“I Don’t Think of Icons Because All the Saints I Find in Books and Encyclopedias…”
As he walks he holds the hand of a young priest with whom he is staying during his visit to Lviv, but when he sees us with a photographer, he let’s go of the priest’s hand and cheerfully walk on by himself. For the centenarian Father Dmytro Blazheiovskyi vigorousness is a lifestyle. Even at his age, he travels the world, writes books, recently started using a computer, grows his own vegetables, and cooks. Only he no longer embroiders for even with glasses his sight is poor. That’s alright because it’s time for him to rest. Throughout his lifetime he has embroidered more that 350 icons and church banners, and wrote close to 40 books.
“Here you see the first icon I embroidered; it is of the Vyshhorod Mother of God. Now looking at all these icons I myself can’t believe that I did all of this with my own hands. And this is only some of my work for a lot is found in churches – four icons in Munich, four banners in London, in our St. Yurii Church. My work is only found in sacred places. You will not find any of my icons in private collections…”
It may be hard to believe, but all the works that make up the huge collection in this exhibition were handmade by Fr. Blazheinovskyi. He jokes: to capture all the saints with the help of a needle and a thread, more that 40 years of his life were needed! At first glance it is a lot, but if to recall that the man is 100 years old, then such a period doesn’t seem so long. In fact, the Father only began embroidering late in his life, when he turned 60. As others his age were retiring, he took on a new profession.
“For a small icon I spent 3-4 weeks, for a bigger one, about 5-6… I embroidered every day: on Sundays, on Saturdays, I never took time off, from morning until night. Now I have problems with my sight so I no longer embroider. I think I’ve embroidered enough though, now its time to rest a little…”
Dmytro Blazheiovskyi was born in Lemkivshchyna, went to school in Peremyshl, and eventually went to Rome and the USA. The Museum of Embroidered Icons in his honor, however, was opened in Lviv, “Why in Lviv? Because I used to travel a lot through Ukraine to display my work. And so they would not get lost, I always left them in this city because I had a lot of acquaintances and friends here. Later I thought to myself: why not open a museum here.”
In addition to the fact that the he began embroidering late in his life, the priest amazes people by his knowledge of computer technology, which he also just recently learned. He said that in Rome, he was the first Ukrainian to have a computer. He bought it in order to type up his books. “Although I type slowly, I have written many books. And 42 have been published! But that is if you include books, brochures, various albums, collections of designs in addition to 13 academic books and 10 spiritual ones. Some have 1,000 pages, which takes years to write…”
“The Father truly works a lot,” adds Fr. Ihor Kovalchuk, who is hosting Fr. Blazheiovskyi during his stay in Lviv, “when I wake up in the morning, he is already reading or writing something. In the evening it’s the same – he doesn’t go to bed before midnight. I don’t know where all this energy comes from.”
In response, Fr. Blazheiovskyi states that he wrote and will continue writing because he doesn’t know any other way, as if saying that he needs to share knowledge with people. He says he was the first to start making embroidered icons, so now he must publish special albums so that people will look at patterns and start to embroider. “People buy these books and start making icons for their homes,” says Fr. Blazheiovskyi, “and now people all over the world have been taking it up, even in the Donbas…”
The father is very proud of his series of icons “Holy Women,” which occupy a whole wall in the museum. He says that every woman can find her namesake… It is also worth noting the images of secular figures such as Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, and Markian Shashkevych. Furthermore, near the entrance every visitor will find an embroidered Blazheiovskyi. He was depicted with a full beard and glasses by an artist from the Ivano-Frankivsk region.
Fr. Blazheiovskyi earned respect not only when he was older, but back when he was young and walked from Prague to Rome. He says that he had nothing to do on his vacation time so he decided to take a walk. He had no money for the road, no passport, so instead of going to Rome by train, he went by foot. He didn’t even have a map. He asked people along the way directions, and used the positioning of the sun…Later he entered the Ukrainian theological institute in the Vatican as a seminarian. There he was ordained as a priest and the bishop sent him to American to build Ukrainian parishes and churches. “It was in America where I began to embroider. You know, there was no money for at first the community was very small, and the church needed a altar cloth, so I decided to embroider one… I had a difficult life in America. I earned 50 dollars a month, well, occasionally 100, so I had nothing to live on. What was I to do? Two years I lived in church galleries because I could not rent my own room and I needed to work during the nights – I swept floors, washed dishes at restaurants. And I made sure the bishop didn’t know, because that would have meant trouble…”
The role that Blazheiovskyi played in the USA is hard to overestimate, for he formed a Ukrainian community, collected money to build a church, assisted entire families move to the States. He helped them find work, helped them financially, and helped them find places to live. He built a church in more than one state: Missouri, Colorado, and Texas.
In 1973 the reverend returned to Rome where he has an apartment. Despite his age, he continues to do physical work. Most of the food he eats he grows in his garden. When he gathers the harvest, he celebrates with his neighbors. He calculated that on a summer day it takes 120 liters to water his plants. And he is not lazy when it comes to carrying the water.
As our conversation ends, a group of school children enters the museum. The children, upon seeing the artist, take out their cameras and cell phones from their bags and begin to take pictures of him. He proceeds to sign some books for them and then stands with them for some pictures.
“Children, do you embroider? Are you taught in school? Oh, that is good there are such teachers… Embroider for your homes, for your moms. You know, on August 21 I will celebrate my birthday in Lviv, there will be bandura players, maybe the ambassador from Rome will come, and you come as well if you can…”
Photo by Yurii Helytovych