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November 4, 2010

Skull Fragment of Vladimir the Great Stolen Then Recovered in Edmonton

Brent Wittmeier
November 3, 2010
Edmonton Journal

A 1,000-year-old skull fragment believed to belong to Vladimir the Great was stolen and recovered in Edmonton over the weekend.

The 2.5-centimetre-square piece of skull, on loan from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Kyiv, was on a two-day stop in Edmonton when it was stolen in the middle of the night from a west-end home.

Vladimir is venerated by Eastern Orthodox Christians after he converted to the faith in 988 and baptized the lands under his rule, including parts of modern Ukraine and Russia.

Igumen Alexander Pihach, an Edmonton priest accompanying the relic on a cross-country tour, woke up early Friday to find his house had been broken into and the relic — housed in a ornately painted blue-and-gold box — was missing.

In the night, a thief had apparently removed a screen and broken in through the kitchen window. Alexander feared the worst: a targeted theft of a priceless object.

“We were concerned it was maybe an international burglary,” said Pihach, reached via cellphone in Saskatchewan.

It appears, however, the thief might not have been aware what the stolen object was, said Pihach, possibly grabbing the shiny container without understanding what it held. Other missing items included a wallet, some money, and a set car keys, which the thief had used to steal Pihach’s car.

Police were called and a search began. A satellite security system in the car was remotely activated, and within a few hours officers discovered the undamaged, abandoned car less than two kilometres away. The box holding the relic was inside the car.

“It was a spiritual gift that had been given to us,” said Pihach. “The loss would have been colossal.”

Police questioned a number of individuals, but have not made any arrests, said spokeswoman Patrycia Thenu.

It isn’t the first time Vladimir’s relics have been subjected to misadventure. Most of his remains were lost over a millennium of wars and invasions, particularly during Mongol attacks in the 14th century.

By 1943, all that remained was his skull, which was blown up in a Second World War shelling of a Ukrainian monastery. Only a couple of skull fragments, which had been given to a monastery in Rostov, Russia, survived the blast. One fragment was returned to Kyiv about 12 years ago, where it only emerges once a year during the Feast of St. Herman. Devout followers line up, sometimes for many hours, for the chance to see the remains of the man who brought Orthodoxy to the nation.

The Canadian itinerary is a historic and spiritually important event for Orthodox faithful across the country. After a mid-month stop at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York, where thousands are expected at weekend vigils, the relic will return to Ukraine.

“It’s a great spiritual blessing and gift that’s been given to the church because of the ancestral connection of so many of the Orthodox in Canada, to the land of Rus,” said Pihach.

Having made it through those troubling few hours, Pihach is quick to thank the Edmonton police for a “super job.”

On Saturday, Pihach presented officers with an icon of St. Vladimir at a thanksgiving service held with the grateful parishioners of St. Herman of Alaska Sobor.

The officers chose St. Vladimir as their protector, said Pihach. “That was a really powerful experience.”