During the time of Russian Empire up to 1917, there existed 13 Roman Catholic dioceses and one Apostolic Administration. Most of them were situated in the Kingdom of Poland, which in those times was ruled by the tsar, without having had closer ties to Russia itself: there were the archdiocese of Varszaw and the bishoprics of Sejny/Augustów, Kalisz, Kielce, Lublin, Plock and Sandomierz. In today’s Lithuania were the dioceses of Wilno and Telšiai located.
In the territory of modern Northwest Ukraine, there was the diocese of Lutsk and Zhytomyr, while Southern and East Ukraine, all south of Russia, Georgia and Armenia belonged to Tiraspol diocese. The bishop’s residence was after the erection of the diocese in 1848 at first situated at Odessa and then in Saratov/Southern Russia. The small town of Tiraspol, where in fact no catholic structures existed, is situated in Transnistria, today’s Russian influenced part of Moldova, but only about 1,5 percent of Tiraspol diocese’s territory belongs to Moldova.
The diocese of Minsk, which included the territory of modern Belarus, has been liquitated by the tsar in 1869. The Holy See did not recognize this step, but nevertheless in 1882 appointed the first Apostolic Administrator of Minsk. He and all his successors were Archbishops of Mohilev. Only on November 2, 1917, the diocese of Minsk was re-created.
The non-Polish dioceses, i. e. Wilno, Telšiai, Lutsk and Zhytomyr, Tiraspol and Minsk, were suffragan dioceses of the Archbishop of Mohilev, who had his residence in Sankt Peterburg. To his archdiocese belonged the whole area of Northern Russia, Siberia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
The hierarchs of Minsk and Mohilev never lived in their titular cities, in fact small towns in those times. They led these titles only for Russian authorities had forbidden the Church to base dioceses on orthodox ground.
While most of the countries in middle, east and southeast Europe became communist dictatorships after World War II, the Russian Empire was overthrown in 1917, where the new system was established after a few months in the revolution of October. Already during the era of tsars, but even more after the foundation of the Soviet Union in 1922, the orthodox church was brought into line or hindered, and the catholic church, often of Polish origin, was supressed massively. During the terror of Stalinism, which escalated between 1935 and 1939, bishops, priests and believers were deported and murdered.
In 1917, there existed a small byzantinic flock in Moscow, which descended from orthodoxy and was lead by an Apostolic Exarch. Fr. Leonty Leonid Fedorov, M. S. U., who never was consecrated a bishop, died as consequence of his imprisonment on March 7, 1935; since June 27, 2001, he belongs to the community of the beatified. Greek catholic Metropolitan Andrej Sheptyckyi appointed on September 17, 1939, his native brother, abbot Klymentiy Sheptyckyi, M. S. U., as new exarch of Russia and Siberia; papal confirmation followed on November 22, 1941. Exarch Klymentiy, who was no bishop, died on May 1, 1951, in the prison of Vladimir. He also was beatified on June 27, 2001. It is said that in 1943 Fr. Viktor Novikov, S. I., who descended from Kazan and re-entered Russia in 1939 using the pseudonym Makovski and who became exarch for Russian catholics in Siberia after 1942, had been made a bishop.
After the communist revolution of 1917, on Russian territory remained two dioceses: Mohilev and Tiraspol. With the title of Mohilev, Belarus, resided Archbishop Eduard von Ropp, who was also responsible for the Russian territories, and Jan Cieplak served him as auxiliary bishop. Bishop of the suffragan diocese of Minsk was Zygmunt Lozinski. But, in fact, archbishop von Ropp exiled in 1919, and Josef Aloysius Kessler, Bishop of Tiraspol, left the country in 1920. Bishop Jan Cieplak, who administered Mohilev since 1919, was imprisoned in 1922, sentenced to death and afterwards released. He left to Poland in 1924. Bishop Lozinski was in prison since 1920, and in 1921 he left Russia.
After the revolution, for a short period of time some personal measures were taken, as from 1920 up to 1922 in Tiflis the titular bishop of Cidiesso and former Bishop of Cuneo in Italy, Mons. Natale Gabriele Moriondo, O. P., worked as Apostolic Visitator for the Caucasus, who’s successor became titular archbishop Adriano Smets in 1923 for a few years, before the pastoral care was blocked. Bishop Kessler became Titular Archbishop of Bosporo in 1930 and lived in German exile since his departure 1920. Successor of Administrator Ter-Abraamian was from 1923 onwards Akop Bacaratian, who was elected bishop secretely in 1928 without having been consecrated ever and who became victim of terror only two years later.
On December 1, 1921, the Holy See erected the Apostolic Vicariate of Siberia and elevated Fr. Gerard Piotrowski, O. F. M., as first Apostolic Vicar. He was not able to enter Russia, and therefore he never practised office. On November 1, 1926, Fr. Julian Gronski became Apostolic Administrator of Siberia. He had his residence in Tomsk. In 1931, he was arrested, and after prison he went to Lithuania in 1933. Further, the Vicariate stayed vacant and stopped to exist about 1936/1938. For Russian Far East Rome created the diocese of Vladivostok on February 2, 1923, and appointed Karol Sliwowski as bishop. He was born on June 29, 1855, and consecrated bishop on November 28, 1923, in Harbin in China. Immediately after his return to Soviet Union he was banned in a remote village, Sedanka near Vladivostok, where he died on January 5, 1933, without having been able to rule as bishop.
Thus, on the end of 1924 in the USSR there did not remain any working bishop. The only one was, in southern Ukraine, the very old Bishop Emeritus Anton Johannes Zerr von Padua, former ordinary of Tiraspol, who retired in 1901 and died in 1934.
In this desparate situation the Holy See decided in 1926 for the first time in recent church history to appoint some apostolic administrators and bishops secretely and to let the bishops be consecrated in clandestiny. Pope Pius XI elevated as consecrator of these bishops, who still had to be chosen, the rector of the Papal Oriental Institute, the French Father Michel-Joseph Bourguignon d’Herbigny, S. I. He himself was secretly appointed titular bishop of Ilio (sic!), the ancient Troia, on February 11, 1926. He went to Berlin, where Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, Apostolic Nuncio in Germany an future Pope Pius XII, consecrated him as a clandestine bishop in the chapel of the nunciature on March, 29.
Father d’Herbigny travelled into the Soviet Union in a humanitarian mission and looked out for fitting priests, whom he appointed secretly with papal admission as apostolic administrators and bishops. Their names are as follows:
1926 – 1937 Administrator Augustin Baumtrog, Volga
1926 – 1937 Administrator Bp. Alexandr Frison, Odessa
1926 – 1938 Administrator Johann Roth, Caucasus
1926 – 1938 Vicar Stefan Demurof, Tiflis and Georgia
1930 – 1962 Vicar Carapet Dirlughian, Armenians in Russia
1926 – 1981 Administrator Bp. Bolesļavs Sloskāns, Mohilew
1926 – 1946 Administrator Bp. Pie Eugène Neveu, A. A., Moscow
1926 – 1935 Administrator Bp. Antoni Malecki, Leningrad
1926 – 1937 Administrator Vincent Ilgin, Kharkov
1926 – 1959 Administrator Michael Juodokas, Kazan, Samara and Simbirsk
The four elected bishops were consecrated immediately. While their names have been published only from 1928 onwards, Mons. d’Herbigny made his own episcopal dignity public in Moscow. This unfortunate step led to his expellation. Bishop Sloskāns was forced into exile in 1933, bishop Malecki in 1934 and bishop Neveu in 1936. D’Herbigny, turned back to Rome, lost the Pope’s trust. In 1937, he was defrocked as bishop and sent to a monastery, where he died on December 23, 1957. As early as December 1926, Mons. Ilgin (Ilyin) was imprisoned, and in the following year bishops Sloskāns and Neveu. Bishop Frison as well went to jail shortly after his consecration, then confined, on May 13, 1935, imprisoned again and on March 17, 1937, he was sentenced to death. He was shot on August 2, 1937, in NKVD prison of Simferopol. His death became known in the west in 1942.
After 1926, three additional clandestine bishops were appointed:
1928 – 1930 Administrator Bp. Akop Bacaratian, for the Armenians in Russia
1928 – 1943 Auxiliary Bishop Teofilius Matulionis, Leningrad, Titular Bishop of Matrega
1934 – 1961 Auxiliary Bishop Jean Maurice Marie Felix Amoudru, O. P., Moscow, Titular Bishop of Pirgo
Armenian administrator Bacaration, however, never has been consecrated. He was shot in February, 1936.
Bishops Matulionis and Amoudru were consecrated by Bishop Neveu respective Bishop Malecki. Mons. Matulionis was imprisoned and had to live in deportation for long years; he died in 1962 in Lithuania, while Mons. Amoudru, who deceased in 1961, was deported shortly after his consecration. Bishop Bacaratian, as mentioned before, was murdered during Stalinist terror.
In 1943, Jesuit priest Viktor Novikov, since 1940 Ukrainian Exarch for Russian catholics in Siberia, is said to have been consecrated as a bishop; thus, this has never been proofed. A special status was that of Russian orthodox bishop Varfolomey Remov, who, in 1921, was consecrated as assistant bishop of Moscow. In 1932, he secretely converted to catholicism; on July 3, 1933, Pius XI appointed him titular bishop of Sergievo and auxiliary bishop of apostolic administrator Neveu to serve for the byzantine rite. This election was never published. On June 26, 1935, Mons. Remov, still regarded as an orthodox bishop, was shot during Stalinism.
After the tragic end of this attempt to establish a hierarchy against the pressure of terror, the Holy See did not appoint any clandestine bishops any more. Only on May 10, 1989, on the climax of Perestrojka, in the person of Mons. Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the later first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow, an apostolic administrator with the rank of a titular bishop could be appointed, mainly to guarantee the pastoral work for the Polish descending parts of the population. In 2007, Mons. Kondrusiewicz returned to Belarus as Metropolitan of Minsk-Mohilev.
The Russians abroad had an own Apostolic Visitator:
03.07.1930 – 00.00.1933: Francis-Peter Bucys, M. I. C., Titular Bishop of Olympus
31.10.1936 – 19.03.1947: Aleksandr Evreinov, Titular Bishop of Pionia, as Prelate for Russians
13.06.1952 – 14.11.1958: Boleslas Sloskans, Titular Bishop of Cillio
14.11.1958 – 00.00.1977: Andrey Katkov, M. I. C., Titular Bishop of Nauplia
00.00.1978 – 00.00.1992: Fr. Protopresbyter Georgiy Roshko.
Afterwards, no more own Russian visitators have been appointed. From 1996 up to October 2002, the Ukrainian Bishop Wasyl Ihor Medwit served as Apostolic Visitator for the Greek catholic faithfull in the countries of Central Asia, and on January 18, 2005, the pope elected bishop Joseph Werth, S. I., as Ordinary for byzantine rite catholics in Russia. United faithfulls are not allowed to register parishes within Russia at all; priests up to today are serving illegaly. In addition, there are existing internal problems within the Greek catholic flock, because a part of the priests converted from Russian orthodoxy. These ones proclaimed in 2004 the renewal of the united exarchate without recognition of the Holy See. As Delegate of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches for Greek catholics in Kazakhstan and Central Asia worked since 2002 Fr. Vasil Hovera, whose jurisdiction became Apostolic Administration in 2019.
The project of those time’s Ukrainian catholic Locum tenens of Lviv, archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk, to install an own bishop of the Eastern rite for Russia, failed. In autumn 1990 in his residence at Lviv he consecrated „sub conditione“ the apostatic Russian orthodox bishop Vinkentiy Chekalin. This prelate became bishop of an orthodox dissident group in 1988 and only on March 31, 1990, bishop of the autocephalous Ukrainian orthodox diocese of Solnechnogorsk. His installation took place without papal approvement and led to heavy irritations between the Moscow patriarchate and the Holy See. This step of archbishop Sterniuk was a reason why he had to resign in 1991; Chekalin left the country towards Australia and also turned his back to Rome. Years later, on October 14, 2007, bishops Stepan Meniuk from Ukraine and Joseph Werth, Ordinary for catholics of byzantine rite in Russia, were able to consecrate in Novokusnezk a biritual parish church in byzantine style, the first one since crashdown of the former dictatorship.
The photos of this page were taken by the archives of Hofrat Dr. Manfred Kierein, Vienna, Fr. Pyshkovych and of the author’s. Co-author of this article is Rev. Fr. Manuil Pyshkovych, M. S. U., from Univ Lava, Ukraine.