More Than Buildings

Created: Apr 18, 2024
Category: General News

With Order support, conservation experts are creating digital scans of Ukraine’s churches to protect the country’s cultural heritage

By Karolina Świder



The nine towers of the 18th-century Holy Trinity Cathedral in Novomoskovsk, Ukraine, stand tall against the sky. The silhouette of this Orthodox church — the largest entirely wooden church in Ukraine — is truly exceptional, its cluster of towers, each crowned with a pear-shaped dome, more reminiscent of a small city than a single building. It was built, incredibly, without a single nail.

Unfortunately, this pearl of what is called Cossack Baroque architecture is currently located less than 75 miles from the front line between Ukraine and Russia; rockets regularly fly overhead. And it is far from the only church endangered by the war. As of February 2024, the United Nations has verified damage to nearly 130 religious buildings since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In response to this threat, conservationists are racing to create detailed records of Ukraine’s historic churches, a project they are tackling with support from the Knights of Columbus and Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law & Policy Research, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization specializing in the protection of cultural heritage. Since October 2023, experts and students have been using K of C-funded laser-scanning equipment to produce 3D maps of vulnerable wooden structures that could be used to restore them if they are damaged.

With each church destroyed by the conflict, a piece of Ukraine’s cultural and artistic heritage is lost — and the Knights of Columbus, which counts more than 2,000 members in Ukraine, has a responsibility to act, said State Deputy Youriy Maletskiy.

“It is through architecture, through the churches that exist, that one can understand the very spirituality of the people of a country,” Maletskiy explained. “Our task is to preserve this heritage for future generations and multiply it.”


This is not the Knights’ first project related to reconstruction. In 2017, after the town of Karamles, Iraq, was liberated from ISIS, the Knights of Columbus donated $2 million to help the town rebuild. The funds enabled the restoration of more than 500 houses, as well as the local church of St. Addai.

This time, the Order, working with Red Arch, is focused on preventing the loss of invaluable religious and cultural heritage.

“When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started on Feb. 24, 2022, the first thing everyone thought about was obviously protecting life and protecting civilians,” said Carolyn Guile, Red Arch’s executive director. But, she went on, “there is a direct connection between the protection and support of civilian life and culture, and the protection of the cultural heritage that they create and use. You could say a deliberate attack on a society’s cultural heritage is a form of cultural cleansing.”

Ukrainians are acutely aware of this; they have been fighting for the recognition and preservation of their cultural identity for centuries. In the 19th century, the Russian Empire went so far as to officially forbid the construction of wooden churches in the territory of Ukraine to dilute the specificity of Ukrainian design. Nevertheless, no country in Europe today has as many wooden churches as Ukraine.

“These monuments are very special in terms of architectural forms and technologies,” explained Mykola Bevz, vice president of the Ukrainian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Landmarks and head of the Department of Architecture and Conservation at Lviv Polytechnic National University. “They are completely different from Norwegian churches, Polish churches; completely different from Russian churches.”

The buildings vary in structure, style and construction technique depending on the region, but they all have at least one thing in common: “They are very delicate,” said Bevz, whose department is working closely with Red Arch on the project. “They can easily be burned; they don’t necessarily need to be shot at — even a remote fire can set these objects on fire.”

The first scans took place last fall in eastern Ukraine, close to the front. To start, Bevz and his colleagues selected 11 of the most valuable examples of wooden and sacred architecture in the region, most from the 18th century and early 19th century. The team worked with a sense of urgency, in exposed Eastern areas where lingering can be dangerous. The process can take anywhere from 10 hours to a few days, depending on the intricacy of the architecture and other factors.

The scanners use lasers to take millions of measurements of each building, and computer software can render the data, called a point cloud, into a 3D model. This detailed mapping has many potential uses: Not only does it provide a digital record of unique pieces of architecture for study and research, it could facilitate faithful reconstruction or conservation work.

“Every church is like a living organism. It gets sick very often, just like a person,” said Bevz. “Digital technology allows us to model the object, to identify all its diseases. And then we can make complex diagnostics.”

The digital records could also be used in future court cases related to attacks on cultural heritage.

“Most Ukrainian museum collections are not digitized,” explained Yuri Yanchyshyn, a wood preservation expert who has been a part of the project from its beginning. “This is a huge problem, because some of the stolen works of art, from Kherson or Mariupol museums for instance, will never be returned to Ukraine, as it is impossible to document in court that those objects belonged to those museums.”

While sacred architecture cannot be stolen, it can be destroyed, and the laser scans could serve as legal proof that a church which is no longer standing once existed.


The experts scanning the churches are motivated not only by fascination with the architecture but by the knowledge that this project is meaningful for the people of Ukraine.

“The team scanning highlighted how the locals were so grateful and happy to see them show up,” said Guile. “They cared about this.”

Parishioners are taking an active interest in the advancement of the project. One gentleman from Novomoskovsk — a city of nearly 70,000 that will soon change its name to Nova Samar — has already sent Bevz a dozen letters to get updates about Holy Trinity Cathedral because he is worried about his church.

In Fastiv, where the Church of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos was scanned in February, Father Vitalii Martsyniuk reflected on the importance of sacred architecture in the life of the Ukrainian people: “Whenever the enemy came to destroy our culture, our language, our traditions, the churches were the first targeted, as they are a way to unite people, and they constitute a nation’s identity,” said Father Martsyniuk, who serves as the chaplain of Sts. Borys and Hlib Council 17740.

“These churches have great value,” added Oleksandr Kvechuk, a member of the same council. “This is our story, our culture. Destroying them is destroying our history — and without history, there is no future.”

Ihor Bokalo, associate professor in the Department of Architecture and Conservation at Lviv Polytechnic National University, said that the scanning project gave him a new understanding of the purpose of his work.

“It is not about the conservation itself, but about the people using this object,” he said. “We had an understanding of preserving it for future generations.”

With somewhere between 800 and 2,000 wooden churches in Ukraine, there is still plenty of work for the scanning team. Once the two last churches from the pilot list of 11 are completed, the team will move forward to work on another 25 structures.

Red Arch also aims to advance research and education in Ukraine. “We would like to support the acquisition of equipment for Ukrainian conservation labs so they could be on the cutting edge of their own conservation research,” Guile explained.

The architectural school in Kharkiv has already invited Mykola Bevz and his students to Odesa, in southern Ukraine, for a demonstration of and training on using the new scanning equipment. The city’s historic center is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List of historical landmarks with international legal protection.

The project launched by Red Arch in partnership with the Knights of Columbus goes far beyond the preservation of material culture and architecture. The scanned churches are important primarily in reference to people: those who built them centuries ago, those using them today, and future generations, who will find preserved in them a unique part of their national identity.

Trinity Cathedral in Novomoskovsk is still vulnerable and could still be destroyed, but it can now also be rebuilt, and will not be forgotten.

“I really would like to express our profound thanks to the Knights of Columbus for the partnership in this project and for their immediate recognition of why it’s important,” said Guile. “Structures like this are important not only for the spiritual health of local communities, but for their very life.”

To learn more about the work of the Knights of Columbus Ukraine Solidarity Fund, visit


KAROLINA ŚWIDER writes from Kraków, Poland.