The Servants of God Wincenty Lewoniuk and 12 Companions were Catholics of the Greek Church united with the Roman Church in Brest in the year 1596. It was the Union of the Greek Orthodox Church in the territory of the Polish Kingdom with the Head of the Roman Catholic Church – the Pope. The members of this united Church are called in Polish “unici” it means: united Christians. To this Church belonged Wincenty Lewoniuk and his 12 Companions. They were countrymen.
In the time in which Poland was divided in three parts: Prussia’s Austria’s and Russia’s the United Christians were persecuted, especially in the Russian part. During the persecutions they manifested the strength in the faith. The persecutions were carefully organised by Russian authorities; very often they were acute and sanguinary. The Russian emperors wanted to destroy the United Church and they were doing so progressively. In 1794 the tsarina Catharina II liquidated the United Church in Ukraine. In 1839 the tsar Nicolas I liquidated in Byelorussia and in Lithuania according to the rule “cuius regio eius religio”. The Russian authorities were afraid that the Catholic United Church would be an obstacle in the russification process and in the domination over the people.
In the second part of the XIX century in the territory, which was occupied by Russia, the United Church existed only in the diocese of Chelm in the old Polish Kingdom. The tsar administration planned the liquidation of this Church too. The tsar Alexander II signed a document on this subject. In January 1874 the Byzantine rite should be introduced in the united churches. The acceptance of such a rite by the believers should be understood as a consent to join the Orthodox Church. A little earlier the bishop and the priests who did not want to join the Orthodox Church had been deported to Siberia or put into prison. So the believers, remaining alone, without their pastors, had to defend their church, their Liturgy and they had to defend the Unity with the Pope. For such a defence they had to pay a very high price: sometimes they had to die, very often they lost their property.
United Christians from Podlasie
On 24 January 1874 an extraordinary event took place in Pratulin. The soldiers came to the village to transfer the local church to the Orthodox Church. The believers said “good bye” to their families and friends and took new clothes for, as they said, they were going to fight for the holy things.
In the beginning the officer tried to make the people go away, but they did not agree. Then he promised some “graces of the tsar” for joining the Orthodox Church, but they did not agree either; then he started to threaten the people with many kinds of punishments, but they remained on their position around the church. The officer understood that in this way he would be not able to do anything, so he ordered his men to prepare the guns. The people knelt down waiting for the death and started to sing the religious hymns. They did not say any wrong words to the soldiers; among themselves they were saying: “it is sweet to die for the faith”. The order was given and the soldiers fired.
In this way on 24 January 1874 in Pratulin 13 persons gave their lives for the Unity of the Church. They were:
Wincenty Lewoniuk from the village Woroblin, 25 years old, married; he was very pious. The opinion was that he a very good person; he was killed first, just in the beginning. Daniel Karmasz from the village Legi, 48 years old, married; during the fight he had the cross in his hand. This cross is still in the church in Pratulin. Lukasz Bojko from the village Legi, 22 years old, not married; it was said that he was very pious, he was respected by the people; during the fight he rang the church bell.Konstanty Bojko from the village Zaczopki, 49 years old, married; he was a farmer, he was regarded as a righteous man. Konstanty Lukaszuk from the village Zaczopki, 45 years old, married; he was respected by people, he was wounded during the fight and died next day. He left his wife and seven children. Bartłomiej Osypiuk from the village Bohukały, 30 years old, married, with two children; he was wounded, they transported him home, but he died. He was very pious and honest; before death he prayed for the persecutors. Anicet Hryciuk from the village Zaczopki, 19 years old, not married; he was very close to the Church. Going to the defense of the parish church he said: “perhaps I will be worthy to be killed for the faith?” Filip Geryluk from the village Zaczopki, 44 years old, married; the opinion was that he was a good father of his family. He encouraged the others to stay by the church; he was killed. Ignacy Franczuk from the village Derlo, 50 years old, married. He was father of seven children; the name of his wife was Helena. He educated his children in the spirit of the faith, going to the defense of the church he said “good by” to his family; he was prepared not to come back home. After the death of Daniel he took the cross and encouraged the people to defend the parish church. Jan Andrzejuk from the village Derlo, 26 years old, married; the name of his wife was Marina. They had two children; he was a chanter in the parish church. He was wounded, then transported home, but he quickly died. Maksym Hawryluk from the village Derlo, 34 years old, married; the name of his wife was Dominika. He was wounded and died the next day. Onufry Wasyluk from the village Zaczopki, 21 years old, married; he was known as very good Catholic. Michal Wawryszuk from the village Derlo, 21 years old, not married; he worked on the farm of Mr. Pawel Pikula. He was wounded and died the next day.
So Wincenty Lewoniuk and his 12 Companions were men ranging in age from 19 to 50 years. They were ordinary people; we do not have much information about their lives. We possess some relation about them from their contemporaries. The general opinion was: they were persons of a deep and strong faith.
The defense of the parish church is not to be regarded as an accidental event, as effect of an enthusiasm which lasts for a short time; there was no intention to become a hero at any price. The courageous defense of the church was the fruit of mature and deep faith. Those people understood very well the sense of giving their lives for Jesus Christ: to give one’s life away, is to have it in fullness. The Martyrs of Pratulin were buried by the Russian soldiers without any respect; their families were not allowed to take part in the burial. Their bodies were put into earth and the persecutors wanted the martyrs to be forgotten. But the people living in Pratulin did not forget about their martyrs; they kept in memory the place in which they were buried, even if there was no tomb. After the liberation of Poland at 1918 the remains of their bodies were taken to the parish church.
Such a martyrdom was not a sporadic event in Podlasie, the eastern part of Poland. Especially since January 1874 quite every parish of the United Church had its martyr story. The tsar officially liquidated the diocese of Chelm in 1875. The Catholics united with the Roman Church, by the force were taken into the Orthodox Church. The United Christians did not accept this, they kept their fidelity they to the Roman Catholic Church and this fidelity they paid a very high price: some of them were sent to Siberia, some of them were taken to prison, some of them were punished in many ways.
When the United Christians had no pastors, the Roman Catholic priests from Podlasie, Galicja and from the region of Poznan did pastoral service among them secretly. The strong faith of the United Christians and the pastoral help of the Catholic priests enabled the Unity with the Roman Church and the Pope to survive until the end of the persecutions. In April 1905 the tsar Nicolas II published a decree of the religious liberty. As consequence of this decree the majority of the United Christians from Podlasie and the region of Lublin came officially to the Roman Catholic Church organization.
In many parishes there were victims of the persecutions of the United Christians, but the most historical documents concern the Martyrs from Pratulin. Because of that, the Bishop of Siedlce, Henryk Przezdziecki has chosen them to be beatified as the representatives of all people who in Podlasie gave their lives for the faith and for the Unity with the Catholic Church.
The persons who were killed in Pratulin and in other parishes of Podlasie were regarded from the beginning as martyrs for the faith by their families and friends, by the parishes, by the local Church of Podlasie, and finally by the whole Catholic Church.
The Popes: Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius XII honoured the Martyrs of Podlasie. The Martyrs have contributed a lot to the survival of the faith and to the national identity of the Polish people of this part of the country. For this reason Pope John Paul II has said that the Martyrs of Podlasie are a very important chapter of the history of Poland and that he keeps them in his heart.
For the Church of our time the Martyrs of Poland are a sign and example of mature faith; they can teach us how to put the Kingdom of God in the first place in our lives, how to love the Church and the Pope who was always as a father and defender from them. The United Christians, even if they lived in the past, show to contemporary Catholics the meaning of the Apostleship of laypersons in the Church, they could be an example of responsibility for the God’s Law. The fact that during several periods in the eastern part of the old polish Kingdom the Christian of three confessions lived side by side: the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox and the United Christians, and that they respected each other, could be regarded as an anticipation of the ecumenism of the second part of the XX century.
Author: Archimandrite Roman Pietka MIC, www.cyrylimetody.marianie.pl