At a shrine in the Ukrainian village of Zarvanytsia, visitors pray before a miraculous icon and swim in a pool fed by a reputed healing spring. Here in a picturesque rural spot on the vast central-east European plain is one of the nation’s most important pilgrimage sites.
Dozens of pilgrimages come each year, mostly from Ukraine, Poland, or Slovakia. Many Ukrainian descendants visit annually from Canada, the U.S., and South America, often also seeing nearby Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine.
The village, on the Strypa River in the Terebovlia region, has been inhabited for hundreds of years. The icon dates back to the 13th century. The oldest part of the shrine that is still standing is the Holy Trinity church, built of stone in 1754.
The shrine is of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, an Eastern Church in full communion with Rome (or the Universal Church). Liturgies are celebrated in the Byzantine Rite.
Ukrainian Greek-Catholics proudly make up the second-largest particular Church sui iuris in the Catholic Church, second only to the Latin Church.
Catholics of Ukrainian descent trace their origins to the year 988, when Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv, the ruler of Kyivan Rus’, converted from paganism to Christianity and in turn Christianized all those under his rule, including the people of Ukraine.
The icon of Zarvanytsia is first mentioned in the year 1240 during the deadly time of the Mongol invasion. A monk fled west from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, devastated by the invasion. On his journey, he made a stop in a rural valley to drink water from a spring while resting and saying his prayers.
After praying to the Mother of God and still exhausted from his journey, the monk fell asleep. In a vision, Our Lady appeared to him in heavenly splendour.
When he awoke from the dream, feeling completely refreshed, the monk found the icon and thereupon decided to remain in the locale to enshrine the holy image.
News spread of the icon among the local inhabitants and reached a nearby nobleman, the Duke of Terebovlia Vasylko, the brother of the King Danylo. The Duke was sick and ordered the icon to be brought to him.
The monk refused, so the Duke travelled to Zarvanytsia as the first pilgrim. He prayed in front of the icon and was cured. Afterward, in gratitude to the Mother of God, the Duke founded a church and monastery on the site, which continues to this day.
The earliest written mention of the settlement dates to 1458. Ruins of the fortifications built around that time remain partly visible today.
The shrine has seen its share of persecution and devastation. During the years 1662 to 1688, Islamist Turks plundered the village and burned down the shrine. Thankfully, the icon was saved and later placed in a newly constructed church.
Later this wooden church too burned down. Finally, a permanent stone church was built in 1754, the fourth on the site. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity, this church still stands today.
Popes have recognized the shrine’s great importance in the life of the local community and the Universal Church. Blessed Pius IX in 1867 granted Zarvanytsia the status of a sanctuary, making it a place of pilgrimage. Further, he sent a golden crown from the Vatican and ordered the icon to be solemnly crowned.
The shrine’s difficult times intensified through the twentieth century. The village and monastery were damaged in 1916 during World War I and fortuitously rebuilt six years later.
Then came the great cataclysm of World War II and its aftermath. The dramatic climax of the war led to the dreaded Soviet occupation of Ukraine.
In 1946, the Communist authorities went so far as to outlaw the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. This led to an intensified persecution in which Ukrainian Catholics were subjected to the Orthodox Moscow Patriarch, a state-controlled cogwheel of the Soviet system.
The 20th-century persecution at the hands of the atheistic Communists was the single worst persecution of Christians in the two-thousand-year history of the Catholic Church. This persecution began in Russia and spread to Ukraine, among other countries.
Waves of terror were hurled at the Church and a continual war of nerves and annoyance was waged against Catholic clergy with arrests and interrogations day and night.
The Church was vilified and abused. Catholic priests, nuns, and lay folk were killed with or without formal charge, sometimes with mob trials.
The Communists burned down the monastery and the church. The Holy Trinity church was closed and confiscated although, inexplicably, it was spared from destruction – authorities turned it into a warehouse.
The healing spring was surrounded with barbed wire and turned into a trash dump. Major holy days, which for generations had been days of pilgrimage to the shrine, were forbidden. The military and secret agents monitored all activities.
This led the Catholics of Ukraine to go into a catacomb existence allowing the icons to be safely hidden. Sacraments (called the “Holy Mysteries” in the Eastern tradition), were celebrated clandestinely in homes and forests.
Finally, things began to change for the better in the mid-1980s, when the underground Church began courageously celebrating public liturgies in the open air in Zarvanytsia.
Emboldened by the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, a staggering 10,000 Catholic faithful gallantly defied the Communist authorities by gathering in 1988 at the shrine to commemorate the “Millennium of Christianity.”
Finally, in 1989, for the first time in many decades, Catholics were allowed to enter the Holy Trinity church and celebrate Divine Liturgy. That date will forever be remembered in the annals of Ukrainian history: November 23.
In 1991, the same year Ukraine gained independence from Russia, the church was repaired and the small chapel at the spring was rebuilt. Further, the monastery was restored.
A new Cathedral of the Mother of God was built, the largest in the region and visible far outside the village, well inscribed in the local landscape and recognized by its golden domes, which represent Christ and the four Evangelists.
The site includes an outdoor altar, a bell tower, multiple chapels, another church dedicated to the Annunciation, and of course the outdoor wading pool, which fills with water from the spring for pilgrims to swim in.
J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.
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