Stories of Joy - No. 14 - Exhumation and transfer of mortal remains to Generalate in Rome

In Ukraine — Poland — Rome

Close to the Feast of the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pokrow, in 1982, an interesting group of persons congregated around a particular grave in the huge cemetery in Chervonohrad, Ukraine. There was the chairman of the Communal Enterprises, the chief of the City militia, the chief physician of the Ministry of Health, the deputy chairman of the City Council, a grave digger, and a distinguished surgeon, Dr. Jan Kuczma, from neighbouring Poland, who had in his possession a document from Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of USSR, authorizing him for the business of the day, the exhumation of its mortal remains and their transfer to Poland. The grave was the resting place for 63 years of Sister Josaphata Michaelina Hordashevska. It is true that the authorities in Lviv and Chervonohrad said they had a law which did not permit exhumation after 50 years from burial but the surgeon defied them by retorting: “Who knows the law better, you or Brezhnev? He gave me permission, knowing when she died. I’ll write him again!”

Credentials of the group were then hastily certified and the gravedigger was permitted to remove the first shovel of earth covering the grave and to proceed to the exhumation of the mortal remains of the deceased religious. The surgeon, a personal friend and distant family of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, after visiting them in Rome, felt called in his heart to obtain for them the precious mortal remains of their Cofoundress. This was no small task in a land belonging at the time to the Soviet Union. He posed as a nephew of the deceased, saying that he had promised his dying mother to transfer her sister’s remains from Ukraine to Poland and to bury them alongside her. However, he always referred to the deceased religious by the name: “M. Hordashevska.”

The soil in this particular region is sandy and dry and the digging was reasonably easy. However, the tension within the group of watchers was anything but genial. Various tactics emerged. The first one was to delay the digging until the following day. New gravediggers had to be found. At one point, a state official seemingly began to doubt whether the grave was the right one and summoned to the site a distinguished elderly resident “who knew exactly to whom the graves belonged.” Fear seized the surgeon’s heart; he silently offered a plea for a miracle: “Sister Josaphata, you take over now. I have done everything in my power. Help me to fulfill my promise to the Sisters.” After a moment, the gentleman, very probably sizing up the whole situation, gave his verdict: “I don’t know whose grave that is!” So the task of opening the grave proceeded. When the bones came into view, the surgeon very minutely noted their quality and quantity. They were intact and clean, due to the sandy soil. Two of the vertebrae were missing. As we recall, for 5 years Josaphata suffered tuberculosis of the bones in that area and they had completely deteriorated.

Everyone present stood in awe. Unbeknown to most, they were venerating the relics of a saintly woman of great stature! Then there was a short break and everone seemed more relaxed. In an aside, the surgeon remarked to the elderly gentleman: “You know these are graves of the Sisters, but you won’t tell them!” Proudly rising to the occasion, he replied: “Do you think I am a fool?”

Parts of a rosary remained around the finger bones. This evoked a lively exchange of words. “Was your aunt a religious Sister?” He replied: “I don’t know what she was; I just know she was my aunt.“ The next object of interest was the pectoral cross on her chest. It was the original cross of the Congregation, quite long, wooden with metal around the edges, and with a corpus that shone brightly in the background of clean dry soil.

What ensued was awesome! Who was to touch it? Yes, a key player, the gentleman! He politely asked for it, held it in his left hand, made the Sign of the Cross with his right, and kissed it. “What are you kissing that thing for?” spoke someone in derision. In words that will forever be remembered in the history of the exhumation of the mortal remains of a religious during the communist regime, a profession of faith was uttered: “I am not kissing the thing, I am kissing the One Who is on it.”

In preparation for this day, the state authorities had made a box-casket of galvanized metal in which to place the bones for transporting them. The exhuming was completed on October 13th. The surgeon himself lifted the bones out of the grave in a very orderly way, wrapped them in waxed paper and placed them carefully into the travel casket. Throughout the whole procedure, time was of extreme essence; at any time there could be a revoking of the permit to exhume, or a confiscation of the find. He was relieved when, in fact, an official gave him several documents officially declaring the identity of the exhumed mortal remains, and chronicling the events of the two days. Still the urgency to act quickly remained, and for this reason, soil and grave vegetation also came into the box and which eventually caused worry that the bones, having been exposed to the air, would rapidly deteriorate before they were properly treated. The point is that, at this point, no one knew when they would reach the General Home of the Sisters Servants in Rome and be taken care of. The surgeon lived in Poland and that is where they were taken by train two days later. The surgeon’s wife had stayed behind in Lviw and had not gone to the cemetery, spending the two days fingering her rosary and tensely awaiting a safe return of her husband. When Dr. Jan appeared at the door on the evening of the 13th, she cried out: “You are back!” “Yes,” replied Jan, “I have arrived, but not alone.”

Within a few days, word reached the General Superior in Rome, Sister Frances Byblow, a Canadian, that the relics were safely in Poland. The wait for a Canadian citizen for a visa to this country was approximately 2 to 3 weeks; this time, thanks to lucky circumstances, it was ready in several days. The Councillor travelling with her was a Polish citizen. Arriving in Poland, they and many others put their heads together to figure out how to fly the relics safely to the Motherhouse of the Congregation. The fear of having them confiscated had stayed with them. There was much prayer for guidance, for a second miracle. One morning, the surgeon and the Superior General discussed the situation and felt there was no reason why the relics could not be taken to Rome on the first available flight. A wave of panic swept over all, with the exception of the two protagonists who did not flinch in their resolve. Certainty in circumstances like these is purely a gift from the Spirit!

At the Warsaw airport, everything proceeded smoothly. Dr. Kuczma brought the casket to the customs area and the Superior General explained that these were the relics of a Sister who was very dear to the Community and that it was a custom to have them in their international home in Rome. The customs agent, a woman, smiled and very willingly stamped an official document of identity of the relics, received at the grave site, which Sister Frances placed before her. Bidding them a safe journey, she said to them: “Oh, did you hear the news that Leonid Brezhnev died this morning?”

A precious moment transpired on the plane. Poland was under a state of military siege and the turmoil did not bode well for a happy Christmas. Imagine, then, the joy of the flight attendant when the Superior General presented her with a huge box of chocolates “for the children.” The attendant relieved the Sister of the casket she was carrying, which the Sisters in Warsaw had covered to look like hand luggage. It would be too wide to fit between the rows of seats of this plane, so she placed it on an elevation near the cockpit, in full view of the Superior General for the entire flight. The second miracle was indeed occurring!

At the Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome, the customs agent allowed a few senior Sisters to meet the Superior General immediately as she entered the building. They bowed, held out long-stemmed red roses, and scrambled for the privilege of touching the casket, of carrying it. Outside the restricted area, a total of twenty-four Sisters greeted Josaphata and made the usual SSMI clamour for privileged space near the relics. A barrage of reporters flashed their cameras, obviously lost in their attempt of locating the star personage! After a memorable group photo of all the Sisters with Sister Josaphata in their midst, all headed for home.

Via Cassia gates opened to the scene of scores of additional SSMI’s lined in procession and bearing blue vigil lights, in readiness to escort their Mother Foundress into her new home. Inside the festive chapel, three bishops stood ready to sing the hero’s welcome, the Panachyda. Some of the words of the service sounded redundant, some were maybe less so, but when Archbishop Miroslav Marusyn, Secretary of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, intoned the ‘Vichnaja Pamjatj’, it all came together. Everyone felt the long years from Josaphata’s death in 1919 to the present 1982 were truly the beginning of a new Eternal Memory!

At the festive meal many memories were shared. One especially stands out as truly exciting! Sister Pimena Jacyshyn, who entered the Congregation four years after Josaphata’s holy death and was able to recall having seen her and heard of her as she was growing up, and who had spent 50 years in Rome, related the following: On October 13th, 1982, the vigil of the Feast of the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, just before dawn and just before she had fully awakened, she saw a train coming in to Rome and in the middle of the train car was a prominent box. Then she heard a voice, which she knew was that of Sister Josaphata, saying very joyously: “I am coming to you!” She related the dream to the Sisters at breakfast and, of course, the conversation turned to Dr. Jan and Halyna Kuczma, for they had been wondering for two years now, what, if anything, would come out of their attempts to obtain Josaphata’s relics. This was the day on which the exhumation was completed! For 24 years Sister Pimena had never gone to the airport; on the day Sister Josaphata arrived she was there — her roses had the longest stems!

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