A Ukrainian Catholic priest, who is married and a father of seven, recently accompanied one of his parishioners on a journey to Ukraine, where they rescued 22 orphans.
Father Jason Charron is pastor of Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Ukrainian Catholic Church in Wheeling, West Virginia. Several weeks prior to the start of the conflict in Ukraine, he had helped a couple from his parish, Alan and Anita Sherwood, adopt a daughter from Ukraine.
In an interview with EWTN News Nightly Charron explained, “My wife knows people back in Ukraine. So we put them in touch with some people back in the homeland, so to speak.”
They eventually brought a little girl over for a home visit. Charron said, “She stole not only their hearts, but the hearts of everyone in my parish.”
“After about four or five weeks of the visit, at the end of it, Alan said to this beautiful little angel, ‘If anything bad ever happens, if you’re ever in danger, I’ll come and I’ll rescue you,’” he related.
Little did he know that weeks later Ukrainians would be fleeing the country as Russian forces invaded. The same day the conflict began, Alan rushed to the church to tell Charron that he had to go to Ukraine. The two flew to Poland, where a taxi drove them to the border.
“As you get close to the border, you’re walking across, you see this sea of humanity, just as far as the eye can see, of people lining up to get out,” Charron detailed. “You kind of get that feeling in your stomach, like, ‘how am I ever going to get out of here?’ Once I cross this border I don’t know what awaits me.’”
After crossing the border, the two made their way to the orphanage and were able to get the orphans to safety in Lithuania.
Charron added how fortunate Ukraine is to have Poland as a neighboring country. “Catholic Poland is alive right now,” he said. “The meter of that activity in fervor is the way they treat their widows and orphans. We see that in the first chapter of James. That’s the measure of true religion. If you take care of widows and orphans.”
The seminary of the Diocese of Tarazona welcomed Sunday 60 refugees from Ukraine who arrived accompanied by dozens of volunteers who had helped them make the trip from the Polish-Ukrainian border.
The group was received March 13 by Bishop Eusebio Ignacio Hernández Sola of Tarazona; the mayor, Luis José Arrechea; the rector of the seminary, Father José Luis Sofín; the families of the volunteers; and a large group of citizens.
According to a statement from the Diocese of Tarazona, the group of refugees consists of women, children, adolescents, and three men.
They will be housed in rooms adapted for them and will have two living rooms to gather in, a game room, and a dining room. In addition, they will have outdoor recreation areas.
“Every effort has been made in the shortest possible time to welcome these people and make them feel at home. It’s necessary to work together and in collaboration to pull in the same direction and help as much as we can,” Bishop Hernández said.
He also stressed that “the ties of fraternity and the good will of these volunteers who went and came back from Poland in almost record time, in a totally altruistic way and showing boundless generosity, to help these people in need who are fleeing from the war.”
“Now our part is to give them warmth and affection because let’s not forget that they have left everything in Ukraine,” he said.
Bishop Hernández said that when the war began he wondered “what we in the Diocese of Tarazona could do and so I offered the diocesan facilities and, in particular the seminary, and the initiative of the volunteers was providential.”
The group of refugees arrived in Spain thanks to the initiative of several volunteers from Tarazona who organized a collection of food, clothing, and medical supplies with the idea of taking them to the Polish-Ukrainian border and returning with refugees.
A convoy of three trucks and nine vans left Tarazona March 9. Three days later, after distributing the aid, the convoy returned to Spain with 60 people who were picked up at a refugee camp in Warsaw.
Upon their arrival, the volunteers and also the refugees thanked everyone for their gestures of solidarity and requested more help because “many things are still needed, medicines, food and money.”
An Indian Catholic nun and her associates are working round-the-clock to help stranded students and others fleeing war-torn Ukraine.
“God is using me to save people from death in Ukraine,” said Sr. Ligi Payyappilly, the 48-year-old superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Saint-Marc in Mukachevo, Ukraine.*
Payyappilly, who is Indian, and 17 sisters of her congregation are giving shelter and food to the distressed students, besides helping them cross the Ukrainian border to escape to countries including Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
“Being in Ukraine for over 20 years, I have a lot of contacts and networks that helped me carry out this mission so far,” Payyappilly told GSR by phone after midnight March 3, just before her scheduled two-hour sleep. Her convent in Mukachevo in western Ukraine is some 480 miles southwest of the national capital of Kiev.
People helped by Payyappilly’s team profusely thanked the nuns.
“We never thought we would be alive now,” said Vignesh Suresh, a third-year student of medicine who hails Payyappilly as “God’s angel who came to help us when we were totally lost.”
Speaking to GSR en route to Bucharest by train, Suresh said he and 45 other Indian students were stranded at the Polish border for 15 hours when Payyappilly and Sr. Christina Tymurzhina, a Ukrainian, came to help them.
“The sisters took us to their convent in their vehicles, hugged each of us with their love and warmth, gave us food, a warm hall to sleep in and escorted us in the morning to cross the Romania border,” Suresh said as his friends slept on the train.
Payyappilly said Suresh was among about 1,000 foreign students her convent has helped so far.
Other congregations are also involved in rescue operations but they mostly help fleeing Ukrainians, whose numbers have reached more than 1 million, according to U.N. estimates.
Other congregations have shared Payyappilly’s contact numbers with the foreign students stranded at various locations. “Since there were many to support Ukrainians, we opted to help foreign students, a lot of them being Indians,” Payyappilly explained.
Since the start of the war Feb. 24, the Russians have targeted Kiev and Kharkiv, the second largest Ukrainian city, killing at least 752 civilians and triggering mass exodus, according to the U.N. estimates. Unverified reports from the Ukrainian government put the toll at several thousands.
Russia, meanwhile, confirmed March 2 that about 500 Russian troops have died and 1,600 have been injured, National Public Radio reported.
Payyappilly said she could reach out to the stranded students because she knows “every nook and corner” of Ukraine.
India initially helped the rescue operations for about 20,000 Indians, many of them students, through its embassy in Kiev, which was closed as the two cities were targeted. It then asked students to reach the border on their own. Many students have walked at least three days to reach the Polish border, but they were not allowed to cross.
“There were cases of police stopping foreigners from boarding trains to help Ukrainian women and children reach safer locations first,” Payyappilly said, quoting students and media reports. She acknowledged that she could help evacuate the foreign students only because of aid from Ukrainian citizens.
Payyappilly is also a retreat preacher; people throughout Ukraine used to come to her convent and an adjacent retreat center for prayer. “People know me well,” she said.
Many Ukrainian refugees stay at the convent, which they consider a relatively safer place, instead of going to another country.
The Ukrainian government had recognized the contributions of Payyappilly, a native of Kerala state in India, and made her a citizen.
Payyappilly says all her sisters in Ukraine are involved in helping the stranded. “Some work in the field, some cook and others bring the students to the convent and the border in vehicles.” Many arrange for the fugitives to stay at the convent.
Tymurzhina has coordinated several evacuation tasks through her contacts with government officers and volunteers.
“Both of us drove the students to the border, coordinated with the volunteers and the Indian embassy officers at the borders of Romania, Hungary and Slovakia and facilitated their easy passage to those countries,” Payyappilly said.
The superior said about 100 Ukrainian fugitives are staying with them. “We are not sure when they would return to their places,” she said. “But the students stay with us for only a night,” she added.
She said most students reached them in a desperate state. “They had not bathed for many days or eaten food. They were mentally shocked and physically weak. So, our first priority was to give them a comfortable stay before taking them to the border,” Payyappilly said.
Their convent, which is two or three dozen miles to the border with Romania and Hungary, has been so far.
Payyappilly said the sisters are flooded with phone calls from panicked parents after a Catholic website in Kerala published information about their services.
The students have shared the nuns’ hospitality and support through audio and video clips on social media platforms.
In an audio clip to the nuns, the mother of Vishnu Manoharan, a Hindu boy, says she is indebted to them for the “motherly loving care for our children” when they were in deep crises.
She also hailed the nuns as “truly God’s messengers” on whom God’s blessings will remain always.
Meanwhile, Suresh and his team reached Bucharest in Romania and was on the way to a shelter home. He said another convent inside Romania helped them with food, water and immigration procedures. “It was another miracle,” he added.
Payyappilly said once the people cross the border safely, they consider the mission accomplished and look for other lost ones in Ukraine. “So, we never attend their ‘thank you calls,’ but attend only the calls in distress,” she said. “God had saved me from death 20 years ago and is using me now to help others from deaths in Ukraine.”
Payyappilly was severely affected by chronic spinal tuberculosis and was suffering in bed for almost a year until “God touched and healed me.”
She recalls praying almost 10 hours a day before the Blessed Sacrament during her illness. “I have enough strength to attend to many more people in Ukraine now,” she said during the hourlong telephone interview.
The convent in Ukraine was started in 1998; Payyappilly has served there for the past 22 years. Her preaching at retreats has drawn many young Ukrainian women to her congregation. Currently, 15 Ukrainian nuns serve in various ministries.
“We have never done any vocation promotion camps or recruitments, but they came on their own,” Payyappilly said. All Ukrainian nuns are professionally qualified in various fields, she said. The convent also has two more Indian nuns.
For Sister Franciszka Tumanevych, the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion was the most difficult.
The 42-year-old member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth told CNA that fear spread in Zhytomyr, the northern Ukrainian city where her convent is based, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to attack on Feb. 24.
“It was a shock, panic broke out. People were lining up for food, medicine, gasoline,” she recalled.
“But everything calmed down in the evening. Then the next day, we understood that we had to learn to live in war conditions, and we took up concrete work. For if you remain idle, it’s terrible. Now, we keep praying.”
Ukraine is an Eastern European country of 44 million people bordering Belarus, Russia, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.
Since Russian forces began their advance, more than 368,000 people have fled Ukraine, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have fought fierce battles in the north, east, and south of the country. Facing military setbacks and international condemnation, Putin told defense chiefs on Feb. 27 to put Russia’s nuclear forces on “special alert.”
Zhytomyr came under attack on the same day, when a Russian ballistic missile fired from nearby Belarus struck the city’s airport.
Tumanevych, who was born in the city, graduated in psychology, gained a doctorate in canon law, and served in the diocesan ecclesiastical court. Before this month’s Russian offensive, she organized meetings for families and worked with the Catholic charitable organization Caritas-Spes.
She is one of three sisters at her convent. The Caritas-Spes center where the sisters used to work is now closed, so they spend their days praying and making sandwiches for the city’s civilian defenders.
Tumanevych said that there was a great spirit of solidarity in Zhytomyr, which has a population of more than 260,000 people. The sisters have received phone calls from locals offering transportation and other forms of help. When Tumanevych went to donate blood for Ukraine’s wounded, she found more than 100 people waiting in line, so she vowed to return another day.
While performing their daily tasks, the sisters seek to pray constantly.
On Feb. 16, a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine, the sisters in Zhytomyr connected with 25 families through the videoconferencing app Zoom. Afterward, they decided to hold a communal prayer every evening.
“Now more and more people are joining for the rosary. Yesterday there were already 72 families, as well as our sisters from America, Italy and Great Britain,” Tumanevych said.
“And at the end of the rosary, we say that we can now go to sleep because sisters from America are taking over the duty,” she added.
Many local parishes host perpetual adoration, while priests hear confessions from morning to night.
The sisters pray the rosary especially for the conversion of President Putin, who was born on Oct. 7, 1952, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Tumanevych said that her mother, with whom she is constantly in touch, prayed as many as seven rosaries a day.
The congregation, which is dedicated to education and ministry to families, has six houses in Ukraine. But one was forced to close shortly after the invasion began. The two sisters in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine, had to flee their convent and are making their way to Poland, where more than 150,000 people from Ukraine have sought refugee since Feb. 24.
In the besieged capital city of Kyiv, the congregation has a community of seven sisters. They have taken refuge in a church basement, where they are caring for around 100 people forced to evacuate their apartments.
“The sisters are with the people all the time,” Tumanevych said. “They pray all day long, and one of the nuns from the convent in Kyiv has lost her voice because they constantly pray.”
Although shops are closed, the sisters have been able to buy blankets and disposable plates. They also provide food, but fear it could run out.
The sisters continue to dream of life after the war. They hope to open a dormitory for female students that would help young women to discern whether they have vocations to marriage or religious life.
Tumanevych said: “I’m staying. This is my country, and I will defend it. With the rosary and sandwiches, and everything that can be done in these conditions.”
A clergyman of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine packs bottles of hand sanitizer at the Vydubychi Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine March 21, 2020. Priests and students of the theological seminary produce hand sanitizer and donate it to the elderly and people in need to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
KIEV, – The black-robed Orthodox clerics sit in a line under an icon in one of Ukraine’s oldest monasteries, mixing up batches of hand sanitizer to distribute to the poor and the needy.
Wearing purple disposable gloves, the clergy and students in the 11th-century Vydubychi complex concentrate as they follow the recipe set out by World Health Organization and use sterilised gear to fill row after row of plastic bottles.
The monastery in Kiev started the operation after hearing people were struggling to get enough sanitizer to protect themselves against the coronavirus, Roman Holodov, head of the social assistance department at the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, said.
“People are in a panic, especially poor people who have no access to sanitizers,” he told Reuters.
Hundreds of bottles filled with clear liquid are boxed up in a room that used to be a Sunday school.
They are then sent to destinations scrawled on a whiteboard – cities from Odessa in the south to Mariupol in the east, close to the frontline of Ukraine’s simmering conflict with Russian-backed separatists.
Churches across the denominations have started adapting to the coronavirus which at the last count has infected 73 people in the country and killed three.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church broadcast Sunday services online to comply with restrictions on gatherings. Priests have asked the faithful to stop kissing crosses or relics.
Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the Major Archbishop of the Greek Catholic Church, delivered his sermon in the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ of Sunday. The chairs were mostly empty, but more than 20,000 people watched on YouTube.
The spoon he used to administer communion to the few worshippers who were present was disinfected after each use.
“At our request, at our call, people stayed at home. And in my opinion, it shows their Christian and civic sense of responsibility,” he told Reuters after the service.