Obituary: Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk

Volodymyr Sterniuk, priest: born Pustomyty, Austro-Hungarian Empire 12 February 1907; ordained priest 1931; consecrated 1964 Bishop of Peremysl; Archbishop of Lviv locum tenens 1969-91; died Lviv, Ukraine 29 September 1997.

Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk of Lviv was for 22 years the head of the banned Ukrainian Catholic Church in its home territory of western Ukraine. During the church's persecution his life consisted of, as he later described it, "surveillance, house searches and interrogations on the part of the state and, on my side, attempts to evade surveillance so as at least to be able to carry out ordinations".

Sterniuk was born in 1907 in the village of Pustomyty near Lviv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. War soon engulfed the area and Russian troops of the Tsarist army invaded. Then fighting broke out between Ukrainians and Poles and he was taken with his family to safety in Lviv. Sterniuk decided to follow his father into the priesthood. He was sent by the Redemptorist Order to Belgium to complete his schooling, in 1927 joining their novitiate in St Trond. He studied theology in Louvain and was ordained priest in Belgium in 1931.

Sterniuk returned to western Ukraine and was sent to Volhynia to do missionary work. These were difficult years for Eastern-rite Catholics under Polish rule. The government and Roman Catholic Church were keen to assimilate them into the Polish community and church. The missionary work ran into problems when it was put under Polish church control.

In 1939 the Red Army invaded Ivano-Frankivsk, where Sterniuk was living. But before the Soviets could establish themselves the Nazis arrived. They immediately started rounding up and murdering the local Jewish population. Many Jews came to ask Sterniuk for a certificate of baptism, which he gave with no questions. The SS, suspicious about the number he had issued, twice came to arrest him. He had to flee the area, taking refuge in Lviv, where the great prestige of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, the powerful inter-war leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, somewhat restrained the Germans' attacks.

But the Soviets soon returned, and Stalin moved to extinguish the Ukrainian Catholic Church. A forced "synod" in Lviv in 1946, held after the arrest of many leading figures in the church, voted to "re-unite" with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sterniuk, who opposed the forced merger, was arrested in June 1947 for illegally carrying on with his priestly work. He was sentenced to five years in labour camp, which he served in the Arkhangelsk region.

On release Sterniuk returned to Lviv. He worked at various jobs before qualifying as a medical assistant in 1959. In July 1964 he was secretly consecrated as bishop of Peremysl (a diocese which crossed the new Polish/Ukrainian border) by Archbishop Vasyl Velychkovsky. This was the time when secret consecrations, without the prior knowledge or approval of the Vatican, were required to continue the apostolic succession of the church.

Sterniuk was to be Velychkovsky's successor in case of his arrest - which indeed happened in January 1969. Although he had been consecrated bishop of Peremysl, Velychkovsky told him he had jurisdiction over the whole of the Galician Metropolia, based on Lviv. His position as leading Galician bishop was confirmed when Sterniuk heard in February 1972 by a roundabout route that the Vatican had confirmed him as locum tenens of the Archdiocese of Lviv.

By this time Sterniuk was retired, so he had time to devote to his secret episcopal duties. Although the Soviet authorities knew well he was a bishop, Sterniuk appeared in public only as a priest. It was in private at priestly ordinations and the consecration of bishops - often only in the company of the required two witnesses - that he wore episcopal garments.

Sterniuk believed his main duty during those years was to protect the church's structure and to lead the clergy. He took a back seat to the more activist clergy who ministered directly to the faithful and who led the increasingly vocal campaigns for the church's relegalisation.

It was only with the arrival of glasnost in the late 1980s that realistic hopes were raised that the Soviet authorities would at last admit that the 1946 "synod" was bogus and the church could be relegalised. As the Russian Orthodox Church gathered its forces to resist this move, Archbishop Sterniuk's status as leading hierarch in Ukraine came to be publicly admitted. This was confirmed in September 1987, when the Ukrainian Catholic synod in Rome (made up only of bishops from the emigration) declared that there were 10 bishops in Ukraine, headed by Archbishop Sterniuk. Many visitors from inside Ukraine and abroad were already making the trek to the dingy one-room flat in Lviv where he had lived since 1957.

The momentum for relegalisation was kept up in 1988 and 1989, with hunger strikes in Moscow and demonstrations. On 15 August 1989 all the church's 10 bishops crowded into Sterniuk's flat for their first ever meeting, many not even knowing the identity of all the other bishops. Events moved fast and, to coincide with the historic first meeting of Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Vatican on 1 December 1989, it was announced that the ban on the church had been lifted.

The Novosti news agency interviewed Sterniuk on what he described as "this joyful day". It was on 7 January 1990 (Christmas Day in the Eastern Church) that Archbishop Sterniuk first appeared in public as a bishop, when he celebrated a triumphal Christmas liturgy in Lviv.

On 16 January 1991 the Vatican confirmed all the 10 secret bishops in office - but Sterniuk was pointedly described as "Archbishop", not "Metropolitan" as he had customarily been described in Ukraine. The division between the Church in the West, headed directly by Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky from Rome, and the Church on its home territory of western Ukraine was one that needed delicate handling.

Sterniuk's moral authority in western Ukraine was great, and Cardinal Lubachivsky, especially on his return to Lviv on 30 March 1991 after more than 50 years' exile from Ukraine, had to tread carefully to assert his leadership. Sterniuk had already been rebuked by the church for accepting into communion with Rome Bishop Vikenty of the True Orthodox Church, a breakaway group from the Russian Orthodox Church which had existed in the catacombs.

Surviving long enough to see the church's relegalisation, it was hard for Sterniuk to accept that he was then only second in command to Cardinal Lubachivsky, who had not shared the sufferings of the church directly. Already 82 at the time of relegalisation, Sterniuk could leave the many problems of the church - the shortage of priests and facilities, disputes with the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches - to the younger generation, which by now was coming to the fore.

Coming from the older generation, who had studied in Western Europe between the wars, Sterniuk had a wider view of the world than those who had grown up under Soviet rule. He once apologised to a Western visitor that so few of the younger clergy could converse in Latin. His hospitality, keen intellect and sense of humour endeared him to visitors, but it was his steadfast dedication to his office and his sufferings that gave him a place of honour in western Ukraine.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor