Parishioners at St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church are putting more faith in the power of prayer than in the power of economic sanctions.Fr. Vasyl Savchyn, pastor of St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church, Milwaukee, assisted by Deacon Nicholas Chabin, celebrates the Divine Liturgy on March 23, at the south side parish. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

“Folks are clearly turning to their faith because that’s really all that is left,” said parish council vice president Joe Spolowicz. “That’s the only kind of hope that we have, to bind together through prayer and hope things change.”

For the roughly 100 active members of St. Michael, it has been a spring full of heartache. Most were either born in Ukraine or have parents and grandparents who hail from the country. Their pastor, Fr. Vasyl Savchyn, has an adult daughter and grandchildren who still live in Ukraine, while other parishioners are keeping anxious tabs on their relatives back home.

“We have had several very emotional Masses and our pastor, Fr. Savchyn … it’s been emotional for him. It’s been emotional for our parishioners,” said Spolowicz, who has been acting as Fr. Savchyn’s spokesman. Spolowicz himself has cousins living in western Ukraine. “There’s lots of prayer.”

One parish member has relatives who fled Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula in southern Ukraine that was seized by Russian troops on March 1. In a secession referendum called “illegal” by the White House and European Union, Crimea voted in mid-March to annex itself to Russia. Joe Spolowicz

The fact that Spolowicz’s cousins and Fr. Savchyn’s daughter do not reside in Crimea is of little comfort. The parishioners at St. Michael, along with much of the Western world, see Russia’s aggression as a throwback to Soviet times.

“I feel that Russia got Crimea and it’s probably going to stay that way,” said parishioner Dania Stachiw-Hietpas. “I don’t necessarily see them pulling out.”

“When you have a dictator that close by who flaunts this kind of action, you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Spolowicz. “How can someone just go in, in this day and age, and just take over land because they feel like they have the right to do so? It really is back to old Soviet tactics and I’m a little bit disappointed that there isn’t more that our government is willing to do at this point. I’m scared of what will happen for the rest of Ukraine if Putin decides he wants to go further with this.”

St. Michael belongs to the Eparchy of St. Nicholas in Chicago, and is the only Ukrainian Catholic Church in Wisconsin. Some parishioners drive several hours from their homes to attend Mass, held in both Ukrainian and English, at the small church on South 11th Street, where the congregation has made its home since the 1950s.

St. Michael Ukrainian parishioner Tom Heckenkamp kneels in prayer following Sunday Divine Liturgy at the church on Milwaukee’s south side. Many members of the parish were either born in Ukraine or have relatives living there. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

The Ukrainian Catholic Church, sometimes known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), is the largest of all the Eastern Catholic rites to be in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The Ukrainian Catholics separated from the Holy See after the Great Schism in 1054, but were brought back into the fold at the Council of Brest in 1596. Though subject to the authority of the pope, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych is the primate of the church, which boasts 5 million members worldwide.

The Ukrainian culture is “tightly interwoven” with Catholic culture and is heavily devoted to the Blessed Mother, said Stachiw-Hietpas, noting that many participants in the original protests last November were members of the clergy. At that time, a priest friend of hers from Chicago traveled to Ukraine to participate in the protests against now-deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian economic policies.

“You can’t really tease apart what’s religious and what’s cultural anymore because it’s so blended together,” she said. “In Ukraine, traditionally a lot of the community is based around the church. A town exists only where there’s a church. If there’s no church, there’s no town. And the leaders of the town are the religious leaders.” 

Thus, it is natural that Milwaukee’s Ukrainian community has turned to its faith for solace. 

“As a parish, we’ve sent in financial support to help the individuals in Ukraine dealing with these issues,” said Spolowicz, adding that there have been many special liturgies said for a peaceful resolution to the situation.

The crisis is usually the chief topic of conversation at church, he said, and the parishioners are struggling with a sense of powerlessness against the “bully tactics” and “barbaric” aggression of Putin and Russia.

“I think everybody should be worried because if it happened (in Ukraine), it happened in Georgia (in 2008), it can happen again,” he said. “There’s a pattern here. There’s a history … the sanctions don’t seem to be enough.”

Stachiw-Hietpas said a large number of Ukrainians in the community are turning to social media to show solidarity with their countrymen. Many have changed their profile pictures on Facebook to a blue and yellow ribbon, symbolic of the Ukrainian flag, set against a black background.

Even the young people involved in the Dnipro Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, where Stachiw-Hietpas is an instructor, are deeply affected by the crisis.

“They’re really upset,” she said. “They’re sitting there talking about international politics and getting very worked up. They’re having to deal with things that are very mature for them.”

The dance ensemble is comprised of children from the community; several are recent immigrants, and several are Ukrainian children adopted into non-Ukrainian families. 

“The kids who have recently emigrated over, they don’t understand why this is happening,” said Stachiw-Hietpas. “The feeling there is always that it’s one country, it doesn’t matter if you speak Russian or Ukrainian. It’s one country. Even within our group we have one young man who was born in Ukraine but he speaks Russian. Others were born in Russia but speak Ukrainian.” When she visited her relatives in Ukraine last summer, Stachiw-Hietpas witnessed a distinct lack of tension in the country. Thinking of it now, she said, is difficult.

“It was very clear how much the country as a whole was embracing more of a European, kind of western atmosphere and livelihood,” she said. “It just felt more along the lines of the European countries I’d visited before. It was a happy place.”