Ukraine's embattled religious orders keep faith and hope alive amid war

Humanitarian aid is delivered Jan. 16, 2023, after an apartment block was heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike in Dnipro, Ukraine. Catholic groups say providing supplies to Ukrainians has become "extremely dangerous" after the missile strike and a Catholic volunteer lost a leg delivering food in the embattled Donbas region. (OSV News photo/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters)

(OSV News) -- Catholic religious orders have played a major role in channeling life-saving humanitarian aid across Ukraine since Russia's February 2022 invasion, keeping hopes alive while continuing to minister to the country's much-depleted Catholic communities.

"Although some have had to leave, most religious priests and sisters have stayed on -- and their witness has been very important for Ukrainians," Dominican Father Jaroslaw Krawiec, superior of the country's Dominican order, told OSV News. "(In addition to their) regular pastoral work, most religious houses and convents are distributing supplies and sheltering refugees. In today's dramatic conditions, their presence among those they were sent to serve has earned the Catholic Church great respect."

Father Krawiec is one of 20 Dominican priests, half from Poland, who have continued ministering in Ukraine, celebrating Masses, administering sacraments, and making regular deliveries of food and medicines, collected abroad, from their house at Fastiv, 30 miles southwest of Kyiv.

Throughout the war, friars from Ukraine have been sending letters to their Dominican communities across the globe, and to journalists, describing efforts by fellow clergy to sustain church life amid scenes of devastation and despair from Lviv in the west to Izyum and Kherson in eastern Ukraine.

In the letter dated Feb. 25, 2022, a day after the war outbreak, Dominican Father Petro S. Balog wrote: "All Dominican brothers stay in Kyiv." On April, 5, the day after the world learned about the atrocities unleashed on civilians in Bucha, Father Krawiec wrote about the little town in the outskirts of Kyiv: "Until recently, it had been an oasis of peace. Now this beautifully located town has become part of the history of human wickedness."

The Polish periodical W drodze is now publishing letters of the friars in a book, "Letters from Ukraine," coming out prior to the anniversary of the war.

Farther north in Kharkiv, just 25 miles from the Russian border, Sister Renata Jurczak from the Little Missionary Sisters of Charity, popularly known as Orionine Sisters after their founder, St. Luigi Orione, agrees the religious orders have been vital in maintaining morale.

The order has provided help for homeless children since the 1990s in Kharkiv, where it opened a home for single mothers in 2008.

Serving in Ukraine for 29 years little prepared her for what she has witnessed in recent months.

On the eve of Russia's invasion, fearing the worst, Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia instructed Sister Jurczak, her fellow religious sisters and the 40 children in their care to leave for western Ukraine.

"When the war started, there was little ammunition and defensive equipment, and the Russians looked set to take Kharkiv. The bishop feared there'd be scenes of rape and murder similar to those (we later saw) in Bucha," Sister Jurczak told OSV News from Nowy Sacz, Poland, Feb. 1.

"There was panic, fear and confusion, as well as shock and incomprehension that we were being bombed and shelled. The presence of priests and sisters -- praying, suffering, even crying with them in the cellars and metro stations -- gave people enormous hope," Jurczak told OSV News.

Catholic clergy from Poland are a major presence in the seven dioceses that make up Ukraine's Latin-rite Catholic Church, while virtually all Ukrainian-born clergy speak Polish as a second language or received training in Poland.

Under communism, Poland's persecuted but officially operating church provided lifeline support for Ukraine's underground Catholics. When Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in December 1991, Polish priests and women religious helped make up for its post-communist shortage of native clergy.

And while some orders, such as the Franciscans, now rely on local vocations, others such as the Dominican and Ursuline sisters, are largely made up of Poles with motherhouses in Poland.

Benedictine sisters in Lviv and Zhytomyr have sheltered over 700 refugees since the war started.

"They've come from the eastern war zones of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and elsewhere -- and with their homes bombed and demolished and their relatives killed, they've nowhere to go back to," one of the Benedictines, Sister Bernadeta, told Polish KAI agency in December.

When the invasion was heralded by missile strikes and artillery barrages, Polish clergy were given an opportunity to leave -- and some, such as the Pauline Fathers of Mariupol, were forced to evacuate, leaving their house in the besieged city's Lady of Czestochowa parish to be commandeered as a Russian headquarters.

With the many choosing to stay on, however, stories of courage and self-sacrifice became common.

A Polish Salesian working in Odessa, Sister Anna Zajaczkowska, related to KAI how she and others had packed emergency provisions and taped up their convent windows to prevent injury from flying glass.

A Sacred Heart priest from Lubien Kujawski in central Poland, Father Tadeusz Wolos, told Vatican Radio his parishioners in Irpin, Ukraine, had buried family members in gardens and backyards, while attempting to protect their newly built church, dedicated to St. Teresa of Lisieux.

Poland itself has remained the first destination for Ukrainian refugees, with 5.7 million crossing its borders between February and August, and many finding shelter in Catholic parishes, convents and monasteries.

And while Polish religious orders have set up bank accounts and launched aid appeals throughout the conflict, lay movements also have been key.

Poland's branch of the Knights of Columbus, with more than 7,000 members spread across 33 dioceses, has sent over 100 trucks of food and other supplies to Ukraine with over $20 million worth of emergency aid, while the Order of Malta collected and donated a similar sum during 2022, much of it distributed through religious orders to the people of Ukraine.

They also have worked closely with the Ukrainian Catholic Church, headed by Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych. The Eastern-rite church’s own orders -- such as the Basilians of Kherson, Redemptorists of Berdyansk and Incarnate Word Fathers in Skadovsk -- also have played heroic roles.

When a Ukrainian Catholic priest, Father Vitaliy Zubak, and Sister Darija Panast, of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, were injured by Russian artillery fire while delivering Caritas aid near Kharkiv Jan. 24, Archbishop Shevchuk paid tribute to clergy who daily risked death "helping those whose lives have been broken by the Russian occupier."

Father Krawiec, the Dominican superior, says he's grateful for the "great wave of solidarity" shown from the first days of the war by church communities in Poland, in the U.S. and elsewhere, who have donated aid, including winter heaters and power generators, which can be passed on for the sick, elderly and destitute.

He told OSV News that "no one can know all the stories of sacrifice and dedication this war has brought about, but they'll be told one day in the histories of our religious orders."


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