Fr Michael Krychiwskyj was a heady brew of traditional Catholic orthodoxy and Yorkshire grit, known for his extravagant, full-on delivery of sermons, hymns and the Gospel. Everything he did was authentic and done either at maximum volume or with the utmost reverence. But he also brought something else rarely seen in Catholic churches: icons.
With a Ukrainian father and an Italian mother, he was exposed to the luxurious devotional art of both those traditions. He had grown up attending both St Walburga’s Latin Rite Church in Shipley and Holy Trinity Ukrainian Rite Church in Bradford.
An effect of Vatican II has been a focus on ourselves: our “community”. Sometimes the hymns written since the 1970s engender an all-purpose “niceness”, and a religious mood that is vague and “feel-good” but which seldom acknowledges the supernatural or celebrates the unstinting bounty and beauty of the truth and the Good News.
As the larger-than-life parish priest at St Jeanne Jugan parish in Headingley, Leeds, Fr Michael emphasised the supernatural forcefully and ebulliently. The rosary and Benediction were said frequently and to a full church. Our cup most certainly did overflow at St Jeanne Jugan, with image after image from the Scriptures, of the saints, Gospel scenes and holy and blessed events. These were depicted in Fr Michael’s icons.
The way icons consistently present objective truths via a standardised lexicon of imagery and symbols is not something that comes easily to someone like me whose experience was largely confined to the much more individualistic and subjective traditions of Western art. I’m still a novice, to be sure.
Soon after arriving at the Headingley churches of St Urban and Our Lady of Lourdes, Fr Michael commissioned the renowned iconographer Aidan Hart to paint frescoes for the reredoses of both churches, using a legacy that had been ring-fenced for sacred art. In St Urban’s, a massive image of the Resurrection; in Our Lady of Lourdes, a similarly gigantic Transfiguration. These frescoes were done in the traditional way, painted directly onto wet plaster. They are permanent works of great beauty and great truth.
Around the two churches Fr Michael then installed his personal lifetime collection of icons. Of particular beauty was the oratory chapel, which he created in a room adjoining the presbytery at Our Lady of Lourdes. This astonishing place was studded with icons the way a Christmas pudding is studded with fruit. The chapel was used to celebrate Holy Mass, and also the Divine Liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose members were welcome at the parish.
Welcoming others was as important to Fr Michael as cultivating beauty. When you met him, you were always clasped tightly in an embrace. I loved it when he called me “Bud” in his thick Bradford accent. If you wanted to talk to him after Mass, you were faced with a long wait, for there was always a queue of well-wishers and people to be hugged.
When I last saw him in hospital in Leeds, even before I knew for certain he was dying, I felt moved to kiss him. He had that sort of effect on you.
Fr Michael died from incurable blood cancer in 2016 at the age of 57. All the icons were returned to his family on his death.
The realisation that both Fr Michael and his icons were going out of our sight was hard. We determined that neither should be forgotten. Earlier this year we photographed all the icons, and Fr Michael’s other holy pictures, and made them into a 40-page booklet, together with a commentary and explanation of each one.
Our hope is that by selling the booklets we can raise enough money to commission a new icon for the parish from Aidan Hart. Pray for us in this aim, and thank God for the beauty of art devoted to Him.
The booklet Proclaiming the Gospel in Art in Headingley is for sale from Mark Wilson, at [email protected], for £12 including postage
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