I dedicate this article in memory of a close friend of my father, Mr. George (Yuri) Mencinsky (1936 – 2020), who passed away recently. Mr. Mencinsky’s long-standing friendship with my father, spilled over to me by way of his frequent moral support, always encouraging me to write for the Ukrainian Church. He will be sorely missed not only within the Ukrainian community in Australia – but wherever people have a genuine love in their hearts for our Church. Every time I spoke with Mr. Mencinsky, I was a better person for having done so. Deepest sympathy to his family and his many friends.  Vicnaja Pamjat. ATK.

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Throughout modern times, psychologists have debated, as to whether a person’s genius is a product of nature or nurture; whether we are born with a specific gift, or whether we train and work to be gifted. In the case of my father – I feel it was a combination of: gift, opportunity and circumstance. Gift, as he was born with musical and linguistic talents; opportunity, as he was selected by the priests to learn the vocation of being a Cantor; circumstance, that the near destruction of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, saw him grow up to be determined to keep the Traditions of the Church alive. Whether the latter was because of a nationalistic fervour, derived from his father, or out of a sense of particular duty to his clerical tutors, or both combined, I cannot conclude; but I am certain that my father would have died to ensure that the Church survived.

From that moment on, until the last moment he sang in the Church, as nearly a ninety year old man, to be a Cantor in the Church, was to him, a solemn, divinely chosen vocation

My father’s service to the Catholic Church began in earnest when he was about five years of age. A married Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church priest in Jarosław, on hearing Vladimir one day sing in the Pro-Cathedral came later to the Kania family home and asked my grandmother, Franciszka, (1896 – 1977) a Polish woman, whether he could take young Vladimir to the Pro-Cathedral and train him to be a Cantor. The priest added to my grandmother that his sons could not hold a note. The training was rigorous, and oftentimes, during the Seasons of Christmas and Easter, Vladimir would not return home, but sleep in the Pro-Cathedral with the other choristers in training. They would wake up, with spare habits covering them as blankets, and with a meal prepared for them. Babcia was in no way anxious for her son – she trusted the priests implicitly – and they did not break her trust. My father never experienced any form of abuse from these men – but only goodness. In his memory they were to be his heroes and role models, for near an entire lifetime. When he spoke of these men – he did so with love and admiration in his voice for them. These young boys must have had a high level of stamina so as to endure the long Liturgies. Fr. Stefan Hrynyveckij and Fr. Joseph Kyshakevych (the latter being the composer of the famous hymns: ‘Vytaj Mizh Namy’, and ‘Plyyy Svitamy’) taught my father church singing. Fr. Charles Hasko, collected him from home at 7.00 a.m. every morning, for: the Divine Liturgy and classes in Church Law; Fr. Fedorovych, Vladimir’s great grand uncle, taught him: Catechism, Rubrics and the History of the Eastern and Western Churches. This was all in addition to my Vladimir’s regular school day. The quality of his instruction was very high, if one considers the calibre of his teachers, with such a famous composer as Fr. Kyshakevych not only teaching him how to sing, but teaching him how to sing Ukrainian Church music, and Fr. Fedorovych who later became the Rector of a Seminary in Tarnow, teaching him Church History. It was an extraordinary period of time; indeed the culmination of decades of deliberate planning by Andrii Sheptyts’kyi in fostering within his Church the finest minds and talents. If the Ukrainian Church had been let to grow, then it would have become the jewel of the Catholic Crown, for the flowering of Her liturgical and theological richness. This was Sheptyts’kyi’s ideal, as well as his wishing to give the Church the strength to survive the atheistic winter that was rapidly approaching Her.  As it happened, the Ukrainian Catholic Church became the prize of the Universal Church through the powerful example of Her martyrdom.

It touched the soul. It was evident that there was a trained Cantor singing; a Cantor who knew a sacred craft. I was very impressed.

My father told me the story of his early days training as a Cantor, and how he had been given the responsibility to sing a passage of Scripture. On this first occasion he raced through the passage, and as he was doing so, the cloaked arm of the priest came immediately over the text so that my father could read no more. Without shouting at my father, the priest lent over the young boy, and said in a stern voice: “And now Vladimir, we shall sing this passage again – as if we truly believe we are reading the Word of God.” My father later told me that that occasion would be the one and only time he ever failed to carry out his duty without a sense of deep reverence. From that moment on, until the last moment he sang in the Church, as nearly a ninety year old man, to be a Cantor in the Church, was to him, a solemn, divinely chosen vocation. All it took was the initial knock on the door by the priest to ask whether Vlad, would “come follow me.” (cf. Matthew 4: 19). That morning the priest made the decision to ask – changed the lives of many. So expert did my father become as a Cantor – that he soon gained a reputation in Jarosław, and was required to also be at the services of the Churches of the Roman Rite in the city, when that is, he was not singing at the Ukrainian Pro-Cathedral. My father was often invited by the Jesuit priest, Fr. Dean Władysław Opaliński S.J. to sing the Masses of the Roman Rite. He would also regularly attend funerals not only for his singing abilities, but also as a ‘child-mourner’, weeping and walking after the coffin in funeral processions. To be able to negotiate when and where Vladimir as a boy would be singing at any given time, the priests of both the Byzantine and Roman Rite, must have come to some understanding, as my father never mentioned to me that there were ever any arguments, or conflicts between the Ukrainian and Roman Church in his schedule of duties.

But despite raising her children as Poles, Anna’s nephew was unequivocally going to be a child of the Ukrainian Church. There was no point of debate. Babcia was aware.

Now I can recall in the 1980’s one occasion that I heard my father singing in the Polish Church in Perth, Western Australia. He was very close friends of the Polish Franciscan Friars (his mother having been a Franciscan Tertiary), and on the occasion of the anniversary of his mother’s death, he had been invited to attend a Sunday evening Mass. The Church was well attended that day, but what amazed me was my father singing with gusto, the Polish Liturgy and hymns. At one point of this Mass, the parishioners stopped singing, and sat back listening to an exquisite two part harmony of Czarna Madonna, between the Friar celebrating the Mass, and my father. It was simply magnificent. I had never heard my father practice these hymns – ever, but he had been trained fifty years before, by Fr. Opaliński, and his fellow priests, and knew the texts by heart. In hindsight, for me, it was like the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when the central character Andy, plays the piece by Mozart on the loud-speaker. It touched the soul. It was evident that there was a trained Cantor singing; a Cantor who knew a sacred craft. I was very impressed.

I only discovered after his death, that my father was also part of the founding Croatian Church Choir here in Perth. His funeral was concelebrated in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, by Fr. Ihor Holovko and Fr. Richard Charlwood, with Fr. Tomasz Bujakowski, a Polish Franciscan Friar, and Fr. Nikola Cubraja, from St. Anne’s Croatian Catholic Church, also kindly assisting. My father loved culture, and learning. A matter of days before he died, I asked him when and where he learnt the Croatian language – he simply replied from his bed: “I had to learn, I had Croatian friends in my home town.”

Jan Kania never took my father to the Church – there was no need to, as my father was always there, each day of the year.

It was my father’s dowager Aunt – Anna, a Ukrainian Catholic, who was to have my father named Vladimir Roman – after two great Ruthenian princes – St. Vladimir, and Roman of Galicia. My grandmother, had little say in this matter. To the modern Australian woman this would seem absurd. But this was a different age and world. Anna was older than her brother Jan by nearly a decade, and Babcia younger still than her husband. Aunt Anna would marry a senior Polish bureaucrat of the town, and raise her large family, after her husband wishes, baptised in the Roman Rite – as Poles. Her children would become eminent Poles, one of her sons an esteemed Polish fighter pilot; one of her daughters would marry a Polish officer, who was to be murdered at Katyn, another daughter married a Polish Magistrate and Conductor of an Orchestra, the son of a Ukrainian baroness, who was to be murdered in Vilnius, by the Communists. They killed him with fence pickets, and left him in the street.

Although Polish was the language of the Kania Family home in Jarosław, as my grandmother refused to learn Ukrainian; the Ukrainian language was the language of Vladimir and his father Jan.

But despite raising her children as Poles, Anna’s nephew was unequivocally going to be a child of the Ukrainian Church. There was no point of debate. Babcia was aware. Vladimir’s mother being a Pole or not – there was no doubt of where her son was to be given his entry into the Catholic Church. It was Anna Novak who carried her nephew to the Ukrainian Pro-Cathedral for the Mysteries of Initiation. Despite Anna marrying a man, not overly fond of Ukrainians, Aunt Anna would often be seen in the Pro-Cathedral by her nephew, when he was a chorister – attending the Divine Liturgy. Vladimir respected Aunt Anna, deeply. He revered her in fact. In 1939, Aunt Anna was living on the Kania Family Estate outside of the town walls of Jarosław. Her brother’s family was living in the inner city, in far more humbler circumstances; circumstances directly related to Jan’s life as a soldier, having served both a dying Empire and the lost dream of a new nation; and fighting an enemy who was common to both. To Jan, life was a serious business. Not one story of the hundreds I have heard about him – nor one photograph I have seen, has him laughing or smiling. He was purely formidable. Jan Kania never took my father to the Church – there was no need to, as my father was always there, each day of the year.

Although Polish was the language of the Kania Family home in Jarosław, as my grandmother refused to learn Ukrainian; the Ukrainian language was the language of Vladimir and his father Jan. The Ukrainian language was also the language of his Church community – and young Vladimir was drilled in this language as well as Church Slavonic. My father really loved the Liturgy in Old Slavonic; and he spoke at times of how he missed this language. In the Roman Rite Church, my father was taught Latin, in order to fulfil the requested duty of singing in their choir. When I use the word ‘drilled’, I hope what is captured is a sense of rote and purpose. Vladimir could recite all the Psalms, by rote, as a child. Diction had to be excellent. Tune and tone, on point. There could be no compromise. In the 1970’s I received a taste of this form of education when my father decided that I should read the Epistle as a nine year old boy. I suspect he thought that I should commence my vocation as a Cantor. I eventually sang the Epistle at the Divine Liturgy on a Sunday morning. A very well-educated parishioner said to my father, that my Ukrainian diction was better than hers. My father took the compliment – but added to her that she was being over-kind. What no one in the Church in Perth knew that Sunday morning was that I only had basic Ukrainian, and for two weeks, I must have sung that piece in the family home – over three hundred times, under the constant critique of my father, who would stop me at every word – until it sounded absolutely on point. In hindsight it gave me a glimpse of how the boy Vladimir must have been trained those long evenings and early mornings in the Pro-Cathedral. I have no doubt that the children of today are made of a softer material, if my introduction to the training of a being a Cantor was any indication. Believe me dear reader – believe me, it was three hundred times of pain-staking repetition, and each time had to sound fresh, or we began again. Sometimes we would spend half an hour on a single sentence. Strangely enough – over forty years later, I can still sing passages from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, text unseen, and my father’s instructions, echo in my ear. At the time, as a child, I did not have the stamina for Church singing.

Unable to rely on a musical instrument/s – the Cantor must search in their memory for notes and tones and tunes, and transfer this accurately through their voice. It is a great skill.

When I was growing up in Perth, I can remember accompanying my father to the Liturgies. During one Easter, I added up the number of hours I had served as an altar server during Holy Week. It amounted to twenty two hours. I enjoyed being with my father, and the then parish priests, Fr. Ihor Shpytkovsky, and after him, Fr. John Bowden CSsr who on seeing me arrive with my father, pointed to the altar server’s room to immediately get vested. Fr. Ihor and Fr. John always treated me well, so I dutifully did what was required – even if it meant returning late back home, not showering, and arriving at school the next day, smelling like a thurible. My father would never tire, and seemed to derive more energy from singing long hours in the Church. I appreciate this more and more as I reflect on his life. I have come to conclude that the word ‘Cantor’ has a myriad of uses. In the Roman Rite in Australia, it can be used to refer to a singer in the Church, who leads the Psalm, and may lead a Choir for the Entrance, Communion, and Recessional hymns. In the Byzantine Rite in the Ukrainian Church, the Cantor does this – but in addition, sings acappella, a complex series of Tones. There is a requirement for them to be of perfect pitch, otherwise the congregation cannot be led. Unable to rely on a musical instrument/s – the Cantor must search in their memory for notes and tones and tunes, and transfer this accurately through their voice. It is a great skill. An individual spends a lifetime perfecting this skill. From 1933 to September 1939, my father was in the Church every day – training. Even during the War years he honed what he had learnt. He was a perfectionist, and I do not doubt, so were his teachers.

The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church: Christ Our Pascha (2016), speaks about the importance of Liturgical singing, and those who lead this form of worship in the following words: Par. 621. “Liturgical or church singing is an expression of worship. Church singing is doxological prayer by which the Church is united with the angelic choirs in glorifying the Most Holy Trinity. The source of this doxology (glorification) is contemplation of the Trinity. Indeed, this is why liturgical singing is exalted theological music. In liturgical singing we take part in the angelic choirs “incorporeal” singing, thus “mystically representing the Cherubim.” Par. 622. In order to resonate the Cherubim’s singing, a person needs the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. That is why a person at prayer may be compared to an “instrument” of the Holy Spirit. As a wind instrument emits sound because it is filled with breath, so a person produces the sounds of prayer because he or she is filled with the “breath” of the Holy Spirit. Thus, sung prayer is a double form of prayer: the person prays at an audible level but the Holy Spirit also prays through the Son to the Father (see Rom 8:26). The liturgical singing of a Church choir is an earthly icon of the heavenly singing of the angelic choirs…. Par. 624. Through liturgical chant, the church singer, keeping humbly to the proper ritual prescriptions, becomes an authentic instrument of the Holy Spirit, called to attune the assembly to communal prayer. Liturgical singing is not a “concert of sacred music” during which people are divided between “performers” and an “audience”. Rather, this singing incorporates everyone into an act of common prayer. Thus, the singing in which God’s people take part at worship always becomes an unrepeatable event in which free persons unite and act as one in order to pray “with one voice and one heart.”

The occupation would cost my father: his dreams, his friendships, and simple hopes of his boyhood – but it would cost his Jewish friends, their very lives.

If I were to leave the portrait of my father at this – it would deliver an inaccurate picture of my father, as a boy. At the same time that he was training to be a Cantor during the morning he was being a little mischief maker with his close friends during the rest of the day. The best description I would have of him, would be angelic chorister in the morning – Huck Finn, after hours. His closest friends during his boyhood years were not Ukrainians or Poles. Instead he was especially attached to two Jewish brothers, who were around the same age as him, and equally as naughty. As my father entered 1939, he was an eleven year old boy. By year’s end – the idyll of youth, that he had led up until then, was not to be closed – but to be shattered by the NAZI occupation. The occupation would cost my father: his dreams, his friendships, and simple hopes of his boyhood – but it would cost his Jewish friends, their very lives. You see dear reader, Jarosław city as I wrote in the introduction to this series was a city famous for many things, but one I did not mention; it was the first place where Jews were rounded up and deported and sent to the Camps.

It is to 1939, that I now take you; a tragic and bloody year – a year that broke my father’s young heart.

Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper

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