By Chris Herlinger Catholic News Service
KRAKOW, Poland (CNS) -- They arrive with searing memories: the bombing of schools, theaters and hospitals; unburied bodies in the street; children huddled with their mothers in crowded basements; rumors of Russian soldiers committing "assaults" against women, a common euphemism for rape.
In the face of such recollections, the Ukrainians arriving in Poland find comfort and hope, solace and strength in part at church, where they experience the rhythms of prayer and ancient rite, shared singing and Communion, the recitation of the Divine Liturgy in a common language, and even the familiar and bracing whiff of incense.
"It's precious because you've left something precious," Sister Evphrosynia Senyk, a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church's St. Joseph Sisters, told Global Sisters Report.
Sister Senyk left Ukraine in early March with her sister and two other women because of the war. She is currently ministering at the Ukrainian Catholic Parish of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, formerly the Church of St. Norbert, not far from the city's old center.
Spending a few hours together on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning to pray and experience solace and solidarity with fellow Ukrainians can feel like an act of healing in the context of the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine that began Feb. 24.
The war has forced more than 10 million Ukrainians to leave their homes. More than 4 million Ukrainians fled to neighboring countries and, of those, more than 2.3 million went to Poland, to Ukraine's immediate west. The new arrivals are joining about 630,000 Ukrainians already living and working in Poland who found job opportunities there before the war.
The Ukrainian Catholic Parish of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has become not only a place of worship -- its Byzantine Catholic liturgy is similar to that in the Orthodox tradition -- but a locale where arrivals come to seek news and contacts and to pick up donated food and clothing.
"You feel good when everybody is supporting you," said Ludmyla Opanasuk, 45, who arrived in Krakow March 8 with her sister-in-law and her 13-year-old son and has found a warm welcome at the church. "We feel grateful."
Though the family, who had lived outside the capital of Kyiv, were brought up in the Orthodox tradition, differences between Orthodox and Catholic traditions and theologies mean little right now, Opanasuk said.
What is important to Opanasuk is that she and her family are safely in Krakow, living with a Polish-American couple who volunteered to take them in and finding some solace as they contemplate their next moves and try to make sense of their fate -- and their country's.
Opanasuk's 62-year-old sister-in-law, also named Ludmyla, was hesitant to give her full name to Global Sisters Report. She said she feels enormous anger over the Russian invasion and being uprooted.
"Bitter," she said. "Bitter. We were afraid for our lives."
Yet being at the church -- even for a few minutes during the week to pray, sit in quiet contemplation or have the chance to talk to Senyk and another sister -- is a balm, the women say.
"It's a relief, pleasant," Ludmyla said. "The church gives us hope."
"We feel we are among brothers and sisters," Opanasuk added. However, she made clear that the family hopes their stay in Krakow is short and that the war in Ukraine will end quickly.
"Everybody wants to return home."
The numbers of those coming to the parish have increased since the war began, said Father Peter Pawliszcse, one of two priests at the church. There were about 400 members or attendees at the church before February, a number that has increased by at least 100 since.
"People are looking for peace. They are looking for prayer," said Father Pawliszcse.
One of the inspiring aspects of the church building itself is the artwork of its icons and iconostasis.
Morning light streamed in and illuminated the art at a somber yet hopeful March 13 service at which the aisles were filled with standing attendees, the whiff of incense filled the air, and the rhythms of prayer and ancient rite declared hope and resurrection. A hymn sung in remembrance of the dead brought tears to many in attendance.
Father Pawliszcse briefly spoke in English, thanking British donors who drove from Spain with a supply of medicine to help refugees still arriving at the Polish-Ukrainian border.
In an interview with Global Sisters Report, the priest said those arriving in Krakow "are depressed; they don't recognize fully what has happened. This event is shocking, that this happened in 21st-century Europe. People thought this kind of war was something in the past, behind us."
Asked how he was doing, Father Pawliszcse smiled wanly and said, "I'm good, yes, but this has been a very stressful time for everyone."
St. Joseph Sister Lubomira Chaban, 64, who has worked in Krakow since 2011, is doing "all that is needed" to help both new arrivals and established church members.
For the longtime church staff member, that includes cleaning the church, teaching religious education classes, serving "as a bridge of communication between the priests and the people," and welcoming guests and refugees.
"People are asking for spiritual help," she said.
She echoed what Father Pawliszcse said about arrivals struggling with the enormity of what has happened to them and their families.
"This has been like lightning and thunder in a clear sky," she said.
Sister Chaban said she derives her own spiritual strength from contemplation and prayer, particularly in a small chapel within the church where a tabernacle rests.
"When we hear stories of bombings and the experiences people have had, we want to share the peace of this church with them," she said.
Sister Senyk, a native of Chernelytsia, Ukraine, worked in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, from 2019 to 2021 before returning to Ukraine because Canadian officials did not extend her visa. Her eventual goal is to return to Canada, but, for now, she is happy to be in Krakow, working among fellow Ukrainians.
"I'm safe here, and I feel I am doing God's will," she said.
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Herlinger is the New York and international correspondent to Global Sisters Report and also writes on humanitarian and international issues for National Catholic Reporter.