December 6, 2010
Pope Pius XI

Pope Pius XI


Edmonton has a special relationship with the Holodomor. It was the first major urban centre in the world to have a monument to the victims of the 1932-33 famine. That unveiling took place on the 50th anniversary of the famine in 1983.

On the 75th anniversary in 2008, members of the Alberta legislature passed Bill 37 to declare a day of remembrance for the victims of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine. The fourth Saturday in November was thus proclaimed as Ukrainian Famine and Genocide (Holodomor) Memorial Day.

During 1933 local newspapers such as the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Bulletin discussed the famine in their pages. The Western Catholic, predecessor of the Western Catholic Reporter, also published several stories related to the famine.

One in particular stands out. It is the article headed “Pope Weeps as He Hears of Millions Starving in Russia” that appeared Aug. 30, 1933.

“As stoic as he is pious,” that article began, “seldom does Pope Pius XI give way to his emotions before friends or strangers in his great audience hall at the Vatican.”

However, the report continued, the pontiff “shed bitter tears not long ago when one of his Jesuits stood before him and recounted the plight of the starving millions in Soviet Russia.” That Jesuit, the report said, “was one of the few if not the only living person ever to see His Holiness weep.”


The unnamed Jesuit had returned to the Vatican from a “secret visit” to the Soviet Union where he conveyed words of support from the Holy See to Catholics and other Christians.

He mentioned the food shortages and “described how thousands of poor people wander aimlessly across the land in search of enough black bread and dried fish to keep body and soul together.” He estimated “between 10 and 12 million deaths from starvation” would occur.

The report went on to say that as those words were spoken, “the Jesuit was shocked to see tears streaming down the face of the pontiff.”

After recovering, Pope Pius XI discussed plans “for sending several hundreds of Catholics” into the Soviet Union “by the fall of this year to organize relief.” The cost of such an expedition was estimated to run in “the millions,” but the “pontiff is said to be determined to carry it out, despite the fact general economic conditions have not spared the Holy See.”


The death toll from the famine never reached the figure the Jesuit estimated, but the victims ran in the millions.

Another article in the Western Catholic of Feb. 14, 1934, reprinted from Time magazine, reported that the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, had secured the adoption of a resolution about the famine by an “informal congress of Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic churchmen from all over Europe of a resolution which was being printed into pamphlets.”

The resolution declared in part that “in the course of the present year (1933) millions of innocent persons, many of whom were residents of the richest and most fruitful parts of Russia such as the Ukraine and the North Caucasus, died of starvation.”


It then went on to assert lives could have been saved because while “this starvation tragedy was taking place in the Soviet Union, other lands overseas were suffering from a superfluity of grain.”

In the end, no expedition such as the one advocated by Pope Pius XI ever occurred. The reports that came from correspondents in the Soviet Union during the autumn of 1933 indicated a good harvest.

In August 1933 a spokesperson for the Soviet foreign office dismissed any talk of an impending famine with the retort: “I am happy to say, we have no famine and no cardinals.”

Nonetheless, the congress urged that relief measures be put into place to prevent further starvation that would occur, in spite of “the comparatively good harvest of the autumn (1933).” Even if reports had indicated a satisfactory harvest, on the basis of what had happened over preceding months in 1933, the congress participants had remained concerned.

(Serge Cipko is co-ordinator of the Ukrainian Diaspora Studies Initiative, Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre at CIUS, University of Alberta, and author of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Edmonton: A History (1902-2002).)