“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,” Fr. Grzegorz Romanowicz, the Franciscan Capuchin provincial in the Ukraine, told the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
“Until now, many people do not even recognize the building as a church from the outside.”
St. Joseph’s Church in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine is now in Catholic hands after a 20-year-long ownership dispute. Franciscan Capuchins now have pastoral care of the church, and the last stages of restoration are underway.
Since 1949 the church was used as a library, a boxing hall and offices. Soviet authorities erected the façade in 1949 to hide the building’s origin as a church. That façade is set to be removed later in February.
Fr. Romanowicz said the church was originally seized to serve as a “monument of communism.” Since the confiscation, the façade has acted like “a gag on the Church” that forces it into silence.
“Now the Church seeks to win back its identity.”
The Catholic Church moved to reclaim the property after the government promised in 1988 to return all religious property which had been confiscated. The building’s then-owner, Dugsburry Inc., contested a ruling that the Catholic Church was the property’s rightful owner.
The dispute even turned violent when security guards physically attacked believers, including elderly women, who were peacefully demonstrating for the property’s return.
The ongoing disagreement led to neglect of the building. Its roof was removed, exposing 130-year-old frescos to the elements. A 2006 arson also caused major damage. The property was legally recognized as church-owned in 2009, but other bureaucratic problems kept repairs from being made.
Aid to the Church in Need has given grants of about $185,000 to the church restoration project. It believes the building is important to pastoral work in the area.
Dnipropetrovsk is the third largest city in the Ukraine. It is within the Catholic Diocese of Kharkiv and Zaporizhia. The diocese serves about 60,000 Catholics, about three percent of the local population.
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