Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an 1878 wooden church, is coated with plastic siding in Sytykhiv, Ukraine.
By Alex Rodriguez
LVIV, Ukraine — The rustic beauty of Ukraine's famed wooden churches is surpassed only by their capacity for survival.
Dotting the countryside from the Carpathian Mountains to Crimea, they have withstood centuries of unforgiving winters. During World War II, Nazi shelling raked the Ukrainian heartland. Under Soviet rule, they became grain silos and warehouses for everything from mattresses to pesticides.
Now, in an era when democracy and religion thrive in Ukraine, wooden churches as old as six centuries face ruin at the hands of the unlikeliest of enemies — the priests and parishioners who became their guardians and, unaware of their historical significance, began "improving" them.
In Sytykhiv, a hamlet hidden away in western Ukraine's dense woodland, preservationist Andriy Salyuk strides up to one of them, shaken by what he sees. Sheathed in sky-blue and white plastic siding is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a wooden Ukrainian Greek Catholic church built in 1878.
"I'm speechless," Salyuk said, shaking his head as he scans the siding, the brown bathroom tile covering the church's front stoop, the sheet metal encasing its cupolas. "I feel so sorry for the way that this church is being ruined. The kids who are playing in this village today won't see this church in 20 years, because by then the wood underneath will have rotted out."
As crestfallen as Salyuk was when he walked up to Sytykhiv's only church, he's seen worse. Oblivious to their churches' architectural and cultural significance, priests and parishioners in other villages have cocooned the structures in metal plating or, in some cases, burned them down to build brick or stone replacements.
For Salyuk, president of the nonprofit Lviv Foundation for the Preservation of Architectural and Historical Monuments, it's tantamount to blasphemy. Wooden churches are icons of Ukrainian architecture, he and other preservationists say.
Since Ukraine won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, 68 wooden churches in the Lviv region have been gutted or razed, said the Rev. Sebastian Dmytrukh, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest in Lviv who heads his archdiocese's preservation commission. Last year alone, eight churches were set ablaze.
During the decades of Soviet atheism, only two of the region's wooden churches were destroyed, Dmytrukh said.
"Sometimes the priests are responsible for this act," Dmytrukh said. "But there are also cases where parishioners destroy the churches themselves. They see that the neighboring village's church is bigger, newer, more modern. So they say, 'Why can't we have the same kind of stone church?' "
Stunning examples of Orthodox and Catholic wooden church architecture abound in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, Romania and Ukraine. Usually hewed from oak, larch or spruce, the structures often are built with terraced, pagoda-like roofs topped by onion-domed cupolas. Small wooden shingles called gont often were used to cover roofs and exterior walls. Inside, ceiling-to-floor iconostases — screens or partitions — filled with depictions of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and a host of saints served as the nave's focal point.
When Ukraine gained its independence, villagers embraced the return of religious freedom, but many viewed their wooden churches as eyesores — rickety, difficult to maintain, ripe for renovation or demolition.
"People stopped feeling that all of these churches have value — not material value, but spiritual or emotional value," Salyuk said. "Now, many people look at churches not as sacred buildings, but as houses which need to be rebuilt or renovated."