Freed to Serve: The Witness of Bl. Nicholas Charnetsky

By Mary Maleski

The following essay was selected as the second-place winner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2014 religious liberty essay contest on the theme “Witnesses to Freedom.” The essay contest was co-sponsored by the OSV Institute for Catholic Innovation. For her essay, Mary Maleski was awarded a $1,000 scholarship.

Amid violent persecution, the witness of martyrs who patiently endure sufferings for the sake of Christ outsize the evil agendas of their oppressors. The martyrs have an undying faith in things greater than this world, and they show that even if earthly powers try to take away religious freedoms, ultimately, they have no power to erase the truth. The state cannot totally enslave anyone who is dedicated to serving God. Blessed Nicholas Charnetsky suffered under the atheistic Communist regime in Ukraine during the 1930s and 40s. Though imprisoned and tortured, he remained steadfast in his commitments to God and to his fellow man. He was physically restrained, but his faithfulness to God showed that he would never allow the Soviets or anyone else to exterminate his religious freedom.

Blessed Nicholas Charnetsky was born in Western Ukraine in 1884. His family was devout, and he bore the responsibilities of being the eldest of nine children. He was ordained a priest in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1909, after completing studies in Rome. Perhaps due to his time in the Papal City, he became a great champion for unity between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. After his ordination, he worked as a professor of theology in the Stanislaviv seminary, and by 1919, he chose to enter the Redemptorist Order in Zboisk. The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorists, is a society of priests founded by St. Alphonsus Ligouri in the 18th century to work as missionaries among the poor. The order’s members may be active, too, in parishes. As pastors, they support parochial schools and enroll the parishioners in the Archconfraternity of the Holy Family, which encourages workers and their families through community and holy readings “to elevate and sanctify the family, and thereby to elevate and sanctify society” (Historical Note, Arch-Confraternity Manual). In the Volyn region of Western Ukraine, the Redemptorists had set up a new mission dedicated to restoring peace between the Eastern Catholics and Orthodox. Fr. Nicholas quickly gained the respect of the Orthodox due to his engaging demeanor and his knowledge of their liturgy. Pope Pius the XII, recognizing Charnetsky’s great efforts for reconciliation, named him bishop of Lebed and Apostolic Visitor to Ukrainian Catholics in the Volyn region as well as those in Podlasky, and he was thus ordained in 1931. Unfortunately, the good work of the Redemptorists was threatened by the invasion of the Soviets in 1939, so they moved to Lviv, where Charnetsky continued to promote religious education by teaching at the Lviv Theological Academy.

The campaigns of the Communists and the Nazis, who both invaded Western Ukraine after 1939, were filled with anti-religious propaganda and persecutions. While Bishop Charnestsky was teaching in Lviv, they ravaged Ukrainian lands and killed and imprisoned millions. The clergy were foremost on their proscription lists, since it was they who buoyed the faith of the people and whose presence gave the laity assurance of the care of the Church, as opposed to the government. The Soviets only valued religion as a tool for political power, so while the state sanctioned the Russian Orthodox Church, it brutally suppressed all other Christian rites. For these reasons, all Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops were rounded up by the Soviet Secret Police in 1945. After several middle-of-the-night interrogations and beatings during the year that he awaited his court date, Bishop Charnetsky was charged with being a “Vatican agent”, and given ten years of exile in Siberia. Despite the obvious injustice done to him, Charnetsky accepted the sentence as God’s will.

The next 11 years were filled with unimaginable hardships. Bishop Charnetsky was forced to do hard labor, endure the cold of Siberian winters, beatings, and a cumulative 600 hours of interrogations and torture. Another difficulty for him was that he spent little time in one prison, but rather was moved between 30 different camps, leading to adjustments each time to new set of prisoners, guards, and terrains. Throughout it all, however, the bishop maintained his dignity and radiated a peace which inspired his fellow prisoners. Charnetsky learned all of their names, and he became a source of great comfort for many of the other exiles. Though in great pain himself, Charnetsky rose above his circumstances. In instances where his guards expected complaints and anger, he controlled his expressions in order to show that he had free will. Because of his virtue, he was more free than his captors, who were weighed down by vice while he could and did choose to look beyond himself, praise God, and attend to the needs of others. The holy bishop at last succumbed physically to the wounds from 11 years of cruelties. He spent the last few years of his exile in the prison hospital, and was released by the Soviets, who expected his quick death and did not want his death on their records. Amazingly, however, Charnetsky lived another three years. During that time, he ordained 10 priests, ministered to the persecuted Ukrainian Greek Catholics, and prepared candidates for the priesthood.

As a Redemptorist who by rule devoted his life to "striv[ing] to imitate the virtues and examples of Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer” (Ligouri, The Catholic Encyclopedia), he accepted his particularly painful crosses over his years in exile and torture. He and his Redemptorist brothers—the crucified Fr. Zenovii Kovalyk and Fr. Ivan Ziatyk, who was beaten, drenched with water, and left in the cold to freeze—did credit to their order and to the life-giving message of the Gospel. Bishop Charnetsky worked tirelessly serving his people, whose religion was threatened and suppressed. He served the will of the Pope by reconciling the Catholics and Orthodox. His service did not stop in the desolate prisons of Siberia either, for there he continued to encourage and comfort the prisoners around him and lead them to see that true freedom consists not in doing as they would wish, but in doing the will of God, no matter the circumstances. Bishop Charnetsky’s religious liberty was threatened temporally, but he refused to cower spiritually. He died in 1959 as a martyr at the hands of his abusers from the effects of their rough treatment. The holy bishop joined the ranks of all the martyrs who witness to the truth of faith in Christ, using their freedom to choose to pay the ultimate price and serve God before all else.

Works Cited

Beutner, Dawn, et al. “Martyr of Communisms: Blessed Nicholas Charnetsky.” Catholic World Report, 2 Apr. 2022,

“Blessed Mykolay Charnetsky.” Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church, Accessed 29 Mar. 2024.

Catholic Online. “Bl. Nicholas Charnetsky - Saints & Angels.” Catholic Online, Accessed 29 Mar. 2024.

Redemptorist Fathers. “Historical Note.” Arch-confraternity of the Holy Family Manual. Quebec, 1875.

“Redemptorist Martyrs of Ukraine.” The Redemptorists -- Baltimore Province, Accessed 28 Mar. 2024.

Wuest, Joseph. "Redemptorists." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.

Mary Maleski writes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.