Dr. Maria Fischer-Slysh of Toronto donates $1 million to Ukrainian Catholic University

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  • March 22, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - You can’t buy miracles, but a $1-million gift to the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv is helping a miracle carry on in tough economic times.

“UCU is a set of miracles and it’s an important work and presence for the church,” Jesuit Father David Nazar wrote to The Catholic Register from Lviv shortly after the university announced a gift of $1 million from Toronto resident Dr. Maria Fischer-Slysh.

The gift from retired pediatrician Fischer-Slysh is part of a long history of giving to preserve Ukrainian culture by Fischer-Slysh and her late husband, Dr. Rudolf Fischer. Both were from families dispersed through Europe and North America as Soviet authorities cracked down on “enemies of the people” in the 1930s.

In the past the couple contributed $100,000 toward publication of the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, and $5,000 to support a history of the Holodomor — a campaign of farm collectivization in 1932-33 which led to starvation deaths of six -to seven-million Ukrainians.

Fischer-Slysh’s gift will endow two permanent professorships plus provide scholarships at the fledgling university where most students are unable to afford tuition.

“At this time it’s vitally important given the economic situation,” said Lada Darewych of the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation in Toronto .

With world financial markets in crisis and many banks in Ukraine teetering, institutions such as the university have been unable to freely access the money they have, said Darewych.

“A large sum like that transferred to the university really puts them in a much more stable position than a lot of other institutions,” she said. “It’s a security blanket like no other.”

Starting a university without public funding is an enormous task under any circumstance, but it’s been particularly difficult in a bankrupt, post-Soviet state where church institutions are often viewed with suspicion, said Nazar, a former provincial superior of the Jesuits in English Canada who has spent the last decade helping the church in Ukraine build up seminaries and schools that were suppressed from the Second World War until the 1990s.

While the university plays an important role in providing general and theological education to a growing number of men who wish to be ordained, it also has an important role in educating lay people for leadership in the church and society, Nazar said.

“Each year the student body increases. More lay students study theology there than candidates for the priesthood — though there are other degree programs, such as history, philosophy and languages,” said Nazar’s e-mail. “In other words, the future lay church is being created there.”

The critical difference between the Ukrainian Catholic University and most other universities in Ukraine is the absence of a Soviet heritage, said Darewych.

“It works on Western standards,” she said. “Most of the universities there are still functioning in the old Soviet way. It’s not uncommon for students to have to pay bribes to attend university.”

The Ukrainian diaspora plays an essential role in ensuring the success of the university in Lviv, said Darewych.

“Donors from the U.S., Canada and Europe put together I think provided about 80 per cent of the university’s operating budget,” she said.

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