Precentor (diak). A layman in Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches whose function is to assist in church services. In the Orthodox church precentors are also called psalmists (psalomshchyky). Their duties include reading responses and singing (during the Divine Liturgy and other services), directing the church choir, and assisting the priest in the fulfillment of his pastoral duties. Sometimes precentors have the privilege of wearing a surplice during church services. This custom is no longer practiced in the Catholic church.
In Kyivan Rus’ precentors were considered church people. From the beginning they were supported materially by their parishes, and their position was defined by local common law; thus the precentor was more dependent on the people than was the priest. Precentors usually lived in the church buildings, were allowed to farm a portion (approx one-third to one-half) of the church lands, and were entitled to one-third of the customary payments made by parish members. In Russian-ruled Ukraine these norms were regulated by the church reforms of 1869 and 1885. In some areas precentors received an annual income (rokivshchyna), paid either in cash or in goods, from each parish family. The better precentors were sometimes ordained as deacons or priests, particularly during the period when theological training was lax. In the 18th century these priests were known as ‘little precentors’ (diachky) in Galicia.
In some areas, mainly in Russian-ruled Ukraine, precentors had some seminary training or attended a brotherhood school, but little is known of their specialized training. In the 17th and 18th centuries many Cossacks became precentors, and a special school for them was established at the monastery school of the Zaporozhian Sich. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were special courses for Orthodox and Greek Catholic precentors at eparchial chancelleries and monasteries, which usually lasted two or three years but sometimes only several months. Practice in church singing and church rites were emphasized, but brief courses in dogma, church history, and pastoral theology were also taught. These courses were under the authority of the local bishops, and in some places there were boarding schools for the students. There was a precentors' school at the Orthodox metropolitan's residence in Chernivtsi. In 1817 an institute for training Greek Catholic precentors was established in Peremyshl; graduates were also qualified to teach catechism. The institute's director was Rev Ivan Mohylnytsky. A similar school existed in Lviv, and qualified precentors were trained at the Greek Catholic seminary in Uzhhorod. In all cases this training was concluded with formal examinations conducted by special eparchial commissions, and graduates received diplomas; smaller and poorer parishes, however, had a large number of amateur peasant precentors. Especially in Western Ukraine, the number of qualified precentors increased steadily, and by the 1930s more than 60 percent of them had diplomas.
A special function of the early precentors was the teaching of reading and writing. As early as the 11th century they were teaching children on an elementary level, either privately or in church-affiliated schools. Precentor-teachers in the 14th to 18th centuries were called dydaskaly (pedagogues) or bakaliari (tutors). During the 16th and 17th centuries itinerant tutors were widely known throughout Ukraine. These were usually former students of the Kyivan Mohyla Academy or other colleges who taught the children of priests, Cossack officers, or burghers. They were also known for their carousing and were facetiously dubbed pyvorizy (beer guzzlers); many sang songs and composed verses satirizing the church and other institutions. A Russian order of 1782 abolished itinerant tutors; thereafter they had to remain in one place and fulfill their church duties there. Until the end of the 19th century most teachers in parochial schools were precentors; their schools operated in parallel with the state schools established at the end of the 18th century.
The shortage of teachers in Western Ukraine led the government to allow precentors to teach in elementary church schools. Many nobles, however, opposed popular education even in this primitive form and pressed precentors into military service, despite a 1788 decree exempting precentor-teachers from such service. In the first half of the 19th century the elementary education of Ukrainians under Austria-Hungary (especially in Transcarpathia) still depended almost exclusively on the priest and the precentor-teacher. The precentors also did beneficial social work in the villages. Since many were among the best-educated peasants, they were usually the village scribes, and they maintained the parish register; they also organized choirs and made other contributions to cultural and educational life.
In Galicia there was a separate professional organization, the Precentors' Mutual-Aid Society, based in Lviv. The society, headed for many years by Revs Ye. Dutkevych and V. Lonchyna, published the journal Diakivs’ki vidomosti (1923–39). The first vocational publication for Galician precentors was Diakivs’kyi hlas (Precentor's Voice, 1895–1910), later Holos diakiv (Voice of the Precentors, 1910–14), published in Stanyslaviv (Ivano-Frankivsk). In Bukovyna the Orthodox precentors published Diakivs’ki vidomosti (Precentors' News) from 1910 to 1914. In the United States, the Society of Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Precentor-Teachers of America was founded in 1913, and in 1918–19 it published the journal Ridna shkola (Jersey City).
Today most church parishes outside Ukraine have their own precentor, but there are no formal organizations for precentor training or affiliation.
[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]