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A Turbulent Life:
Biography of Josaphat Jean O.S.B.M. (1885 - 1972)

by Zonia Keywan




In the early years of this century, because of a serious shortage of priests who could serve the growing number of Ukrainian Catholic settlers in Canada, a handful of Roman Catholic priests took on the Ukrainian rite and learned the Ukrainian language in order to work among those immigrants_ The priests were mainly monks from Europe, in particular Belgian Redemptorists, but among their ranks were also five French-Canadian diocesan priests. The changes of rite were in some cases, temporary, in others, permanent. Although quite a few of the European priests remained permanently in the Ukrainian rite, of the French-Canadians only one did so - - Father Josaphat Jean.


Father Jean spent more than sixty years as a Ukrainian priest. He worked for Ukrainians and their Catholic Church in many different corners of the world -- Western Ukraine, Poland, Vienna, Yugoslavia, Great Britain and in virtually every part of Canada. His work was broad not only in its span of decades and continents, but also because it led him to take on many different roles -- those of pastor, teacher, diplomat and colonizer.


What induced Jean to take on the Ukrainian rite and what caused him to make it forever his own? Initially he was moved by a strong sense of mission. Raised, like most French-Canadian youths of his time, on tales of heroic French missionaries who preached in exotic lands and even in his day were still ministering to Indians in the more remote regions of the Canadian West, the young seminarian Jean decided to answer the call putt out by French-Canadian bishops for volunteers to help 'save the poor Ruthenians [Ukrainians] from schism and Protestantism.' Also in his mind was the notion, long cherished by Catholic churchmen, that by fighting 'schism' one might help bring about the much-hoped-for conversion of the Orthodox East -- in particular Russia -- to Catholicism.


The change of rite, language and culture undertaken by Jean was a drastic one. Still, he probably found in his new church and people some familiar qualities, which served to make him feel at home. When he arrived in the Western Ukrainian province of Galicia to study his new rite and language, he found there a society not entirely dissimilar from that in which he had grown up in the Lower St. Lawrence region of Quebec. Both societies were largely rural; both were insular and conscious of their minority status; in both, the church and clergy played a dominant role. Both in Quebec and in Galicia, the local representative of the intelligentsia was most likely to be the Catholic priest, and he often preached not only the gospel of Christ, but also that of nationalism and resistance to assimilation, whether it be to English Protestantism, in the case of Quebec, or Polish Roman Catholicism or Russian Orthodoxy, in the case of Galicia.


What kept Jean in the Ukrainian rite long after the other French-Canadian priests had left? Perhaps it was a stronger attachment to his flock; perhaps it was his character, which was marked through and through by a stubborn determination. His decision to enter the Ukrainian Basilian Order signified his commitment to remain in his adopted rite for the rest of his life.


His sense of commitment to his adopted church and nation was further deepened and set forever by the events that followed his entry into the Basilian novitiate. Caught in Galicia by World War I, he shared there the sufferings and privations of his people and fellow-clergy. After the war, when the spirit of national liberation shot through Galicia as it did through most of the former territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jean was carried in its sweep. Because of his knowledge of French and English -- the prime languages of diplomacy -- he was seconded by the government of the newly fledged Western Ukrainian National Republic to serve as its translator and secretary. For the next several years he strove, with the diplomats and politicians of Galicia, to gain international recognition for the newly created republic. His mission took him to the glittering capitals of Europe and brought him into contact with the leading personages, Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian, of the day. It was a period of high hopes, filled with the excitement of participating in the great events that were forever changing the face of Europe. This was certainly heady stuff for a young man from Saint Fabien, Quebec, who, had he stayed at home would, perhaps, have lived the relatively uneventful life of a parish priest in a quiet corner of Quebec, as did his younger brother, Father Georges-David Jean. The experience of working actively for Ukrainian independence turned Jean into a fervid Ukrainian patriot; for him there could be no going back to his roots, even after his return to Canadian soil. From that time onwards, even to his French-Canadian relatives he invariably spoke of 'us Ukrainians.'


Those who knew Jean remember him for his religious and nationalistic zeal, his devotion to duty, his tireless labour and obstinate tenacity. He was a model of generosity and would gladly give the shirt off his back to anyone in need. But at the same time, his hot, combative nature led him to speak out loudly wherever he perceived any threat to his beloved church or people, whether that threat seemed to come from within or from without. In his time, the idea of ecumenism had not yet dawned, and Jean displayed little tolerance for those whom he viewed as his religious opponents -- English Protestants, Polish Roman Catholics, Russian and even Ukrainian Orthodox. He did not hesitate to criticize Rome itself when he thought he saw anti-Ukrainian tendencies at work there, and his bluntness sometimes led him into trouble with his own superiors.


Those who were taught by Jean recall a devoted but stern teacher, one quick with a reprimand or a tug on the ear of any child who displayed behaviour that was unruly, un-Catholic or insufficiently Ukrainian. He had a love and knowledge of music and he passed this on to his charges, organizing bands or choirs in almost every school or parish in which he worked. An even greater passion was his love for collecting antiquities. Over the years, in the many countries in which he lived or visited, he made a habit of picking up old books, pictures and any other objects he judged to be of value. Although some of his acquisitions were lost, a number are now in the Ukrainian Museum and Archives of the Basilian Fathers in Mundare, Alberta, forming the basis of a valuable collection.


The entry of French Roman Catholic priests into the Ukrainian church was a controversial move and Jean did not meet full acceptance by the Ukrainian community. During the first two or three decades of this century in particular, factions within the Ukrainian Canadian community that were critical of the Catholic Church consistently attacked the 'foreign priests,' who, they claimed, were bent on 'Latinizing' and denationalizing the Ukrainian immigrants. Although many Ukrainians came to love and respect Jean, some continued to regard him with suspicion, as an outsider in their midst. However, anyone who knew him well, anyone who witnessed his often-fiery defense of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, could not doubt the sincerity of his devotion to it. He could, at times, be faulted for naiveté or a lack of understanding of Ukrainian traditions. He was, after all, educated a Roman Catholic, but never accused of intent to denationalize Ukrainians. In this regard, Jean once cited the following words of the churchman he most admired, the Galician Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky: "I crossed all of Canada and did not meet a single Ukrainian who became French... but I met both Frenchmen and Belgians who learned Ukrainian in order to assist our people."1

In the face of his detractors -- and these diminished over the years, as the fierce battle between pro- and anti-Catholic forces in the Ukrainian community in Canada cooled down at least a little -- Jean could find comfort in some other words of Metropolitan Sheptytsky, expressed in a letter written in 1921 to the first Latin-rite priest to take on the Ukrainian rite in Canada, the Belgian Redemptorist Achille Delaere:

Do not be surprised if there are, at times, many difficulties; do not let this cause you pain. It is true that our people feel the need to have priests of their own nationality. But it is also true that, influenced by that desire, they may fail to appreciate sufficiently the devotion of foreigners who have sacrificed their countries, their people and their families, learning a foreign language and changing to a completely different rite, to become apostles among unknown people and to work so that they may keep their faith. Your sacrifice will not fail to bring fruit in the eyes of God and in time it will even be appreciated by the Ukrainian people for whom you have sacrificed your life. 2


Whatever obstacles Jean may have faced in gaining acceptance among his new people, he showed no signs of regret for having taken on the Ukrainian rite. Just after the sixtieth anniversary of his change of rite he wrote proudly to his brother, Georges-David:


Since my ordination in Rimouski on August 14, 1910, I have said 385 Masses in the Latin rite, and that was all before my change of rite, for, although I was offered bi-ritualism, I did not accept it. Since September 6, 1911, I have said about 21,400 Masses in the Old Church Slavonic language, and for the last two years, in the Ukrainian.3


Having inherited a robust constitution from his farmer forebears, Jean had a long old age in which to contemplate his varied life and ponder upon his successes and failures. For certainly he had known both. He saw the collapse of many of his most cherished dreams: that of seeing the creation of an independent Western Ukrainian state, of reviving Ukrainian Studite monastic life in Yugoslavia, of building a Ukrainian colony and Studite monastery in the far northern reaches of Abitibi, Quebec. On the side of success he could place his rescue work among Basilian monks in post World War II Europe, his establishment of the first Ukrainian Catholic parish and church in Great Britain, and his contribution to the Mundane Museum. He had the satisfaction of seeing in his lifetime the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada progress from a very shaky beginning -- it was that very shakiness that caused him to enter it -- to become a solid structure with a network of parishes established all across the country.


Father Jean touched the lives of a great many people and no one who met him is likely to forget him.




1) Andrey Sheptytsky O.S.B.M., Kanadiys'kym rusynam, p. 35, cited by Jean, "Spomyny pro vpreosv. Adeliarda Lianzhvena, pryiatelia ukrayintsiv v Kanadi," Halos Spasytelia, December 1955, p. 11.

2) 19 November 1921, cited by Emilien Tremblay, Le P?re Delaere et l'dglise ukrainienne du Canada, p. 268.

3) 7 September 1971 (French original).


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