A member of an Eastern Catholic Rite, this hero of the Church is like another Maximilian Kolbe.
With its wars, persecutions, and oppressive regimes, the 20th century was an era of saints — martyrs beyond number on every continent.
Some of these martyrs were seized for living ordinary Christian lives; others seemed to delight in defying the powers that be.
Blessed Emilian Kovch (1884-1944) was one of the latter, a married Eastern Catholic priest and father of six who was persecuted under Communism and Nazism because he refused to lie low while others suffered.
Emilian Kovch was a Ukrainian man, the son of a Greek Catholic priest. (Though the Greek Catholic Church is union with Rome, it has some different disciplines; married men in this rite may be ordained priests.)
Emilian was ordained the year after his marriage and began to work in a parish as an ordinary parish priest. Early 20th-century Ukraine was no place for ordinary men, however, and Fr. Kovch spent 1919-1921 as a military chaplain. He was captured and briefly held as a prisoner of war, entirely unaware that this was training for what was to come.
After his service, Fr. Kovch returned to life as a husband, father, and small-town priest. He cared for orphans and the poor, organized Eucharistic congresses and pilgrimages, and worked in support of the Ukrainian independence movement; this last made him a person of interest to the reigning Polish government.
His house was searched some 40 times and on at least one occasion he was fined and imprisoned in a monastery. Despite this constant conflict, he preached passionately against any anti-Polish sentiment and was heartbroken when some of his parishioners looted the homes of Poles when the Soviets took over.
Though Fr. Kovch was arrested in the last days of Soviet rule, he and his two daughters managed to escape, learning soon after that all the prisoners in their group had been murdered by the Soviets as the Nazis approached.
With the arrival of the Nazis, Fr. Kovch began to remind his people that they had a duty to fight anti-Semitism, and soon came the day to act.
SS troops had chased some local Jews into a synagogue and were throwing firebombs inside. Without regard for his own safety, this priest of Jesus Christ raced to the synagogue, blocked the doors, and angrily ordered the soldiers to go away. To everyone’s shock, they did just that!
Having stared down a mob of Nazis, Fr. Kovch turned to the synagogue and ran inside, directing the effort to save the people burning within.
In an attempt to save them from the death camps, Fr. Kovch began catechizing and baptizing Jews by the thousands, with the approval of his archbishop, who was himself hiding 1,500 Jews. Despite pressures from the occupying force (and the dangers incurred by a letter he wrote to Adolf Hitler himself denouncing Hitler’s fascist policies), Kovch survived a year and a half before being arrested in December 1942. At one point, his Nazi-defying courage became evident in an interview conducted by a Gestapo officer:
Officer: Did you know that it is prohibited to baptize Jews? Fr. Kovch: I didn’t know anything. Officer: Do you now know it? Fr. Kovch: Yes. Officer: Will you continue to do it? Fr. Kovch: Of course.
Such defiance could only lead to a concentration camp, where Fr. Kovch celebrated Mass, heard confessions, baptized prisoners, and counseled men of all faiths and no faith. The only priest in his group of prisoners, he was the light of Christ shining in the darkness, and when his family attempted to have him released, he begged them to leave him there:
I understand that you are trying to get me released. But I beg you not to do this. Yesterday they killed 50 people. If I am not here, who will help them to get through these sufferings? They would go on their way to eternity with all their sins and in the depths of unbelief, which would take them to hell. But now they go to death with their heads held aloft, leaving all their sins behind them. And so they pass over to the eternal city.
Many who tell the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe say he was able to offer his life because he had no wife and children to mourn him, but the life of Bl. Emilian Kovch proves otherwise. Kolbe, like Kovch, was free to die because he was a follower of Jesus Christ.
Though Kovch surely lamented the grief his wife and children would endure, he was a Christian first and a priest at that.
In the camp he remained, suffering and serving for more than a year before dying on March 25, 1944.
Though his feast day is far overshadowed by the Solemnity of the Annunciation celebrated the same day, Blessed Emilian stands as a witness to married priests and to all who fight injustice.
Blessed Emilian Kovch, pray for us!