UKRAINE: Roman Catholic church seized by communists to be restored as a place of worship
By John Newton
Saint Joseph's church in Dnipropetrovsk, which has been the subject of a protracted ownership dispute
A Church in Ukraine seized by communist authorities and used as a boxing club will at last be fully restored as a place of worship following an ownership dispute dating back more than 20 years.
Saint Joseph's church in Dnipropetrovsk, in the south of the country, is now in Catholic hands. In one of the last stages of its restoration, a neo-classical façade added in 1949 to hide the fact that it was built as a place of worship is set to be removed later this month.
During the long dispute over the church's ownership, security guards physically attacked believers – including elderly women – who were peacefully demonstrating for its return.
Members of the Franciscan Capuchin Order, who have pastoral care of the parish, visited the international headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need in Königstein, Germany, to talk about the ongoing restoration of the church.
Repairs were desperately needed after the roof was dismantled by its previous owners at the beginning of the Church's attempts to reclaim the property.
The roof's removal exposed 130-year-old frescos to the elements. A 2006 arson attack also caused extensive damage.
Aid to the Church in Need has given grants totalling more than £125,000 towards the church's restoration, recognising the building's importance to pastoral work in the area.
Speaking about the façade, Father Grzegorz Romanowicz, Vice-Provincial of the Capuchin Order in Ukraine, said it was added under the Soviet administration to turn the church building into a "monument of communism".
He added: "The church does not look like a place of worship.
"It wears a mask, as it were. It is in disguise. We want to take away this mask.
"Until now, many people do not even recognise the building as a church from the outside."
According to Father Blazej Suska, who is responsible for building work: "The façade has acted like a gag on the Church, forcing it into silence.
"Now the Church seeks to win back its identity."
Confiscated by the state during the communist era, Saint Joseph's was altered so that it no longer looked like a religious building.
From 1949 it was used as a library, later becoming a boxing hall before finally being used as offices in the 1990s after it was sold on to a private company by Dnipropetrovsk Regional Council.
Moves by the Church to reclaim the property began after the Soviet government promised in 1988 to return all religious property which had been confiscated .
Ten years later, the Higher Arbitrations Courts of Ukraine ruled that the Roman Catholic Church was the legal owner of Saint Joseph's – a decision which was contested by then owner Dugsberry Inc.
After more than a decade of disputes, the Economic Court of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast finally found in favour of the Church in June 2009.
Despite having their ownership legally recognised, parishioners found the Bureau of Technical Inventory refused to register Saint Joseph's as the Catholic Church's, meaning they could not start vital repairs, such as putting on a new roof.
Even after the issue of registration was settled, municipal authorities impounded the property in September 2010 leading parishioners to resume ongoing prayer vigils in front of the church until the issue was resolved.
Dnipropetrovsk is the third largest city in the country and the major industrial and cultural centre of central and eastern Ukraine.
The city lies within the Catholic Diocese of Kharkiv and Zaporizhia, which serves around 60,000 Catholics, about three percent of the local population.