Photos by Mike Greenlar | Words by Renée K. Gadoua
Four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, a little girl wearing a crown of sunflowers and holding a small yellow and blue flag stood with her family at the back of Syracuse’s St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church. They were waiting with a group that stretched down the church’s front steps and about halfway down the block. After the 11 a.m. service — Divine Liturgy — ended, people quietly streamed into the small church for an ecumenical prayer service for Ukrainians in the Eastern European nation and the diaspora.
An overflow crowd, including many people who said they had never visited the 207 Tompkins St. church, stood in the pews and aisles for more than an hour as clergy and church members prayed and sang — mostly in Ukrainian. Many Ukrainians wore vyshyvanka, traditional shirts with brightly colored embroidery. Church members and visitors alike carried or wore Ukrainian flags and sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine.
“Dear God, protect our brothers and sisters of Ukraine,” the Rev. Mihai Dubovici, St. John the Baptist pastor, said at the Feb. 27 prayer service. Speaking to an attentive and nearly silent audience in English, Dubovici called Russian President Vladimir Putin “an aggressor who desires to destroy” the country that became independent in 1991 after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union.
“Thank you for your support,” he said and urged people to pray for and donate to organizations that support Ukrainians injured or displaced in the “humanitarian crisis of immense proportions.”
Many Ukrainian Americans survived or have relatives who suffered in the 1932-33 Soviet famine and totalitarian regimes during World War II and the Cold War. Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler severely limited Ukrainians’ freedom, including their right to practice religion. From 1946 to 1989, the Ukrainian Catholic Church operated underground, holding secret services and hiding religious articles and clothing.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church dates to 988 and split from the Orthodox Church in 1054. It has been in communion with the Vatican since 1596 and retains some of its Eastern rite (or Byzantine) traditions, including elaborate gold decorations in churches and distinctive round spires on church roofs.
About 49,000 Ukrainian Catholics worship in 200 parishes across the U.S., according to Vatican statistics.
“Your prayers will make a difference,” said Lida Buniak, president of the Syracuse branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America. “May God protect Ukraine and our extraordinarily determined and always resilient people. Ukraine’s glory has not died.”
Her daughter, Adrianna Buniak, is making and selling bracelets to raise money for Ukraine’s army.
Before the crowd went outside for the raising of the Ukrainian flag, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh pledged the city’s support for Ukraine. A small choral group led an emotional rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem (“Shche ne vmerla Ukraini,” or “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished.”)
“Slava Ukrainy! Geroyem Slava!” they shouted, in a call-and-response. “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”
Read more by Renée K. Gadoua: Archbishop Borys Gudziak, Syracuse native, advocates for Ukrainian Catholics in US and abroad