When Alex Kuzma was a boy growing up in Hartford, Conn., his father told him stories of his uncle Bohdan Kuzma, who was part of the Ukrainian underground movement. Bohdan joined the resistance in 1941, when the Nazis invaded his country. When the tide of World War II turned, the Soviets became his enemy.

Kuzma’s parents are immigrants from western Ukraine. His mother and father, Bohdan’s brother, fled rather than face execution or deportation to Siberia.

The family didn’t know the fate of Bohdan for a long time. It was only a few years ago that they learned he was killed by the Soviets in 1951. Kuzma remarked, “It gives you a real sense of pride and national identity. Members of my family and so many other Ukrainians have suffered so much for so long.”

Hence, when he was offered the position of executive director of the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation (UCEF.org) a year ago, he jumped at the chance. The organization raised $2.1 million in 2009, and, despite the challenges in the economy, had a strong year in 2010 as well.

“Our purpose is to tell the story of the people of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Catholic Church,” Kuzma explained. “We also raise funds to educate the people and reintroduce the Catholic faith in a country which, for over four decades, was controlled by the Soviet communists.”

UCEF’s chief mission is to raise funds for the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, Ukraine. UCEF is headquartered in Ukrainian Village in Chicago, and often holds fundraising events in cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

Kuzma grew up speaking Ukrainian in the home, and he began speaking English in kindergarten. The family attended a Ukrainian Catholic church. He recalled, “I grew up in a great community in the United States, but my family never forgot its roots in Ukraine and all the Ukrainian people have suffered, particularly in the last century. I wanted to do something to help those people and keep our tradition alive.”

Kuzma graduated from Yale University and Northeastern Law School and has devoted much of his career to social causes. Before coming to UCEF, he served as executive director for The Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund. He made frequent trips to Ukraine during this time, and got to know the country well.

And not only did he speak Ukrainian; he also learned to speak Russian, spoken by many in eastern Ukraine. It was during these trips that he learned about the mission of the Ukrainian Catholic University, which would ultimately lead him to join UCEF.

A History of Tragedies

Ukraine is located on the western border of Russia and is home to 46 million people, about 10% of whom are Catholic. Its history has been a tragic one, scarred by invasions, foreign domination, famine and warfare. In the aftermath of World War II, the Church was persecuted, priests and religious were martyred, seminaries closed and property seized. The faith had to be taught in secret.

In 1944, the Soviets closed the Lviv Theological Academy, which had been founded in 1928 as a precursor to a Catholic university. The Soviets’ goal was to merge the Ukrainian population in communion with Rome with the state-controlled Russian Orthodox Church. Those who resisted met with fierce persecution, including imprisonment, exile to Siberia and execution. For more than 40 years, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed.

It would not receive legal status until 1989, and even then, its property was not returned. In 2001, Pope John Paul II visited Ukraine and canonized many who had been martyred under the Soviet regime and encouraged the efforts of Ukrainian Catholics who had begun rebuilding the Church.

Among the Catholic institutions that reopened in new facilities was the Lviv Theological Academy in 1994. One of the founders of its second opening was an American Catholic of Ukrainian descent, Borys Gudziak, who was later ordained a priest. Papal biographer George Weigel, a longtime friend of Father Gudziak, wrote, “If I had to name the 50 Catholics whose present work is most important for the future of the world Church, Father Gudziak’s name would easily make the cut. What he has built in a decade in Lviv, starting from scratch, is breathtaking.”

Father Gudziak is now rector of the university.

The academy was renamed the Ukrainian Catholic University to indicate its broader purpose of improving the intellectual life of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

UCU Today

UCU is the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union. Its 70 faculty members teach 700 full-time students and several hundred more part-time students. About 200 of its students are seminarians, who receive free tuition. One of its two buildings, in fact, is located alongside a Ukrainian Catholic seminary.

Students study Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and liturgy from an Eastern Christian perspective. The undergraduate program includes a study in historical and systematic philosophy. The purpose of the curriculum is to provide students with a basic knowledge of the sources of philosophy and theology, from ancient to modern periods, at the same time seeking to foster students’ capacity for critical reflection.

Lviv, known for its universities, has 100,000 students. Only a small number attend UCU, yet they generate much of the public debate in town. Books published by the university win prestigious awards, and the university’s theology department was able to get theology recognized as an academic discipline, despite the prevalent secular attitudes.

The university’s 16 years of operation have produced many successful graduates. Yulia Komar, a 2000 graduate who now works for UCEF, remarked, “UCU helped me grow in my knowledge of the Church, develop my spirituality and become a better person. It was a wonderful education, both religious and in forming my worldview.”

In order to survive, UCU is dependent on funding from the West. Father Gudziak joined with another American, Jeffrey Wills, to establish the UCEF in 1997. It has raised millions of dollars since its inception. Most donors are not of Ukrainian descent, but they are motivated to give out of a desire to help re-establish the faith in Eastern Europe or to help the poor in Ukraine.

In 2010, UCEF raised nearly $3.5 million, according to Kuzma.

“With our help, both the people of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Catholic Church can have a bright future,” he said. “We’ve already seen great progress in just a few years. And we expect much more in the years to come.”

Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.