FEATURE image: Exterior of Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Church with its gold domes. The tradition-minded parish, founded in early 1970s, serves a busy urban community.
The huge mosaic over the main entrance memorializes the conversion of the Ukrainians to Christianity in 988 by St. Volodymyr of Kyiv or Vladimir of Kiev (957-1015). The mosaic was executed by Hordynsky, Makarenko, and Baransky. The church is built in the modern Byzantine style.
In addition to the colorful and bright mosaic, the upward angle and its perspective adds to the feeling of entering into a sacred space. Along with the archways and curve of the main golden dome, the eye focuses on the artwork’s bright figures.
Who are Sts. Volodymyr and Olha? Their little-known story – which is important to the Ukrainian people and pivotal to European history – is told in some detail immediately follows these photographs.
A beautiful outdoor garden with the residential streets of Ukrainian Village as its background is the setting for the larger-than-life-sized statue of Major Archbishop Josyf Slipyj (1892-1984). He was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1965 and is a “Confessor of the Faith.” The Founder of the parish, Slipyj blessed the new church building’s cornerstone. Supporting the Ukrainian state and refusing to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, he was continously imprisoned by the Soviet authorities from 1945 to 1963. Through the intervention of St. Pope John XXIII and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Josyf Slipj was released by Nikita Khrushchev in early 1963 and participated in the Second Vatican Council. Josyf Slipyj died in Rome in 1984 and his cause for canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church has been introduced at the Vatican.
Parishioners praying and going to Communion at Sunday Mass.
With the artists’ skills, the bright colors and evocative forms of the artwork surround churchgoers as they move toward the altar at Communion during the Divine Liturgy.
The colorful and vibrant decorations that include paintings, carvings, vestments, books, stained glass, and more, are integral to the parish’s liturgy and life.
Two women sit before icons of Sts. Volodymyr and Olha and the Blessed Virgin.
Every nook and cranny of the church is decorated with colorful images from religious and Catholic Ukrainian history. The natural light streaking down from the main dome’s windows adds a heavenly glow.
Two female haloed saints in a modern art style are marked by their unique attire as one holds an unfurled scroll with words in Ukrainian. Christianity arrived into Ukraine by way of the Greco-Byzantine world over 1000 years ago.
A painting of the dormition of Mary is emphasized by, above, an icon of Mary and the child Jesus. Colors, forms, and subject matter are very high quality and soft and peaceful making them pleasant to look at and pray with.
The wood carvings and full-length portrait icons are gorgeous. The fresh flower arrangements further brighten the scene.
Visitors are joined by worshippers lighting candles and praying before a large icon of Mary and the child Jesus.
The main altar gate of carved wood with icons and gold curtain. The Last Supper in center above.
Residents and (below) a residence’s porch flower garden in Ukrainian Village near Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Church in Chicago.
Stained glass, paintings, banners, and chandelier blend together and provide a more complete picture of people and episodes of the faith. North wall and ceiling.
High above the sanctuary is a magnificent view of the main dome painted in bright colors with the figure of Christ Pantocrator. Christ gives his blessing as he holds an open book with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and omega. It signifies one of Christ as the Son of God’s titles in the New Testament: “I am the beginning and the end” (Revelation, 21:6, 22:13).
Ukrainian Village is a neighborhood first settled by Ukrainian immigrants in the 1890’s. It is about 4 miles to the northwest from downtown Chicago.
Who are Sts. Volodymyr and Olha?
St. Volodymyr is the apostle to proto-Russian and Russian Christianity. He was the great prince of Ukraine in Kiev. It was ruled by the Varangians, a barbarous Viking tribe from Scandinavia – and Volodymyr (or Vladimir) of Kiev was as barbarous as any of them.
In 988, when Volodymyr was about 31 years old, he was converted to Christianity. The missionaries came from the Byzantine world at Constantinople. The results were immediate: Ukraine was now in close contact with the Byzantine world to the south and its Christian church under the pope.
Volodymyr married the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, Basil II (957-1025). But it was Volodymyr’s personal embrace of the Christian faith that infused the Ukrainian people with their deep and abiding faith. Having received baptism, he set out to be a Christian and not corrupted by money and power that proved a serious temptation for many church and state leaders in the Dark Ages.
Volodymyr used his temporal powers to evangelize the people – his personal example his greatest asset to its success. Though he encouraged various activities and programs in the lives of the people – including the multi-faceted work of Greek missionaries – it was his sincere, transparent, and fundamental reform of his own life that by far had the greatest impact on the Ukrainian people. More than one thousand years after his rule, Volodymyr is still recalled as a generous, humble and devout soul.
As a Christian ruler Volodymyr had doubts about inflicting the death penalty. Though assured by his Byzantine church counselors that his Catholic faith allowed him to follow the law which allowed for it, Volodymyr corrected them and said that that sort of reasoning was not satisfactory to his faith.
Volodymyr, the great prince of Kiev, died a poor man – not only various from his origin but, again, that of many of the ecclesiastics now in the realm. Before his death, Volodymyr dispersed all his money and personal belongings to the poor and to his family and friends. St. Volodymyr’s feast day is July 15. He is patron of Ukrainian and Russian Catholics.
Saint Olha was the wife of the Kyivan Great Prince Igor. Igor signed a peace treaty with the Greeks in 944. The treaty of 944 was drawn up at Constantinople and allowed for Christianity in Ukraine. This toleration already indicates some sympathy for Christianity among the powerful in Kiev. Igor himself, however, in his official position did not embrace Christianity nor officially allow the presence of a structure of Church hierarchy. The treaty was drawn up to quietly allow co-existence of Christians in a pagan Viking culture.
Yet when the Byzantine emissaries arrived in Kyiv, pagan opposition had emerged from the Varangians. The Christians were thrown into abeyance and Igor was murdered in 945. Into this volatile situation the burden of government fell upon Igor’s widow — the Kyiv Great-Princess Olha, and her three-year-old son Svyatoslav (945-972). Her first act was to avenge Igor’s murder.
Olha belonged to one of the obscure ancient-Rus’ princely dynasties, whose Slavic line had intermarried with assimilating Varangian newcomers. Olha’s Varangian names includes Helga and Olga.
Though still a pagan, Olha’s revenge on the Varangians on behalf of her late husband was a victory for the realm’s Christians. Further, having weakened the influence of petty local princes in Rus’, Olha centralized the whole of state rule. She became a great builder of the civil life and culture of Kyivan Rus. Her centralization became an important network of the ethnic and cultural unification of the nation which, when Olha became a Christian, aided in the building of a network of churches. Her essential activities proved key in developing what is the modern Ukrainian national identity. At the same time, important trade with Poles, Swedes, Germans, and so forth, led to significantly expanding foreign connections. One noteworthy development was that wooden buildings were replaced with stone edifices.
Rus’ had become a great power. Only two European realms could compare with it in the tenth century – the Byzantine empire in the east, and the kingdom of Saxony in the west. Both these empires were Christianized and pointed the way to future greatness for Rus’. In 954 Great-princess Olha sailed to Constantinople. Though a display of Rus’ military might on the Black Sea, it was a spiritual mission. Olha’s might and the Byzantines’ wealth and beauty were mutually impressive.
Constantinople was the city of the Mother of God as dedicated by Constantine the Great in 330. Olha made the decision to become a Christian. She was baptized by Patriarch Theophylactus (917-956) with her godfather being the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (905-959). She took the Christian name Helen for Constantine’s mother. Following the rite, the Patriarch said: “Blessed are you among the women of Rus’, for you have forsaken the darkness and have loved the Light. The Rus’ people shall bless you in all the future generations, from your grandson and great-grandson to your furthermost descendants.” Olha replied: “By your prayers, O Master, let me be preserved from the wiles of enemies”. It is precisely in this way, with a slightly bowed head, that Saint Olha is often depicted in religious artwork. During her state visit, and following her baptism, Great princess Olha of Rus’ was fêted throughout Constantinople
Saint Olha devoted herself to efforts of Christian evangelization among the pagans, and also church construction, including Saint Sophia Cathedral. Yet, many despised her new found Christianity and paganism became emboldened. They looked to the reign of Svyatoslav who angrily spurned his mother’s Christianity. Meanwhile Byzantine church and state leaders were not eager to promote Christianity in Rus’. In Olha’s lifetime, Kyiv favored paganism and had second thoughts about even accepting Christianity. By order of Svyatoslav, churches were destroyed and Christians murdered. Byzantine political interests found the church and state looking to undermine Olha’s influence and favored the Rus’ pagans.
Olha attempted to help Svyatoslav during a period of wartime, though Kyiv was a backwater to his imperial interests for the next 18 years. In the spring of 969 the Pechenegs besieged Kyiv and Olha headed the defense of the capital. Svyatoslav rode quickly to Kyiv, and routed the nomads. But the warrior prince wished to rule elsewhere than Kiev. Svyatoslav dreamed of uniting all Rus’, Bulgaria, Serbia, the near Black Sea region and Priazovia (Azov region), and extend his borders to Constantinople. Olha warned her son that his plans were bound to fail as the Byzantine Empire was united and strong.
On July 11, 969 Saint Olha died. In her final years, with the triumph of paganism, she had to secretly practice her faith. Before her death, she forbade the pagan celebration of the dead at her burial and was openly buried in accord with Orthodox ritual. A priest who accompanied her to Constantinople in 957 fulfilled her request.
Considered by Ukrainians the holy equal of Great Prince Volodymyr, St. Olha was invoked by St. Volodymyr on the day the people of Rus’ were baptized. Before his countrymen, St. Volodymr said of St. Olha: “The sons of Rus’ bless you, and also the generations of your descendants.”
Houses of Worship: An Identification Guide to the History and Styles of American Religious Architecture, Jeffrey Howe, Thunder Bay Press, San Diego, California, 2003.
AIA Guide to Chicago, 2nd Edition, Alice Sinkevitch, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, 2004, p. 260.
The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary, edited by John Coulson, Guild Press, New York, 1957, pp. 577; 760-761.
Chicago: City of Neighborhoods, Dominic A. Pacyga and Ellen Skerrett, Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1986, p. 193.