Praying for Ukraine

MANVILLE – Muslim worshippers on prayer rugs bowed in the direction of Mecca in the hall of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church here on a Friday afternoon, two days after Vladimir Putin unleashed an unprovoked military invasion with ballistic and conventional missiles, followed by ground and coastal operations, on the sovereign nation of Ukraine.

Upstairs in the church office, the Rev. Pastor Orest Kunderevych explained that the Pakistani men attend their service here on the premises, in the shadow of his church, every Friday between 1 and 2.

“They came to me eight years ago and asked me to pray here,” said the Ukrainian Catholic priest. “I went to the bishop and asked him and he said ‘yes, father.’ They are here because we should be together, because we are humans, all of us. In a way, we are showing you, to understand this.”

Prayerfulness – Muslim or Christian, Jewish or Catholic – resides closer to God than secularism and materialism, or so the pastor believes at the core of his faith. Still, today, even that transcendent-connected power, which would create the opportunity of Christian fellowship with Islam here in this hard luck former factory town, failed to stem the heartbreak for this devoted parish priest.

He was thinking about the home of his birth, where he lived under Soviet domination as a child, practicing his illegal Catholic faith underground in a small village near Poland, where his father once, when his son asked him if they were Soviets, told him, “No. Our country is Ukraine. Independent.”

There would come a day, a priest who oversaw an old wooden church also told him, when Ukraine would come out from under the shadow of Russia and stand on its own, when young Kunderevych and his fellow Catholics would be able to worship without the threat of someone telling them they were breaking the law by practicing their faith. And one day, in 1990, it happened. The nightmare ended.

“I decided to go to the seminary,” Kunderevych said. “The people of my country are strong in faith. They always had faith, for 70 years under communist rule. The Catholic Church came back, raised up from underground. We have a peaceful nature in Ukraine. We just love to be peaceful in our own country. We just need this small piece of land where Ukrainians want to live.

“I’m sorry,” the priest said, stopping only very briefly before he could continue.

He was thinking about home, the place he left with his wife and two children 15 years ago to come here, to work in Philadelphia and in the Scranton area, before coming to Manville and New Brunswick. He was thinking about the fact that today, his nephews, the two sons of his older brother, were in Eastern Ukraine, answering the call of their country to meet Russian aggression, to fight the evil perpetrated on them.

“My heart is totally broken,” Father Kunderevych said. “We have prayers every night. I run two parishes, the one here and the one in New Brunswick. This is a small parish. We have 60 families. There are a lot of Ukrainians here in Central New Jersey.”

He added with a smile, “Not all of them come to church, understand. I hear the accent, maybe at the store, and I say. ‘Oh, you’re from Ukraine.’ They tell me, ‘Yes,’ and they tell me they’ll come to church and then I don’t see them.”

He laughed.

The small distractions helped.

But then he thought about what was happening.

He thought about what the world was watching, as his countrymen – and maybe his own blood – prepared to meet the Russians in Kyiv.

“That is the problem for this world in this time,” said the priest. “That is the problem. When we are more spiritual, we will be more united and more capable of understanding freedom and democracy, and the depth of a fight for those gifts, that we see now in Ukraine.”

His family has not heard from his nephews.

“Both of them are not calling; not using their cellphones, because the Russians, they have special equipment, and when you use a cellphone they locate you,” Kunderevych said.

“Russian troops are very close to the capital,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko posted today on his Telegram

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, right, with his brother, fellow former heavyweight champion Wladimir, has vowed to fight the Russian Army advancing on his city.

channel. “The sabotage groups are neutralizing. the military and law enforcement agencies in the city. Bridges are under protection and special control in the capital. Military equipment and soldiers of the Armed Forces are patrolling them.”

Ukrainians braced for a difficult night, a day after United States President Joe Biden announced new sanctions imposed by the West, not only on Russia, but on individuals in Belarus, including the country’s defense minister, for that country’s role in facilitating the Russian attack.

“It’s not enough,” said the priest. “It’s not enough.”

He didn’t want to talk abut politics, about which western leaders had succeeded or failed, or all failed and why.

He admitted his discipline is faith not politics.

That said, he decried the power sharing among Russia, the United States and England, which enables these major powers to protect themselves, leaving Ukraine to fend for itself.

“People in the West don’t understand that Putin was a KGB guy,” Kunderevych said. “They don’t understand that this is not democracy. This is someone who has built his system over a 20 year period with the goal of recreating the Soviet Union. It’s really a dictator, and right now Ukraine fights alone against the second biggest army in the world after NATO. It’s very hard for people to understand that we are alone with the Russians.

“But Ukrainians have spirit,” the priest added. “Ukrainians will protect their villages and cities with weapons and they stay. We have a story – a very peaceful nation that never did anything to other neighbors. We can say the world opened their eyes. They know we are Ukrainians. They know we all should believe Ukrainians are very strong because they love their people.”

Corrupt and out of touch with deeper values and faith traditions, the West lost its way and failed to see and directly challenge evil in the form of Putin, Kundereyvch said.

As Ukrainians prepared to fight the invading Russian army in the capital city, and those who might have stood with them but for complacency and ignorance and the inability to see evil incoming, the pastor urged those who want to stand with Ukraine but can’t now, to pray.

“Pray, pray,” he said. “All people should unite against evil. The Soviet Union didn’t die totally. Now, you can see that. People don’t understand the depth of evil. They don’t understand the depth of lies of someone like Putin. But you can see now, the world can see, Ukraine standing against this evil. Our soldiers and our spirit. The United States and other countries helped to teach our soldiers, but it is not enough. It is not enough.”

Downstairs, the chanting had ended.

The Muslim prayer service was over.

The men of the Islamic faith quietly rolled up their prayer rugs, placed them again in their cars, and exited the parking lot.

The domes of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church rose over the wetlands of New Jersey, and inside the church office, Pastor Orest Kunderevych, a world away from the land of his birth, in solitude prepared for evening prayer, in solidarity with his people, his family: the fighting spirit of the men and women of Ukraine.


To give to the Humanitarian Aid Fund for Ukraine: Write a check to the Ukrainian Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and send it to the office at 810 North Franklin Street, Philadelphia PA 19123.

St. Michael the Archangel in Manville.

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2 responses to “Praying for Ukraine”

  1. That really hit home. I hope that people who read this will begin to understand what is going on in Ukraine and that it affects the world

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