Approximately 125 people filled St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church Sunday afternoon for a special prayer service for Ukraine.
“As a church our first job is to pray. Our idea was to give something that everyone could come to and be a part of, whether or not you’re a Catholic or a Christian,” said Michael Hayes, St. Mary’s pastor.
“The church phone lines have been going nonstop (since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his armed forces to invade Ukraine Feb. 24). People want to offer their moral support, their prayers…there’s already a massive humanitarian crisis. Many people have fled and gone to Poland, Hungary and Lithuania and people want to know how they can support these people who are displaced and homeless now.”
Hayes said the church is most comfortable with directing people to organizations such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in order to send financial support to the Ukrainian people and refugees.
Though Hayes said the church wants peace, he led Sunday’s audience in prayers for Vladimir Putin’s invasion to be stopped through armed Ukrainian self defence.
“The alternative to victory for Ukraine is oppression. As uncomfortable as it may sound, military victory is what will bring dignity, peace and freedom to Ukraine. It’s a horrible thing, but our church leaders in Ukraine are constantly reminding us to pray for the armed forces in protecting the freedom and dignity of Ukraine and her people.”
Meanwhile, St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church parishioners Stephan and Solomiia Kinach are watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine with concern and heartache.
Stephan - of Ukrainian descent - was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, with friends and family members experiencing the current ordeal in Ukraine.
He and his wife Solomiia came to Canada Feb. 13.
The couple - Stephan a foreign trained dentist, Solomiia a foreign trained radiologist, the couple waiting for the go ahead to practice in Canada - met while in university in Ukraine, their wedding ceremony performed there by former St. Mary’s pastor Jerry Lazoryk in August 2021.
“It is a terrible situation in Ukraine,” said 25-year-old Solomiia, born and raised in Ukraine, speaking to SooToday Sunday.
“I couldn’t imagine such a huge problem would happen in Ukraine right now…all I can do is watch as my country is being torn into a thousand pieces.”
Many of her relatives went to France after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but she still has many friends and family in Ukraine.
“I admire them for being so brave and that they have such love for our country. They are terrified, it is true, but they are so strong. They are heroes and an example for the whole world.”
Solomiia has no question as to who is to blame for the Russian invasion of her homeland.
“All the Ukrainian people are so united because they have a common enemy - Putin,” she said.
Solomiia is well aware of the long history of Russian government oppression of Ukraine.
“It started in 1933 with the Holodomor (‘death by hunger’ in Ukrainian, referring to the starvation of millions of Ukrainians in 1932 - 33 as a result of Soviet policies under Josef Stalin).”
It is estimated 3.9 million people died in Ukraine when the majority of the country’s farmers resisted Stalin’s forced collectivization of their farms.
Stalin confiscated their crops and seeds and thereby starved many Ukrainians.
“It’s my mission in life to tell the truth to the whole world about Ukraine’s story. Stalin created that hunger. He started the process known as Russification. It means a lot of schools had only the Russian language. It’s a very sad situation, honestly, but I’m very happy the Ukrainian language still exists,” Solomiia said.
Fast forward to 2022.
“It’s a parallel line, that we have the same situation. Putin wants to kill all the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian spirit. It’s not only a huge problem for Ukraine, but for Europe, for America, the whole world. We are very unlucky being the neighbours to the Russians but we are (just) the first. Europe is next. It is very sad but it is true,” Solomiia said.
“He (Putin) already attacked Crimea. We are not aggressors. The Russian Federation is about aggression now. It fought Fascism in the Second World War. Now the country is the aggressor against us.”
Solomiia comes from Ivano-Frankivsk, a city of more than 230,000 in western Ukraine.
That city was the first to be bombed on the first day of the invasion Feb. 13.
“We have a lot of refugees going to Poland just to look for a better life. There are wives and children saying goodbye to the men and they don’t know when they will see each other again. It’s heartbreaking. It’s very sad.”
Both Solomiia and Stephan vehemently deny any persecution of Russians in eastern Ukraine, a line Putin has used as an excuse for his attack on Ukraine.
“I can thank the whole world (for supporting Ukraine), but we need prayer right now and financial support,” Solomiia said.
She wishes NATO would have enforced a no fly zone over Ukraine, but that is something NATO has said it does not plan at this point.
“It was a tense political situation when we were over there and we decided because she has her permanent residency documents we need to be in Canada. Fortunately it was the right decision. We never wanted the war to start,” said 32-year-old Stephan.
“I have some cousins in the city of Lviv. The women and the children went to villages to stay out of the cities but the men stayed back and they are helping Lviv with the anti- tank defences, fortifying the city, helping the city defence forces.”
“On my Mom’s side I have some cousins in Ivano-Frankivsk helping where they can, collecting items for the soldiers such as food, water, clothing medicines and bandages.”
Solomiia’s family from France donated a fridge to store blood - as well as supplies such as bandages - for use at first aid stations.
“It’s hard to talk about,” Stephan said.
“You want to help them but you can’t send anything (from Canada) because logistically it’s a nightmare. The postal system that we used to use, the couriers, can only guarantee it’ll get to Poland. We have some older relatives that can’t go to the Polish border because they’re too old and frail. We have relatives that are checking on them every day.”
They both stay in touch with Ukrainian relatives and friends daily.
“We want victory,” Stephan said of the Ukrainian defence effort against Putin’s invading forces.
“We want to see them beat back the Russians and see a regime change, the removal of Putin as president, by the Russians or by NATO.”
“If he (Putin) gets his way, there’ll be no Ukraine. It’ll be a culture and language annihilation,” Stephan said.
“It’s nice to see the political support, the protests across Canada. We have a border with Russia too, to the north, it’s just not talked about and who knows what that means in the future? This could be World War III. This could be the start. We can stop it here. We can help Ukraine and minimize casualties and support them. They’re dying there every day fighting. It would be nice if NATO helped out more. They’re sending weapons but they need more and more every day.”