The Holy Martyr Archpriest Vasily Martysz, also Basil Martysz, was a Polish Orthodox priest of the first half of the twentieth century. Beginning his career as a missionary in North America, he returned to his homeland that was soon engulfed in World War I. Following the war he was placed in charge of Orthodox affairs in the newly formed Polish army, a position he held for twenty five years. He was martyred in May 1945, in the closing days of World War II by brigands who attacked his family without mercy. He is commemorated on May 4.
Vasily Martysz was born on February 20, 1874 in Tertyn that today is in the Hrubieszow region of southeastern Poland. His father, Alexander Martysz, was a judge in Molczyce, near Pinsk, who after he retired was ordained a priest and served in a local parish.
In 1884, when Vasily was ten years old, he accompanied his father on a trip to New York where he met Bishop Vladimir of the Aleutians. Bp. Vladimir noting Vasily’s singing during a church service predicted Vasily becoming a priest and invited him to the American diocese.
Having decided to follow his father into the priesthood, Vasily attended the seminary in Chelm of which the Bp. Tikhon, the future Patriarch of Moscow was rector. Upon graduating from the seminary in July 1899, Vasily was ordained a deacon after he had married Olga Nowik. In December 1900, he was ordained a priest, and the couple sailed for New York.
Upon reaching the United States Fr. Vasily was assigned to Afognak parish in the Territory of Alaska, a parish that covered Spruce and Woody islands near Kodiak. At Afognak he built the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Virgin. In order to service the large area of his parish he traveled by kayak and was away from home much of his time. Yet he continued to teach in the parish school. Through these difficult times his wife, Olga, gave birth to two daughters. Because of the harsh life in Alaska and concern for the education of his daughters, in 1906, Fr. Vasily was transferred back to the United States, to Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania. In Osceola Mills, Fr. Vasily and Olga were blessed with a son. In the following years Fr. Vasily and his family accepted assignments in succession at Old Forge, Pennsylvania, where his youngest child, a daughter, was born, then at Edmonton before serving in Vostok, Canada. In 1912, Fr. Vasily and his family returned to Poland.
In Poland, Fr Vasily returned to be with relatives in Sosnowiec. Here, he became the rector of the local parish and a teacher at the girls’ high school. The outbreak of World War I, however, disrupted their lives again. To escape the war front, the clergy were moved to safety in Russia. Taking up an offer of his Archpastor, Vladimir of Alaska, Fr. Vasily and his family took refuge within the St. Andronik Monastery in Moscow. After the Bolshevik takeover, in 1919, as Polish refugees they were allowed to return to their old residences in Poland.
Having gained its freedom following World War I, Poland began to organize an army. In September 1919, Fr. Vasily received an assignment to a position in the Religious Ministry of the War Department in which he was placed in charge of Orthodox Affairs, with responsibility for forming an Orthodox military chaplaincy. With the new assignment Fr. Vasily and his family moved to Warsaw. In 1921, he became head of the Orthodox military chaplaincy, and he was promoted to the rank of colonel. Paralleling his military promotion the Church elevated him to archpriest. He continued in this position until he retired from it in 1936.
Fr. Vasily was also deeply involved in the affairs of the Church of Poland. He was an advisor and friend of George (Jaraszewski), Metropolitan of Warsaw and All Poland. Fr. Vasily assisted Metr. George in his efforts to obtain autocephaly for the Polish Church. On February 8, 1923, Fr. Vasily was accompanying Metr. George when an assassin attacked the two. Before the assassin was captured he had killed the Metropolitan. Although under police protection after the attack, Fr. Vasily organized the Metropolitan’s funeral that was conducted under the protection of the First Regiment of the Szwolezers.
During the tenure of Metr. George’s successor, Metr. Dionsius (Waledynski), Fr. Vasily continued his vigorous participation in pursuit of autocephaly which was obtained in 1925. Fr. Vasily became Metr. Dionsius’ closest advisor, acting as liaison with the Polish Head of State, Marshall Pilsudski. As a part of marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination on December 7, 1925, Fr. was awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta for his efforts in securing autocephaly for the Church of Poland.
During the early 1920s, Fr. Vasily was active in organizing pastoral ministry among the many Ukrainian refugees who were settled in camps in Poland. He assigned Fr. Peter Biton as chaplain in the Aleksandrow Kujawski camp, visited the internees, and arranged for churches in the camps. Using his knowledge of the Ukrainian language he celebrated the Divine Liturgy before 5,000 on July 8, 1921, greatly improving the morale of the internees.
After his retirement from government service in 1936, Fr. Vasily and his family returned for a life of retirement to their home region of Hrubieszowszczna. But, the invasion of Poland in 1939 by Germany caused a drastic change in the lives of Fr. Vasily’s family. With the occupation the quality of life in the village of Teratyn declined. The mothers of Fr. Vasily and his wife both died. In 1943, his wife, Olga, died. The family of his youngest daughter, Helen, moved into his home to care for him. Then, on May 4, 1945, in the chaos of the last days of World War II in Europe, his household was unmercifully attacked by lawless bandits who caused his daughter to miscarriage from a beating and who beat and tortured Fr. Vasily before finally murdering him by gun shot. Fr. Vasily was buried, first, in the cemetery in Teratyn, before being re-interred in 1963 in the Orthodox cemetery in Warsaw next to his wife Olga and his mother.
Before the promulgation of the Act of Canonization on March 20, 2003, Fr. Vasily’s relics were exhumed and placed in the Church of St. John Climacus in Warsaw. Then, rites of glorification of St. Vasily Martysz were celebrated in Chelm on June 7-8, 2003. St. Vasily Martysz is the patron saint of Orthodox Christians of the Polish Army.