Historian takes hard look at Budka's accomplishments

Bishop Nykyta Budka

Bishop Nykyta Budka

November 17, 2014

Bishop Nykyta Budka dedicated much of his life to preserving the faith of Ukrainian Catholics in Canada. But because of his personal failings, he was often seen as a negative force in Canadian history.

However, Vatican-based author and researcher Rev. Dr. Athanasius McVay sees him as an important figure in Ukrainian, Canadian and Catholic history. In fact, he says, Budka's story can be described as a life of obedience, work, and love of the Lord and God's pilgrim people.

McVay is the author of the new biography God's Martyr, History's Witness: Blessed Nykyta Budka the First Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Bishop of Canada.

It is the most complete book on Budka and was commissioned by Canada's Ukrainian bishops in commemoration of Budka's arrival in Canada in December 1912. After Budka was beatified in 2001, the bishops realized they needed a complete biography of the man.

Budka's appointment to Canada in 1912 was the first time Rome had named an Eastern Catholic bishop with full jurisdiction outside of Europe and Asia.

The tasks he faced were monumental as his diocese included all of Canada and encompassed approximately 150,000 Ukrainians, and 80 churches and chapels. At first, there were only 13 secular priests and nine monks.

Budka was a complex human being, McVay said in an email interview from Rome. "His mission in Canada and Ukraine enjoyed great successes but also crushing failures."

Budka's mission was to sustain Canada's Ukrainian Catholics in their faith. Facing the reality of assimilation, he "dedicated himself to preserving the faith and the culture of his fellow Ukrainian Catholics."

Budka's story is also one of endurance. For 15 years he travelled unceasingly, visiting Ukrainian settlements scattered across Canada, celebrating the sacraments, teaching, preaching and comforting the faithful.

When Pope Pius X send Budka to Canada, he observed that the new bishop would not be able to achieve everything required for the largest, most ill-equipped diocese in the world.

In the interview, McVay said most contemporaries agreed that, "although full of good intentions, Budka was not always up to some of the tasks committed to him. For example, he was a fantastic missionary but a poor administrator."


He sometimes lacked the diplomacy, gentleness, and corrective or timely leadership required of a bishop, McVay wrote.

One of Budka's failures was to establish a good relationship with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. From his first days in Canada, he made it clear he intended to run his diocese autonomously.

"He sought to replace the largely ineffective missionary strategy of the Latin clergy by Ukrainian secular priests from Galicia," says McVay. "The fact that most of these priests were married alarmed the Latin hierarchy."

Eventually Budka lost the trust of the Latin bishops, and his diocese was deprived of financial aid. "In addition, Budka's trust was betrayed by those who brought him legal and financial woes.

"The Ukrainian clergy and faithful also held back from supporting an administration that was poorly run." He faced bankruptcy on several occasions.

Budka's most famous blunder was the pastoral letter he issued at the onset of the First World War that urged Austrians who had a military obligation to return home and defend Austria against Russia.

The letter made him appear disloyal to the British Empire which soon entered the war against Austria. While Budka was exonerated in court and Canadian officials considered him loyal, many harboured lingering suspicions against him, McVay wrote.


His huge responsibility combined with a lack of financial aid and personnel made Budka's charge overwhelming. He battled political and religious opponents who sought to draw his flock away from their Catholic faith. His delicate health deteriorated.

In the last two years of his Canadian ministry, Budka ceased to be an effective leader. "However, the contention that he hadn't done anything good at all appears exaggerated," contends McVay.

In fact, Budka achieved his main goal.

"He preserved the faith of the majority of the Ukrainian immigrants and established an enduring Church structure for that purpose," McVay said in the interview.

"Without his ministry, the majority of Ukrainians in Canada would have probably abandoned the Catholic Church. His legacy today is the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada and Ukraine."

Budka left Canada on a health leave in 1927 and resigned his post the following year. For the next 17 years he ministered to Ukrainians under oppressive Polish, Nazi and Soviet regimes.

He died in 1949 in a labour camp near Kazakhstan. St. John Paul II proclaimed him a martyr and beatified him in 2001.