Oksana Piaseckyj’s parents were just two of the roughly 80,000 Ukrainians who spent years in refugee camps after World War II before securing sponsors to bring them to the United States.
But in the parish hall of South Florida’s only Ukrainian Catholic Church, Piaseckyj didn’t want to talk about her history or the recent bloody protests in the Ukraine. Instead, she wanted to show off the church’s pysanky, the intricately designed, jewel-toned Easter eggs that symbolize Ukrainian folk art.
And at Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Cooper City, Irene Lavruk excitedly brought out a box of rushnyks — the red-and-white linen ritual cloths used in weddings and funerals. Parishioners embroidered them in the styles of the Ukrainian regions they hailed from.
For Lavruk, churches in the Ukrainian diaspora have always been intimately connected to maintaining the Ukrainian identity abroad, especially given the persecution of all faiths during the Soviet era.
“So we in exile — we call ourselves the diaspora, but really, we’re in exile — we made it our goal that if Ukrainians couldn’t be Ukrainians there, we were going to be Ukrainians here,” said Lavruk, 73, who spent time at a displaced persons camp after World War II.
Today, with the Ukrainian protests making news around the world, and Crimea aligning with Russia, Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainians alike are praying this Easter for a Ukraine at peace. And peace, in their minds, starts with Ukrainian sovereignty. (The Russian Orthodox Church, to which many Ukrainians belong, has stayed relatively silent on this issue.)
The Rev. Andrii Romankiv is the priest at the Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Miami, the white-and-blue, onion-domed church off Red Road, just north of Flagler Street. Speaking through subdeacon Paul Galadza, he said his congregation had “been praying constantly since this started so that God will restore Ukraine to its freedom and protect it.”
“The Church of Christ maintains that a person has a right to live in freedom; the Ukrainian church would insist that Ukrainians be allowed to live in freedom,” he noted.
Romankiv’s message aligns with the leadership of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which is most powerful in Ukraine’s western regions. In a Palm Sunday missive to all Ukrainian Catholics, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk addressed the youth of Ukraine, drawing parallels between Maidan — the protests catalyzed by the state’s decision to reject a European Union association agreement — and the Christian renewal represented by Jesus’ resurrection.
“Maidan is our entry to Jerusalem,” he wrote.
The stories of the clergy and parishioners in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches echo Ukraine’s proud traditions, but they also recall the country’s painful and conflicted past.
Saint Nicholas president Iryna Maxfield, 43, born and raised in the western Soviet Ukraine, traces pro- and anti-Russian Ukrainian sentiment mostly to Soviet times.
She recalled how her mother, a teacher, was tasked with standing guard in front of the village church on holidays to report to the Soviet administration who had attended. Her grandmother privately kept the family’s religious traditions alive, baking Easter bread and cooking Christmas dinners.
“It was a lot of secret lives,” Maxfield said of the Communist Party’s reign.
Maxfield tells the story of coming to the Cooper City church and meeting survivors of the Holodomor — literally, ‘death by hunger’ — the famine that killed anywhere between 3 and 8 million in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933.
“That was a very horrible crime. And nobody — in Soviet Union — nobody was telling about that. And I was really in shock. When I came here to this church, I learned the true history of Ukraine,” she said.
The Holodomor remains a contentious moment in history. A post-Soviet Russia has acknowledged it took place and was man-made but refuses to call it a deliberate genocide of the Ukrainian people. It argues, instead, that it was a tragic byproduct of Stalin-era collectivization.
Christianity gained a foothold in the Slavic regions in the ninth and 10th centuries, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 leading to the schism between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches, was borne of the 1595 Union of Brest.
Ukrainian Catholics recognize the Pope and hold basically the same beliefs. According to Galadza, it’s just the rituals and traditions of the church that look East. Notably, Ukrainian clergy in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches can marry, and an ornate iconostasis — icon screen — separates the church nave from the sanctuary.
And you won’t find a thundering organ under this vaulted ceiling: Ukrainian Catholics don’t use an instrumental accompaniment in their services — everything is a capella .
It was the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that led Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Filaret to start the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate in 1992. Filaret has been stridently critical of Russia’s recent incursion into eastern Ukraine, going as far as to shelter demonstrators in a Kiev monastery.
For Lavruk, whose father aligned the Cooper City parish with the Kiev-based church when he was pastor, Saint Nicholas’ membership in the Kyivan Patriarchate is a point of pride.
“This parish was the first one in America and in Canada to sign the papers that we go to our mother country,” she said.
Maxfield, the president of Saint Nicholas, remembers those difficult days in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I was lucky because I had a job,” she said. Her mother worked, too, but sometimes didn’t receive a paycheck for six months at a time. Like many Ukrainians, they ate and sold what they grew in a backyard garden to get by.
“Everybody wants a better life in Ukraine,” she said. While she concedes that some do look toward Russia, she believes many more — even in eastern Ukraine — look west.
Maxfield came to the States in 2003 when she married an American. Most who have emigrated in the past 15 years — they call themselves fourth-wavers — have done so to escape the endemic corruption of Ukraine’s flailing economy.
Iryna Ruptash, a Saint Nicholas parishioner from the western Chernivtsi region, is a case in point. Ruptash left Ukraine in 2001. A specialist in soil science, she was barely making $100 a week when she graduated from university.
“You shouldn’t have to pay to get a diploma, you shouldn’t have to pay to get a job,” she said, referring to the corruption.
Her husband had already been gone five years, sending remittances back, having played and won in the U.S. green-card lottery. Today, Ruptash is a chemist in West Palm Beach and a citizen since 2007.
But, Ruptash says, “I’m still feeling nostalgic.”
Karyn Maksymowich Wilk keeps the traditions alive by making pysanky, including the ones on display at the Ukrainian Catholic Church. A third generation Ukrainian-American, her grandparents migrated to the Northeast in the 1920s. She was born and raised in Miami, one of about 13,000 Ukrainians living here.
She learned the art of decorating the eggs in the batik method from her mother, who learned it from her mother. “I try and keep all the traditions as best I can,” she said.
Ruptash, meanwhile, wants to begin learning how to decorate the eggs, noting how her grandmother would make the fragile pysanky for the entire village.
She chuckles at the irony of learning the old art “here in America, and in English,” from a how-to book dug up by a fellow parishioner.