distance between the two most distant parishes was fifteen hundred kilometers! There’s a saying: poor as a church mouse. It is a very precise description of my situation then. In one of the churches of Houston, Texas, I literally lived in the chancel. I also worked as a janitor, to get some money for food. I can tell you that there were quite a few poor people like me then in the States, those who had fled from the Soviets. But can you imagine that — though they were actually destitute, yet they found ways and means to have churches built! The money was earned in various ways — one of them was selling Ukrainian varenyky (stuffed dumplings). So if you heard that one before and did not believe it, I can tell it’s absolutely true! Ukrainian women got together and made hundreds — no, thousands of those varenyky, and then sold them. Also, embroidered shirts and towels, and other hand-made beautiful things were sold at Ukrainian fairs — and when enough money was saved they would build a church. Sometimes it took years to save a sufficient amount. I was instrumental in having four churches built. And I was not the one who gave orders or organized the logistics — no, I worked alongside my parishioners, wielding axes and spades. We literally built the churches ourselves.
How long did you live in America?
Twenty seven years.
Why did you leave the States?
Oh, I wanted to do something creative — I wanted to work in the Vatican Archives, I wanted to do historical research. I wanted to write books, I wanted to do my embroideries. And the moment there were enough Ukrainian priests for all the parishes, I took wing, and flew to Italy.
How did it feel to live away from the native land? Foreign languages, foreign habits and customs…
Foreign languages? When I came to America I sat down and learned the English language. First, right from the book. The same was with the Italian. And then, you know, you discover that the world is about the same wherever you live (laughs). As that wise seventeenth-century Frenchman Blaise Pascal said, “It is bad not because people are so different, but because they are all the same.”
But the people who went through the horrible grinder of the Soviet totalitarianism are different from the people who live in the west, aren’t they? How much time it takes to overcome the slave inside you, to get cleansed spiritually, to become truly free?
Well, I’d say about two generations. But it does not happen all by itself! Somebody must help, encourage! So far, I’ve not seen too many attempts in Ukraine to bring about spiritual revival. Do you remember our slogan of old: Either you make Ukraine free, or you die. The medieval rulers failed to protect Ukraine, the Cossacks failed, and in 1917–1920 the then Ukrainian governments failed. And now has come the decisive time — to become united, to become truly free. Ukraine was always torn apart between the east and the west, between Constantinople and Rome.
You are for a united Ukrainian church, aren’t you?
Correct. To bring about a united Christian church in Ukraine is a difficult thing to achieve. There are so many ambitions, there is much arrogance, conceit to be dealt with. And of course the money interests. There was a time, you know, when the cardinals who were to elect a new pope were locked in the Sistine chapel and were not released until they elected the pope. The cardinals fasted, they showed humility — and determination. It’s a good example to follow. We must elect a patriarch who would be head of the Kyiv Universal Ukrainian Christian Church. We must have a united church, the way it was under Grand Duke Volodymyr, the one who brought Christianity to this land. And if we manage to do it, then, believe me, the pro-Russian policy in Ukraine is doomed. But, of course, all the pro-Russian forces will be dead against it. But we must go ahead and do it — we must unite, we must be as determined as those who were members of the Greco-Catholic Ukrainian Church under the Soviets, and had to go underground. They practised their religion clandestinely for dozens of years. But they persevered. Our church fostered patriotism, the western church encouraged individualism, personality. The Russian church tried to make an obedient herd out of people. I believe it was thanks to the edifying and patriotic efforts of the Greco-Catholic Church that people in the west of Ukraine are so well aware of their national identity. Unfortunately, it’s not the case with the people in the eastern parts of Ukraine.
Do you have any idea why all kinds of sects are gaining in popularity in Ukraine whereas the Orthodox — and Greco-Catholic as well — churches are losing parishioners?
It’s not the sea that sinks the ships, it’s the winds. Our priests regard their mission of being spiritual shepherds without giving themselves to it fully — for so many of them it’s just the way to earn their living. They are indifferent to the spiritual needs of the people. Look — there are no religious societies, there are no priests who would come to people’s homes, there are no religious telephone hot lines. I saw some in the subway stations — but they have been installed by the Protestants. Orthodox priests expect people come to the churches all by themselves — wrong, they won’t do it! We live in the times when you’ve got to do something to bring people to church — it’s not like it used to be. It’s not enough now to sing psalms and swing incense burners. The faith needs to be promoted, it must be a living thing. As long ago as thirty years back, we encouraged our parishioners to join dance and song ensembles, study Easter egg painting, embroidery, we conducted religious talks — and all these activities were centered on a particular church. It was done to keep parishioners together as one family.
It was then that you started doing your embroideries?
Yes. The art of embroidery is a tremendously important part of our cultural legacy. Our museums must be prevented from becoming graveyards of our past — they must be schools propagating art and achievements of the past. I started doing embroideries in order to keep the Ukrainian tradition of embroidered icons and other ritual things alive and going.
Is making embroidered icons a Ukrainian tradition?
The Seventh Nicene Council recognized the worship of icons as proper and gave the recommendations as to how they should be painted. The Council resolved that the icons should be painted on cypress boards with mineral pigments, dissolved in the yolks of eggs with some quantity of holy water added — blessed water contains a lot of ions of silver. The cypress wood symbolized life; the yolk symbolized the origin of life; the water symbolized the source that leads to life eternal, and the pigments — the reflection of celestial luminaries on earth. The Greek icon painters added their own rules as to the painting of icons and held a sort of monopoly on them. The Greeks did not allow icons to be painted with oil paints and considered everything that was produced outside Byzantium to be barbaric. The Russians followed the Greeks in their attitude to icon painting, but the Ukrainians went their own way — they created icons using all kinds of materials, and were particularly careful to give the faces on the icons a gentle and beautiful look. Among other things, icons were embroidered, with gold and silver and silk thread used. This kind of icons was developed in nunneries. Church ritual objects, and priests’ vestments were also embroidered.
But what about icons? When did they start creating embroidered icons?
Fairly recently — early in twentieth century. At first, there were very few patterns for embroidery, and the design was taken from the available painted icons. But later I developed my own patterns which can be used in such a way that I know where your cross-stitches go and what colour the tread should be.
You have created quite a few embroidered icons, haven’t you? And I know that you’ve had ten albums with reproductions of these icons published.
Where did you get the money for their publication from?
Well, you know, embroidery has become the main thing in my life. Nine of those books were published for my money — I had to borrow a lot but I did get them released. People trusted me, and lent me money, even though they saw that I was an aged person. But I did pay them back, though it took quite some time. It was not easy, I may tell you.
This year many of your works were exhibited in Kyiv, at the Kyiv Mohyla University, and in the town of Kaniv as well. Were they the first exhibitions of your icons in Ukraine?
No, they were not. In the twelve years of Ukrainian independence I visited Ukraine eleven times. I had my icons shown in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi, Ternopil, Lutsk, Kaniv, Mykolayiv, Kolomiya, and Kosiv. And Kyiv, of course. Incidentally in Kosiv, though it’s a small town, over 3,000 people came to see the exhibition in three days that it was on. And everywhere people brought their icons which they embroidered using my patterns. My heart rejoiced — what could make it rejoice more? In fact, now there is a museum of my icons in Lviv. You can find it at 2A, Chornovola Avenue. It was opened in 1999. Everyone interested can go there, have a look, emulate, learn.
But it’s not only icons that you create, is it?
No. I embroider church table-cloth, priests’ vestments, and church banners, using the cross-stitch canvas. When I do the faces and hands, I use very small cross-stitches over one thread of the canvas, and for the rest of the icon — bigger stitches, with every cross-stitch engaging two threads of the canvass. I use light colours for the body to make it shine in the dark corners of the church.
The Reverend Dmytro Blazejovskyj returns to Rome back to his embroidery, to his work in the Vatican Archives, back to writing books on the history of the Greco-Catholic Church of Ukraine.
“Do you feel sorry you are leaving Ukraine,” we asked the old man.
“Sorry? No. I’ve got so much work to do in Rome!”
He has no time for melancholy.