Father Stefan Czmil was born on 20 October 1914 in Sudova Vyshnya, a small town in Western Ukraine, some 30 kilometers from the Polish border Rawa Ruska/Medyka. His parents, Stefan and Julia Szydlowska, were Ukrainian patriots and Christians, who managed to instill into their son a sincere love of Ukraine and the Greek-Catholic Church, as the Ukrainian Catholic Church then was officially known. After the first school years in his native town, and because he showed a keen interest in his studies, in 1925 he was sent to the Ukrainian all-boys gymnasium in Peremyshl [now Przemysl, Poland], Ukrainian town under Polish rule. The then catechist of the Gymnasium, Father Petro Holynskyj, a great admirer of Saint John Bosco, founder of the Salesian Congregation, never ceased to recount interesting episodes of the Saint’s life. Stefan Czmil was so mesmerized by these stories, masterfully presented by Father Petro, that he decided to join the Salesian Congregation. It was his goal to educate poor youths in Ukraine, in exactly the same manner, as Saint John Bosco did in his time in Italy. But how on earth was he supposed to achieve his goal?
Divine Providence stepped in to give Stefan a helping hand in order to realize his dream. In 1930 the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Cardinal Cicognani, turned to Pope Pius XI asking him permission for Eastern rite candidates to the Salesians to retain their rite and Church traditions. Permission was granted. At the same time, MetropolitanAndrey Sheptytsky, Head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (1901-1944), admiring the work of the Polish Salesians amidst the youngsters, designated Right Rev. Josafat Kotsylovskyj, Bishop of the Diocese of Peremyshl, to inform the Gymnasium’s students of his intentions to send to Italy those willing to become Salesians. When the Salesian Superiors adhered to the projected plan of accepting candidates from Ukraine to the Salesian brotherhood, allowing them to retain their rite and Church traditions, Stefan Czmil was the first, from amongst the students, to express his intentions of becoming a Salesian. Nine others were to follow him. In 1932 they set out on a long journey which would take them to the town of Ivrea, in Northern Italy, where the Salesians had their school for candidates to the Salesian brotherhood.
After having graduated from the school of Salesian aspirants with flying colours, and having expressed his wish to become a Salesian, Stefan was admitted to the Salesian Novitiate in Villa Moglia (Chieri) in 1935. He took his three-year temporary vows in 1936.
He studied Philosophy (1936-1939) at the Salesian College of Philosophical Studies in Foglizzo (Turin), then interrupted his studies in order to undergo a two-year educative stage amongst the novices of Villa Moglia, after which he was admitted to the Salesian House of Studies in Bolengo for his Theology (1941-1945), a very harsh period in his life because of the stresses and anxieties, brought upon him by World War II. Ordained a priest in 1945 by the Apostolic Visitator for Ukrainian émigrés in Western Europe, Ivan Buchko, he followed up his studies with a baccalaureate in Pedagogy in 1947 at the Salesian Pontifical Athenaeum in Turin, becoming a role model for all the present and future Ukrainian candidates to the Salesian brotherhood. But before that, he was assigned as a tourist guide at the Catacombes of Saint Callistus in Rome under Salesian Administration, where he met scores of Ukrainian refugees, whom, because they couldn’t return to their homeland for fear of being shot by the communists who regarded them as traitors (most refugees under penalty of death were forced to fight for the Third Reich), he helped to find new abode in Diaspora. He was also a teacher in the Salesian school of Valdocco (Turin) and an assistant in the Salesian Motherhouse of Valdocco to the Salesian Missionaries who came from overseas for a period of rest.
In 1948, with the assent of his Superiors, Father Stefan was sent by the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches for a twelve-year period of apostolic and missionary work amidst tens of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants in Argentina (Haedo and Ramos Mejia, suburbs of Buenos Aires). Hours upon hours of apostolic work, accomplished with so much care and love, earned him genuine respect and love from his Ukrainian flock. This helped him to overcome scores of misunderstandings with his confreres and the local political authorities who were not at all willing or ready to accept a different religious rite, diverse Church traditions and a separate culture…Twelve hard working years had all but instilled into Father Stefan the ability to cope with the faithful, dignitaries and authorities. Briefly, he was ready to become Argentina’s first Bishop for the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics. He was tipped by all to occupy that position. But, alas, that was not to be…For some unknown reason, he was sidelined by Father Andrij Sapeliak, the then Director of the Ukrainian Minor Seminary. Father Stefan was to become the new Director of the Seminary.
If Father Stefan showed himself as a genuine pastor of his flock in Argentina, as Director of the Seminary, he was truly dedicated to the edification and education of young souls and hearts. His goodness of heart and understanding of difficulties the youths experience at that age endeared him gently to the seminarians under his guidance. The Seminary, numbering 110 seminarians at one time, and comprising of a fair amount of teachers, was a very complex reality indeed. It needed all the ability and goodness Father Stefan could muster in order to manage the place efficiently. It was under his Directorate that the school received the title of “Pontifical”, mainly due to the intervention of His Beatitude, PatriarchJosyf Slipyj, head of the Greek-Catholic Church, who after an eighteen year sentence to forced labours in Siberian Gulags, was freed in 1962 and chose Rome for his new abode.
Unfortunately, despite positive results in the field of education, Father Stefan’s health started to deteriorate: liver problems. Against everyone’s advice to see a doctor, he continued his good work. Good for him, his position as that of Director of the Seminary ended in 1967. During the following years, he fulfilled his Salesian mission as a teacher, educator and confessor to the seminarians. Not only! He extended his help to the Ukrainian religious communities in Rome, as a spiritual lecturer and confessor during Spiritual Retreats or one-day Spiritual “Getaways”. He was lecturer of Italian language and literature at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Rome: He supervised and edited the second volume of the Ukrainian-Italian, Italian-Ukrainian Dictionary. He was also member of the Commission for annulments of matrimony for Ukrainians in Italy, assigned to the cases of mixed marriages. In due course, he became one of His Beatitude’s closest collaborators and advisers.
Father Stefan was in constant contact with the Ukrainian Church Hierarchy and eminent figureheads of the Ukrainian Diaspora.
In 1976 he was assigned, once again, to the position of Director of the Seminary.
Due to his sincere commitments to the cause of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and Nation, His Beatitude endowed him in the Basilica of Saint Sophia in Rome with the title of Archimandrite on 6 December 1977, proffering to him the traditional mitre, pectoral cross and crozier. Known to only a few, His Beatitude consecrated Father Stefan Bishop in secrecy on 2 April 1978 in the Monastery of the Studite Monks in Marino (near Rome). Till the end, the newly consecrated Bishop never revealed this to anyone.
Unfortunately, Father Stefan’s health deteriorated so dramatically, that he had to be hospitalized, and to make things worse, after a medical check-up, the doctors decided on an urgent operation for the extraction of the bile-stone.
After a successful period of recovery, everything seemed to be going Father Stefan’s way, but on the morning of 22 January 1978, when he entered the sacristy of the Seminary’s chapel, he didn’t feel too well at all, but insisted on celebrating the Solemn Liturgy of 09.30. After Mass he fainted in the sacristy and the Seminarians took him to his room, laid him on his bed, unaware that he died there and then.
The funeral services were held in the Seminary’s chapel on the same day in the afternoon. Rev Egidio Vigano, the newly elected General Superior of the Salesians, who were holding their General Chapter at that time, was the first to pay his last respects to Father Stefan, his very good friend: They were classmates for quite some years.
The following day, card. Paul Philippe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, with the Secretary of the same Congregation, Right Rev. Mario Brini and others blessed the inanimate body corpse of Farther Stefan.
The following day, in the Basilica of Saint Sophia, during the funeral services, presided by His Beatitude, Josyf Slipyj, came the revelation that ‘Father’ Stefan was in fact ‘Bishop’ Stefan. His Beatitude was moved to tears by the death of Father Stefan, whom he deemed his best friend. Bent over the body, he cried: ‘Oh Stefan! Oh Stefan! Why you and not me?’ As the lid of the coffin was about to be closed, His Beatitude exclaimed: ‘Place the omophor over his shoulders!’ The omophor was more than a hint at Father Stefan being a Bishop. Once the omophor was around the deceased’s shoulders, the coffin was closed and sealed.
Bishop Stefan Czmil, the first Ukrainian Byzantine-rite Salesian lies buried in the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Sophia in Rome.