February 9, 2018

U.S.-based foundation strives to preserve Ukraine’s spiritual past

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Khristina Lew

The Foundation to Preserve Ukraine’s Sacral Arts restored the “gonty” (wooden shingles) on a 17th century church in Staryi Yar, Lviv Oblast.

WASHINGTON – As Kyiv Press Bureau correspondent of The Ukrainian Weekly, Khristina Lew was in the newspaper’s office in 1995 when she received a call from her parents in Virginia. “They asked me to go to Lviv to meet with a woman about the Nahirnys,” recalls Ms. Lew.

Ms. Lew was not familiar with the names Vasyl Nahirny and Evhen Nahirny, an accomplished team of father and son architects who designed hundreds of churches and buildings in what is now western Ukraine, Poland and Romania during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She also was unaware that she was a direct descendant.

Born in 1847 and orphaned early in life, Vasyl Nahirny was a talented young man who received a scholarship to study at the Zurich Institute of Technology, where he later taught. The years of exposure to the art and architectural traditions of the West, as well as experience with the strong community cooperative movement in Switzerland, served him well when he returned to Ukraine. He arrived in Kyiv in the late 1870s  and soon joined the circle of the city’s Ukrainian intelligentsia, becoming friends with the brother and sister pair Mykhailo Drahomanov and Olha Kosach (Olena Pchilka).

Returning to western Ukraine in 1882, he remained in Lviv, where he established a thriving business as an architect. Later he became one of the leading figures in western Ukraine’s still nascent cooperative movement, establishing financial services, agricultural exchanges and markets to benefit Ukrainian peasants and laborers.

Before his death in 1921, Vasyl Nahirny had designed more than 200 churches in traditional Ukrainian styles utilizing timber and stone. In 1906, his son Evhen joined the firm, adding more than 100 church designs of his own. Evhen continued the business after his father’s death, bringing the firm’s church and building designs into the 20th century. Many of the Ukrainian churches in western Ukraine and buildings in Lviv that still stand were designed in the style of Art Deco by Evhen Nahirny.

A fateful meeting

Ms. Lew knew none of this when she arrived in Lviv in autumn of 1995. “I remember that it was a beautiful day. My father had asked me to contact Natalia Filevych, and Natalia invited me to meet at her place of work, the Lviv National Art Gallery. Once there, I was taken into a small room, not expecting anything, completely unaware, and suddenly, spread across the table before me, are photographs of my father as a child, letters between my grandfather, Wasyl Lew, and my grandmother, Sophia Nahirna – as I learned that day, Evhen’s sister.”

Natalia Filevich

On October 15, 2017, the 65th anniversary of the resettlement of the village of Smilnytsia, Lviv Oblast, a moleben was held on the grounds of the former church and cemetery.

Seeing what was on the table, Ms. Lew was stunned silent. Then the questions tumbled: What is this? Where did this come from? Where was it found? Ms. Filevych explained the chain of coincidences that finally led to their meeting in Lviv.

Evhen Nahirny worked in Lviv until his death in 1951. When his wife died years later, in the 1980s, state authorities came to clean out the Nahirny apartment, throwing its contents into a dumpster outside the building.

The gallery’s director, Borys Voznytsky, was walking past the building where the Nahirnys had lived and saw the dumpster. On a hunch, he asked and learned about the death of Evhen’s wife. He correctly suspected that the local Soviet authorities wanted to remove any trace of the Nahirny family,

Voznytsky (who died in 2012) went on a salvage mission. He arranged for the entire dumpster to be brought to the gallery. Everything was removed, and he charged archivist Ms. Filevych with the job of sorting, identifying and cataloguing the contents, which included scholarly manuscripts written by Wasyl Lew and original architectural drawings drafted by Evhen Nahirny. During the process, Ms. Filevych learned that Sophia Nahirna had wed Wasyl Lew.

Several years after Ukraine’s independence, when people could communicate freely with relatives in the West, Ms. Filevych heard from a family member in Maryland, Marta Legeckis. Not expecting a positive answer, Ms. Filevych nonetheless asked, “By any chance, do you know of a family named Lew living in America?”

Surprised, Ms. Legeckis replied that she did, that the two families were close friends.

“It’s still an almost unbelievable coincidence,” said Ms. Lew. “We grew up with the Legeckis’ and through them, our family was brought full circle back to Ukraine.”

During this first meeting with Ms. Filevych, Ms. Lew learned a great deal about her family’s legacy, including that she and her three sisters were the great granddaughters of the architect Vasyl Nahirny.

Foundation is established

After Ms. Lew’s first meeting in Lviv, events moved quickly. In 1997, she traveled to Lviv with her father, who had left as a child in 1944. He helped identify some of the items in the Nahirny archive. A book followed in 2001, “Nahirni, Levy – Istoriia Rodyny.” However, Ms. Lew and Ms. Filevych felt that the Nahirny architectural drawings also needed to be made public.

In New York City, the Shevchenko Scientific Society provided seed money for the first book about Vasyl Nahirny’s work. Ms. Lew remembers how, she traveled with Ms. Filevych to small cities and towns, and throughout Ukraine’s countryside, hoping to find some of the churches still standing.

“During my first trip, I photographed the 27 churches that we found,” she said, “and took photos of another 15 churches during my second. Many churches were in good condition, most were not. When we could, we would climb under the eaves of these churches where we would find old documents, some related to their original construction.”

The first book about Vasyl Nahirny’s designs was published in 2013, to be followed in 2015 by a similar book about the work of Evhen Nahirny. These publications, noted Ms. Lew, were the impetus for her to establish a new organization in 2014 – the not-for-profit Foundation to Preserve Ukraine’s Sacral Arts (FTPUSA).

“While traveling in search of the Nahirny churches, we saw so many other old, beautiful churches and were dismayed at the state of their disrepair. Before the arrival of the Soviets in 1939, churches were an integral part of community life, the center, really. They are a vital part of Ukraine’s history,” Ms. Lew explained.

She knew she could not save all the churches, but resolved that the foundation would pursue specific restoration projects, as well as participate in preservation education to teach workers the craft of restoration with traditional methods and materials. Not only a church building, but icons, frescos and iconostases could also be the goal of a restoration and preservation project.

Noting the importance of preservation education, Ms. Lew spoke about FTPUSA’s plan to develop seminars in oblasts such as Ivano-Frankivsk to teach young priests about the importance of restoring churches, not simply tearing them down or repairing them with non-traditional, even destructive materials, such as plastic. “These young priests, generations removed from the time these churches were built, want to know about their history,” she said.

Joining Ms. Lew on the FTPUSA board of directors is architect Larysa Kurylas, well-known as the designer of the Holodomor Memorial in Washington and an expert in church architecture, and Martha Holder, an international development specialist. The foundation also has become partners with The Nahirny Fund in Ukraine, chaired by Ms. Filevych.

The first project undertaken by FTPUSA restored the “gonty,” or wooden shingles, of a church in Staryi Yar, Lviv Oblast, built in the 17th century. The project, which began in September 2016, was completed by summer 2017.

“A local tradesmen’s brigade was organized; they came in from Ivano-Frankivsk. They located, cut and brought to the site the shingles made, by tradition, from boards of the ‘smereka’ (spruce),” Ms. Lew related. “Not many people still know how to cut, shape and place gonty, and from this project, new cadres were trained to do this work.”

A second project was completed in October 2017 with the Ukrainian Catholic University and Ukraine’s Border Guards, at the suggestion of the university’s rector, the Rev. Bohdan Prakh.

“In 1951, the Soviet Union and Poland redrew their borders,” noted Ms. Lew, “and the Ukrainian village of Smilnytsia was resettled, the church and cemetery abandoned. On one of his recent trips to Poland, the Rev. Prakh was approached by a Ukrainian border guard who had discovered the remains of the old cemetery.”

With funding from FTPUSA, overgrowth was cleared, crosses and tombstones, some dating back to the early 19th century, were straightened, cleaned and repaired, elements were excavated for research. A commemorative roadside marker was placed to explain the history of the abandoned village in Lviv Oblast near the border with Poland.

On October 15, 2017, descendants were brought to the site for a prayer service led by the Rev. Prakh. “It was a deeply moving event, an honorable one,” said Ms. Lew, “And I am humbled that we could play a small role.”

In Ukraine, a government-funded preservation and restoration program includes site identification and evaluation, training and materials. However, some matching funds must be provided by the local community. Ms. Lew noted that many small communities cannot afford to qualify for a site evaluation, much less a state-designated restoration project.

With the experience of two projects in three years, using funds from donations and two fund-raisers – one in New Jersey and one in Washington, D.C. – the foundation has plans to expand, albeit one step at a time. After all, noted Ms. Lew, FTPUSA is an all-volunteer organization.

“We’re currently reviewing proposals for a third project,” she said. “We received wonderful response to both our projects, and much gratitude. I think we’ve found our niche – smaller and unique efforts that larger restorations often overlook.”


For more information about FTPUSA, or to make a donation, readers may visit the foundation’s website, http://ftpusa.org/donate.html; e-mail info@ftpusa.org; or like the Foundation to Preserve Ukraine’s Sacral Arts on Facebook.

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