Wednesday 20 January 2010

The Mystery of Father Damascene Polivka

Founder of the Ukrainian Church in Winnipeg

published in: Serge Cipko ed., Ukrainians Abroad: News and Views, no. 46 (29 January 2010).

In OSBM habit c. 1895
An article entitled Winnipeg’s First Ukrainian Catholic Church has recently appeared in The Winnipeg Free Press.  The piece is a good summary of the beginnings  of the mother of all Ukrainian religious congregations in the city.  Nevertheless, it does contain a few factual errors.  One of them pertains to the founder of the congregation, Father Damascene Polivka.
The figure of Damascene Polivka is shadowed in mystery.  Concrete facts about his life history continue to evade us.  I attempted to discover more about this mysterious missionary when assisting St. Nicholas Parish compose its centennial history book, but my quest was in vain.  The principal difficulty was that key archival sources were not made available.  Thus, when St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church Celebrating 100 Years. Together for Tomorrow went to press, it left several historical details undiscovered, including the history of the parish’s own founder.
What little was known about Polivka came from publications of lesser historical value.  These contained precious few details about him, where he was mentioned at all.  His origins, details of his mission, and even the spelling of his name were not uniformly reported.  Photographs of him are extremely rare (I know of only two). He has been described as a Ruthenian missionary priest but of Slovak origin, a Basilian monk sent to Canada by the archbishop of Lviv, Cardinal Sembratovych.  Many details about his person and work appear to be contradictory, and equally mysterious seems to be his role in the foundation of a church congregation shortly before he left the city of Winnipeg one-hundred and ten years ago, never to return. 
I have been able to resolve part of the the mystery surrounding Polivka, including details of his origins and mission, by consulting his personal file in the Archives of the former Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide for the Affairs of the Oriental Rite, now contained in the Archives of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches. The documents contained under the rubric Monaci reveal the following:
Our missionary was born Adalbert Francisk Polivka on 4 February 1869 in the Bohemian village of Hostin u Vojkovic. His father was of Hungarian-Slavic (Slovak) origins. At the time, Bohemia (Czech), northern Hungary (Slovakia) and Eastern Galicia (Western Ukraine) were all part of a single state, the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary.  Even in Cyrillic, he always signed his name Polivka (Полівка) and not the Ukraininized Polyvka or Polywka (Поливка) that appears in most publications.  
In early life, Adalbert trained as a medical doctor and surgeon.  He spent a few years in the Latin-Rite congregation of the Brothers of Mercy.  In 1892, upon entering the Ruthenian Order of St. Basil the Great, he assumed the religious name John-Damascene or simply Damascene after the great Saint and Church Father.  The young Polivka had been encouraged to join this order-in-reform by his eponymous fellow Bohemian, Jesuit Father Adalbert Baudiss.  Baudiss was one of the protagonists of the Basilian reform and served as master of novices in Dobromyl, Galicia.  He looked on the young surgeon as having been sent “by Divine Providence” to minister to the medical needs of the impoverished, fledgling religious community.  But the Church law of the time did not allow the hands of priests, consecrated for the holy service of the altar, to be stained with blood, neither to fight in war, nor to practice surgery, nor even to hunt. Baudiss had to ask for a special dispensation from Propaganda Fide, which accorded his recruit permission to practice his medical arts but only within the monasteries.
In order to help the Basilian reform, Pope Leo XIII had granted the Order the right of receiving Latin-Rite candidates without any canonical dispensation.  At their final profession, the pontiff decreed that these monks were automatically to be transferred to the Byzantine Rite.  Polivka was one of several non-Ukrainians to make use of this privilege.  He professed his final vows in 1896 and was ordained a priest on 12 September of the following year.   
Although the Roman Pontiff had intended to favour the Basilians, the extraordinary privileges that he had conceded elicited fierce criticism from Ruthenian-Ukrainian society, which saw the Order as one of its few national institutions.  It was feared the Jesuits would attempt to Polonize the Order and, through it, Ukrainian society. By seconding such criticisms, Metropolitan Josyf Sembratovych was forced to resign his see.  Rome and Vienna thought that the Byzantine-Rite Ruthenians could not reform their church without outside help.  And thus, in the first years of the Basilian reform, the Jesuits allowed the Basilian communities to become cosmopolitan, in typically Austro-Hungarian fashion. 
As long as the Jesuits governed the Order, ethnic conflicts were kept at bay.  However, nationalistic tensions were brewing within the empire.  The Polish-Ukrainian truce (the New Era) had come to an end in 1895 and the Basilians began to take sides.  The Jesuits had already begun to entrust the governance of individual monasteries to reformed Basilians but several young Ukrainian fathers felt this was not enough. They began to call for the Jesuits to relinquish the governance of their Order altogether.  Seeing that they were unwanted, the Jesuits asked to be relieved but the Apostolic See would not permit them to abandon the reform until 1904.  Father Baudiss was among those who believed that the young community was not yet ready to govern itself.  Amid such tensions, those who appeared to take the Jesuits’ side began to experience discrimination from their confreres.  Those who were not Ukrainian ethnics, like Damascene Polivka, began to feel out of place in a community which was becoming increasingly nationalistic.
In March 1899, Polivka wrote to Propaganda Fide explaining that the negative, divisive atmosphere in the monasteries had broken his spirit.  He asked for permission to work outside the order for five or six years, perhaps as a missionary in Brazil.  When Cardinal Ledóchowski, Propaganda’s prefect, consulted provincial superior Father Mycielski, the latter attempted to have Polivka dismissed from the Order. The Cardinal rejected the Jesuit’s proposal and on 15 April 1899 granted Polivka permission to work outside his community for three years, under the jurisdiction of his local bishop, Cardinal Sembratovych.  A month later, on 16 April, Polivka had changed his mind about Brazil and asked instead for permission to become a missionary in Canada, informing the Congregation that he had written to the Canadian bishops.  In June he obtained the blessing of the Ukrainian bishops of Galicia and the funds necessary for the journey.  On 27 July, Bishop Legal of St. Albert, Alberta informed Cardinal Ledóchowski that he and his fellow bishops would be very happy to receive another Ukrainian priest, especially since the previous one, Paul Tymkevych, had become a renegade.  The Congregation duly granted permission for the mission on 20 August.  Just before leaving for Canada, Polivka wrote to Archbishop Langevin of St. Boniface asking for particulars about the mission and itemized the liturgical items that each Greek-Rite missionary needed to purchase.  
There was some confusion on the part of the Canadian hierarchy as to what kind of missionary was being sent.  Legal had written to Ledóchowski that he hoped a Basilian monk would do better where secular priests had failed.  On the contrary, the Basilian Order had not yet accepted a mission to Canada and Polivka was being sent not under the auspices of the Order, but as a secular missionary under the authority of his eparchial bishop.
Damascene Polivka had been instructed to go to St. Albert, Alberta, but instead he remained in Winnipeg.  Upon his arrival, on 21 October 1899, he immediately presented himself to the archbishop of St. Boniface who conferred jurisdiction upon him.  Langevin then left for Montreal where he remained for four months. Polivka wrote to Propaganda Fide explaining that he had chosen to remain where the largest group of Ukrainians had settled, as it was impossible to serve in all three western Canadian dioceses.  The Congregation did not appear to be satisfied with Polivka’s explanations as several question marks were penciled-in next to them in the margins of his letter.  
In the meantime, the missionary was given liturgical hospitality at Holy Ghost Parish, administered by the Polish Oblate Fathers.  Father Damascene insisted on the integral practice of the Byzantine Rite and soon caused a scandal by administering the Sacrament of Chrysmation (Confirmation) to Ukrainian infants. Since these had already been baptized by the Polish Oblates, the Latin faithful concluded that Polivka was re-baptizing them.  The  result was that Polivka was soon forbidden to celebrate Mass at Holy Ghost.  
In the meantime, the Ukrainians had formed a committee. On 8 December they invited Polivka to attend a meeting at which they resolved to buy land for the construction of their own church. In what is probably the earliest Ukrainian church document in Winnipeg, Polivka redacted a petition in both old Ukrainian and Latin to Archbishop Langevin, asking him to bless the project.  This undated petition (December 1899) was countersigned by 27 of the members of the church committee (as they appear on the document): 
Андрей Зайло, Николай Маковецкі, Thеоdorus Stephanik, Прокоп Скіба, Wasyl Rudko, Ілько Бабій, Anton Czerkas. Jan Spizak, Alek. Książyk, Гриць Прокопишин, Julian Bohońko, Michał Lenczak, Стефан Волошиньский. Wasyl Tankowсky, Aleksa Roszko, Іван Сидор, Василій Турчинюк, Petro Krasiuk, Юрко Паніщак, Stefan Cinnyk, Jan Piskosz, Michal Doda, Юрко Кобітикъ, Nicholas Małachowski, Mikołaj Powawoznyk, Jełyjacz Kostiuk, Olexa Haluszczak, Michał Palamar, о. Дамаскин Полівка.
Under pressure from the committee, Father Damascene telegraphed the archbishop in Montreal, asking for his blessing.  Langevin replied that the diocese was already heavily in debt, especially with the newly-constructed Holy Ghost Church which was to serve several nationalities. He further suggested that Polivka’s services were not needed in the city of Winnipeg but in rural Manitoba, where a larger number of the Ukrainians were without the services of any priest.  In the end, Langevin ordered Polivka to assume the mission in Alberta for which he had been commissioned and for which Bishop Legal continued to plead.
Instead of going to Alberta, in the first days of the new century Polivka left Winnipeg for Chicago and thence to New York where he was reported to have come under the influence of the clergy responsible for Svoboda, a newspaper which staunchly opposed the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s jurisdiction over the Eastern-Rite Catholics.  From the US and later from Montreal, Polivka wrote to his Winnipeg flock asking for donations and offering to return to serve them on two conditions: that they would support him financially and that they would not place the church property under the control of the Latin bishop. 
Disappointed with his lack of cooperation, Langevin petitioned Propaganda to recall Polivka to Europe.  At the same time, the prelate penned a courteous letter to Vasyl Rudko of the Ukrainian church committee, explaining the reasons for opposing their project.  In this letter, the archbishop asked the Ukrainians to be patient and not to have any further contact with Polivka, whose jurisdiction he had withdrawn for disobedience.  On 9 February 1900, Cardinal Ledóchowski wrote to Father Mycielski asking him to recall Polivka to the monastery but Mycielski replied that he would be a bad influence in the reformed communities. Mycielski nevertheless promised to ask the superior of the unreformed Basilians if he could assign Polivka to the empty monastery-parish of Krasnopuschna.  Polivka, however, refused this proposal.  He argued that his three-year leave had not yet expired and that his congregation in Plymouth, Pennsylvania would be in danger of falling into schism if he abandoned them.
In Windbeer about 1905.
In June 1900, Polivka wrote to Propaganda’s Prefect from Plymouth, explaining his side of what had happened in Winnipeg.  He placed the blame on the Oblates who were worried about their church debt, and on the Ukrainian committee that had rebelled against the Roman Catholic authorities.  On 3 May 1901, this time writing from Northampton, Pennsylvania, Polivka informed Cardinal Ledóchowski that he could not find a European bishop to accept him so he asked to remain in the United States.  On 16 September 1903, Bishop Garvey of Altoona asked for Polivka to remain in his diocese and continue to minister at the Greek-Rite Church in Windbeer.  The same day, Polivka petitioned Ledóchowski’s successor, Cardinal Gotti, to become a diocesan priest.  Bishop Garvey confirmed that he was willing to accept Polivka as one of his priests in a letter to Cardinal Gotti dated 18 January 1904.
Previously, in December 1903, the Austro-Hungarian chargé d’affaires to the Holy See sent a curious document to Propaganda Fide.  This document contained a  list of Ruthenian Greek-Catholic priests residing in the USA that his government wanted to see recalled, undoubtedly for political reasons.  The first name that appears on the list is “Damascene Polivka, parish priest in Windbeer, Pennsylvania”.  Two other priests who had served in Winnipeg appear: Nestor Dymytriv in Northampton and Nicholas Strytynsky in Olyphant, Pennsylvania.  These priests had one thing in common: they were all connected with Svoboda and had, at one time or another, functioned as independents, essentially Greek-Catholics who did not want to become Orthodox but who had difficulties with the local Latin hierarchy.  Even though Polivka had agreed to serve at The First Slavish [Slavic] United St. Mary’s Greek-Rite Catholic Church in Windbeer, Bishop Garvey’s good dispositions towards him demonstrate that Father Damascene had never broken communion with the Catholic Church.  In this, his explanation to Cardinal Ledóchowski rings true: “it was a rebellion not on my part but on the part of the people... It was rather the peoplebut not me!”
On 8 October 1905, Polivka sent a petition to Pope Pius X asking to return to the Latin Rite, giving the reason that the married clergy and Ukrainian nationalists were persecuting him. On 16 January 1906, Propaganda released Polivka from his monastic vows, transferring him to the diocesan clergy.  On 29 February 1906, Bishop Garvey wrote to Cardinal Gotti that he had given permission to Polivka to return to his native Bohemia for health reasons.  The last letter in the file was written by Polivka from Krpy-Vrutic, Bohemia on 13 March 1906 asking for the indult to return to the Latin Rite because he had no way of supporting himself financially and all his money had gone to medical cures.  How ironic that a physician who had volunteered to heal and to alleviate the financial burden of a religious order was himself reduced to sickness and poverty.
After this letter, Polivka vanishes from history.  Even the renowned collector of historical data, Father Dmytro Blažejovskyj, was not able to obtain accurate information about Polivka and his whereabouts.  In his Ukrainian Catholic Clergy in DiasporaBlažejovskyj erroneously listed Polivka as having been born in Subcarpathia instead of Bohemia, as having been stationed in Northampton from 1899 to 1900 and as having been in Galicia from 1901 to 1903.  No mention was made of his service in Plymouth or Windbeer. The last accurate news we have of Polivka places him in Bohemia in March 1906, but what happened to him subsequently?  After leaving the Basilians and returning to his native rite he no longer fell under the jurisdiction of Propaganda Fide for the Oriental Rites. Thus all further trace of him is lost in this Congregation’s archives.  Did he remain in active ministry? Did he serve as a Latin-Rite priest in his native land?  Where did he die and when?  Hopefully further research will solve these mysteries.
      Some of the mystery surrounding Polivka appears to be man-made. Perhaps embarrassed by the fact that Polivka had left their ranks and had fallen out with the Catholic bishops, Basilian chronologists have tended to play down, if not ignore, his role in the founding of their Winnipeg parish.  Facts pertaining to him have been glossed-over, as in a passage by the late Dr. Modeste Gnesko reproduced in St. Nicholas’ centenntial history, which was taken from the 1966 booklet commemorating the opening of the present church.  An English translation of the passage in question reads: “Residing far away from the Winnipeg congregation, he often wrote to it, encouraging it and supporting it spiritually and morally. In addition, he sent monetary offerings for the future church. Impressed by his advice and example, the people resolved to finish the work [that had been] initiated.” Vatican archival sources contradict this account, so the question arises: did Father Gnesko have access to primary sources which were not made available for the composition of the parish centennial history, or was this simply an well-meaning attempt to whitewash inconvenient facts?  
Polivka’s unsuccessful mission made Archbishop Langevin swear that he would never accept another Greek-Catholic priest.  However, following a meeting between his vicar general Father Lacombe and Metropolitan Sheptytsky, and the Vatican’s appointment of a Greek-Catholic apostolic visitor for Canada, the prelate was induced to change his mind. Propaganda Fide had been after the Basilians to assume the mission in the US and Canada since 1893, but the Order’s superiors had always refused.  Finally, in 1902, three Basilian missionaries were sent to Alberta, and two more arrived in Winnipeg the following year.
   And what about the church congregation that Polivka helped found?  In 1901, two years after his departure from Winnipeg, a tiny chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas was constructed on property acquired by the committee. Historical sources demonstrate that the congregation identified itself as Greek-Catholic, even though they did not accept Archbishop Langevin’s jurisdiction.  Despite this fact, clergy of various religious allegiances were permitted to use the chapel until the arrival of two Basilian Fathers in November 1903.  At that time, the congregation asked the Basilians to assume the direction of their church.  Archbishop Langevin paid for the construction of a larger temple (velyka tservka) which was opened in January 1905 and located directly across the street from the original chapel.
But not all segments of that single Ukrainian congregation agreed with the Basilians, nor did they like the fact that their church had been brought under the authority of the Latin archbishop.  Consequently, part of the congregation left to found Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was consecrated by future Russian Orthodox Patriarch St. Tikhon in 1905.  Two years later, in 1907, a more nationalistic portion returned to the first tiny chapel (mala tserkva) and renamed it Sts. Vladimir and Olga, the future Ukrainian Catholic cathedral.  Another part of the flock formed the Greek-Independent Church and in 1917, a further segment helped create the Ukrainian Greek-Orthodox Church of Canada.  
The Basilians were far from alone in attempting to "remake" history.  In 1936, Father Vasyl Kushnir, the parish priest of Sts. Vladimir and Olga, published a commemorative Almanach that contains a fictional account of the beginings of his parish.  Orthodox publications went so far as to claim that the first church was not even Catholic or that the Uniates separated later.  It seemed to have been important that each successor church lay exclusive claim to the first church, just as their brethren in Ukraine fought over Hagia Sophia in Kyiv.  What is certain is that many if not all of the leaders of these churches were part of the original St. Nicholas congregation, co-founded and served by the mysterious missionary, the Bohemian-Slovak Greek-Catholic onetime Basilian Father Damascene Adalbert Francisk Polivka.