With K of C support, preservation experts use laser scans to document endangered Ukrainian churches
By Mateusz Ziomber
The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Vyazivka, Ukraine — built entirely from wood, without a single nail — stood for 160 years, surviving two world wars and decades of atheistic communism. In March 2022, the small Orthodox church was devastated by a Russian rocket, one of scores of historic buildings destroyed since Russia invaded Ukraine a year and a half ago. According to estimates from UNESCO, more than 180 of the country’s cultural sites, including more than 70 religious buildings, were damaged or destroyed between February and August 2022.
In response, the Knights of Columbus is supporting an initiative to document and preserve Ukraine’s sacred architecture, particularly its historic wooden churches. Experts will soon start taking detailed laser scans of these structures with equipment funded by the Order — scans that could be a critical resource for future repairs or even, in the worst-case scenario, complete reconstruction.
The project began when Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law & Policy Research, a U.S.-based organization specializing in cultural heritage protection, reached out to the Ukrainian scientific community with simple question: “How can we help?”
“We thought about a concrete project that’s really going to make a difference in the near and long term to protect Ukrainian culture,” said Carolyn Guile, Red Arch’s executive director. “We talked with our Ukrainian partners, and we came to the conclusion that we should acquire and donate equipment enabling documentation of cultural heritage.”
After discussions with Mykola Bevz, head of the Department of Architecture and Restoration at Lviv Polytechnic National University, it was decided to focus specifically on wooden structures in the eastern part of the country.
“No other country in Europe has as many wooden architecture monuments as Ukraine,” Bevz said. “These monuments are very special in terms of architectural forms and technologies. They are completely different from Norwegian churches, Polish churches; completely different from Russian churches. And they are very delicate. They can easily be burned; they don’t necessarily need to be shot at — even a remote fire can set these objects on fire.”
Wood preservation expert Yuri Yanchyshyn was also consulted. A first-generation Ukrainian American, Yanchyshyn has been active in historic conservation in Ukraine for many years.
“This documentation will allow the Ukrainian people to preserve their culture. This is important not only today, not only for the next weeks, months or years, but for the next generations,” he said. “This equipment will make it possible to record very accurately the architectural facades of wooden churches, particularly Cossack 18th-century wooden churches in eastern Ukraine, which are still undocumented.”
Thanks to the Order’s support, the scanning equipment is already in Ukraine and will soon be put to use by a team of Ukrainian restoration specialists and students.
Protecting historic churches goes beyond preserving Ukraine’s material heritage. These wooden structures are more than monuments of the past. They are at the heart of the Christian community, centers of faith and life connecting generations — past, present and future.
MATEUSZ ZIOMBER writes from Kraków, Poland.