The Martyrdom of the Drelów Uniates
17th of January 1874
The Drelów parish has a long history, beginning in the 1650’s. The first church was built in 1653 and founded by the owner of Drelów, Zofia Danilowiczowa. When the church was finished, a new Uniate (Catholic, using Byzantine ceremonial) parish was created.
The Uniate Church came into being within the borders of Poland as a result of a union signed in Brzesc on the river Bug (Central Europe) in 1596. There, members of the Orthodox Church, who lived in the eastern territories of the Commonwealth, agreed to a union with the Roman Catholic Church, recognising the Pope as a visible head of the Church. At the same time, the so called Uniates were able to keep their organisation and hierarchy as well as their eastern liturgy and rites in the Old Slavonic language.
At the end of the seventeenth century, as a result of partitions, the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania ceased to exist. The region of Podlasie became part of the Russian Empire. The tsars decided to make the Uniates return to the Orthodox Church, which was practically under their control. In the second half of the nineteenth century, prosecutions began. At first Uniates were persuaded to voluntarily convert to the Orthodox confession. Then parishes were given orders that were aimed at eliminating Roman Catholic elements from the Uniate rites. As this did not give satisfactory results, the prosecutions began. If a Uniate parish did not fulfil orders, the parish members were punished through confiscation of farm animals, high fines, even whipping. The Uniates showed great resistance to that. In 1873, the administrator of the Chelm diocese, father Marceli Popiel (nominated by the tsar against the will of the Holy See) issued an edict, ordering the Union to be unconditionally abolished by the 1st of January 1874. Those priests who did not obey this order were forced to flee or were taken to prison.
In January 1874, the parish priest of Drelów announced in church that there is no choice but to obey the tsar’s order. When he began celebrating mass according to the new order, an uproar started in the church. The people of the Drelów parish forced their priest out of the church, taking his keys to it. This incident quickly became known to the Russian authorities. As they expected some reaction from the authorities, many people gathered near the church.
On the 17th of January 1874, soldiers – two units of infantry and a hundred Cossacks - came under the command of lieutenant-colonel Bek. The people gathering by the church were surrounded and all the roads to Drelów were blocked. The commander demanded the people to give back the keys and leave the area near the church. The people replied: “We have come here to pray quietly beside our church and we have committed no crime on holy land. We prefer to die here – they cried – that is why we have come, we will not go away and we will not give back the keys.” In reply, as one of the people recalled, the commander gave orders to tie people up. Suddenly, someone from the crowd rang the bell as an alarm and, immediately, all the gathered people moved to the front of the church, demonstrating the will to defend it. The army entered the church premises. The tied up people were dragged out of the cemetery. The army started beating the defenders with whips and swords. After a short struggle, the soldiers withdrew to a position opposite to the cemetery gate. The commanders held a council.
It is known from a reliable source (this is what father Telakowski reported to Rome) that colonel Beck, through his superiors, contacted St. Petersburg about the case of the Drelów parish. The answer he received was "Pieriebit’ vsiech" ("kill everyone”). As colonel Bek ordered, the soldiers opened fire. The people fell to their knees and, leaving their chests bare to the shooting, sang: “Who shall give himself away to God’s care...” and “Oh, Holy God...”. One of the people recalled that Jan Romaniuk from Przechodzisko, standing to the right of the entrance, under the bell-tower, fell to the ground, bleeding, shot in the head. Teodor Oltuszyk, known as Chwedor Bocian, shot in the breast, fell beside the church door. Andrzej Charytoniuk lay wounded between the bell-tower and the church. The leader of Uniate conspiracy, Semen Pawluk, was also killed. After the shooting, the soldiers rushed to the cemetery and started hitting the gathered people with the metal ends of their guns. The soldiers closely surrounded the cemetery, keeping the defenders inside. The gathered people were not allowed to go to their homes. They were kept there in the freezing temperature through the night, until noon the next day (the 18th of January). The surrounded people prayed. The commander tried to force the gathered members of the Drelów parish to swear that they would not object any more to the Orthodox Church. When the people firmly refused, he ordered them to be beaten with metal ends of guns and whipped. Children were given 10 to 25 whips, women up to 100 and men up to 200.
According to all known sources, there were 13 victims of the struggle with the Russians and the shooting: Semen Pawluk, Wincenty Bazyluk, Teodor Bocian, Andrzej Charytoniuk, Trochim Charytoniuk, Jan Kosciuczyk, Teodor Kosciuczyk, Paweł Kozak, Andrzej Kubik, Jan Kubik, Jan Lucik, Jan Romaniuk, Onufry Tomaszuk. To this number we can add at least nine victims who died as a result of the beating, known by name, and about 200 wounded people.
A week later, similar doings took place in the Pratulin parish. After these events, the declared Uniates were forced to go into hiding. They were not allowed to practice their rites for over thirty years. In the 1930’s, the process of the beatification of the martyrs of Drelów and Pratulin was begun. It was interrupted by the Second World War and began again only in 1989. As there was no information about the burial place of the Drelów Uniates, the case was concentrated on the Pratulin martyrs. They were beatified by Pope John Paul II on the 6th of October 1996.