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“I believe that for some reason God wanted me to be here” – Father Roman Hrydkovets

    There are not many Greek Catholic communities in Chernihiv region, but parishes develop and grow. Priests who come here to develop communities face many challenges, but they do their best to bring people closer to God. At the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a part of the region was occupied and the city of Chernihiv was under siege for more than a month, but despite challenging circumstances, the unity of people and clergy made it possible to survive. Father Roman Hrydkovets, a UGCC priest who came to develop a parish in Chernihiv on the eve of the war, shared his experience of living and serving in a shelter and told us about the revival of life in parishes after the de-occupation of the region.

    We appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today. First of all, can you tell us about your life and service in Chernihiv region before the full-scale invasion?

    I was ordained as a priest on October 14, 2021, on Intercession of the Theotokos. At the end of October, I got a decree, i.e., a referral to Chernihiv to the parish of St. George the Victorious, which belongs to the Archeparchy of Kyiv of the UGCC. It is of interest to note that the referral was to the parish, which at that time existed only formally, on paper, in other words, there were no land, no church, and no parishioners. There is another parish in Chernihiv that has long been run by the Redemptorist Fathers. When I arrived with my wife and daughter in Chernihiv on December 8, 2021, the Fathers gave us a very warm welcome, and I serviced there at first. At that time, Father Roman Halus was the abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

    As for my parish, at first I dealt with legal issues replacing the head of a religious organization that was previously registered in Chernihiv. Then I was also thinking about where I could rent the premises to start servicing. Before the invasion, we failed to find the premises, so the first services were held at home, I prayed for my family, for my first parishioners. On February 23, 2022, my wife’s mother and 10-year-old nephew came to visit us from Lviv.

    Can you please describe your memories of the first day of the full-scale invasion? Where did the war find you?

    Even though Chernihiv is near the border and many people said they woke up to explosions, I slept peacefully until 7 a.m. knowing nothing, and only in the morning I found out the news when I looked at my phone and logged into Facebook. To be honest, I didn’t take it very seriously at first, and I couldn’t believe it had happened. Later that day, when I heard the explosions, I realized that the war had really started. The most memorable thing I remember is that when I went outside from the entrance hall, I saw chaos and turmoil, many people came out of their houses, high-rise buildings, and stood outside. They were just standing outside. Then I decided to step up and ask them if they were waiting for evacuation vehicles or what? And there was an answer: “No, we are not waiting for a car, we just don’t know what to do”. I intentionally got into a cassock so that people could see that I was a priest and, if necessary, they could talk to me. I offered these people to say the Lord’s Prayer together, and they gladly agreed. Later, some people said that there was a good shelter nearby. I knew there would be a lot of people there, so I decided to go there. That was the basement of the educational institution, and there was a lot of space.  On the first day, my wife and I talked and decided that I would go to the basement to the people at night, and she would stay at home, because it was hard with a half-year-old child. I took the Holy Scriptures and prayer beads and spent the whole night with the people.  The first night I didn’t even approach anyone, I just prayed and read the Holy Scriptures.  The next day, I decided to stay at home with my family at night and go to the same shelter for a few hours in the daytime, as well as to other shelters, and I offered people a short prayer.  I just tried to be someone who could be with people and pray, because it was a chance for them to get closer to God.

    Did someone ask you what church you were from? 

    Later they asked, but it was never a problem. Most of the people here are Orthodox. They were interested in the church, and I tried to explain some historical moments. But the thing people were most interested in was the difference with the Orthodox Christianity.

    At that time you did not have your own parish or parishioners. Did a regular group of people come together around you while you were in the shelter? Or was it different people every time?

    People lived in a shelter and went home only when they had to make some food. Then they brought or delivered that food and stayed there again. I visited them all the time. There were about 300 people in that basement at one point.

    Were you approached only as a priest, or were there any requests for help with food or evacuation?

    I did not have any resources to provide humanitarian aid. The Redemptorist Fathers provided such aid and helped with the evacuation, as well as baked bread in the Monastery and delivered it to those in need. I lived in a remote area and prayed with the people. Later, I began to ride my bike to the Father’s house and helped as needed, when there was an opportunity and I knew I could deliver something to a particular person.

    Were there other priests with you in the shelter?

    There were no priests, there were people of different religions. There was also one family that was very wary of me, but that was a rarity. I met people and offered to pray together. I used the following tactic: I went to people one by one, asked how they were doing, and offered a short prayer saying “God, save us all” 10 times. I knew it would be easy for both elderly people and children. I made an intention and then we prayed together. This was the way I walked around all the people in the shelter, there were three halls and it took me three hours to talk to all of them and then I returned home. People were positive about it.

    Did you hold services in the shelter?

    No, I didn’t do that, I did it at home for my family while my family was with me in Chernihiv, but they left in March. Then I started living in the basement with people and attending services with the Redemptorist Fathers.

    How many people attended services of the Fathers during the siege of Chernihiv?

    At that time, about 50 people lived in the basement but of course not all of them attended services. There were usually up to 10 people attending.

    Did they ask for confession at that time?

    Oh yeah, there were one or two cases. As far as I could tell, they were not very church-going people. They wanted to leave Chernihiv and did not know for sure whether they would succeed. So they asked for a blessing for the ride and for confession.

    Did you manage to establish a community in the shelter?

    For a month or more, people lived in the shelter and it was uniting, as the conditions forced them to do so. It was a 50-square-meter room that was packed-to-the-gills. I approached individuals, families, or groups that came together. I used to bring the children together in the evening, and there were a lot of them. I took a string of lights that could be rolled into a ball, put it in the middle like a fire, and told stories. I took something from the Holy Scriptures, something from Bruno Ferrero, and they liked short stories. For the past few weeks, during our stay in the shelter, it had become a tradition for us.

    How long did you live and serve in the bomb shelter, at least approximately? 

    It was about 40 days, because Chernihiv was under siege for about that long. I was there for sure by early April 2022.

    Did any public organizations or charitable foundations help people?

    The Redemptorists were definitely provided with humanitarian aid, but I don’t know where it came from. It worked while the bridge was still standing, but then the roads were destroyed and it was very difficult to deliver it.

    After the withdrawal of Russian troops and the liberation of the North part of Ukraine, I have started cooperation with Caritas Ukraine and the Don Calabria Foundation. Before that, there was no Caritas in Chernihiv. Currently, it already operates with its headquarters in Nizhyn, with branches in Chernihiv and Pryluky, but its official launch was in October 2022.

    What was life like after the Russian army withdrew?

    At the end of April, things started to get back to normal, because it seemed like the troops had withdrawn, but everything was very unclear and uncertain. Some houses did not have electricity and water appeared only around Easter (April 24 – editor’s note). On May 20, I took my wife back to Chernihiv and started looking for the premises. In early July, we finally found a place, it was an accident. I was walking with my wife and child and noticed a rental advertisement.

    Have you stayed in touch with the people you spent those days in the shelter with?

    Some people come to my services, and children come. We hold meetings for young people and children, catechesis. We have organized a Sunday school. I slowly cultivate love of God among them. These are the children I met in the shelter. Adults mostly attend on major holidays, and one woman comes every Sunday. I live in this area, not far from the shelter, so I meet people on the street, in the store, and people remember me and greet me. It’s nice!

    Are there any new partnerships with religious or non-governmental organizations?

    During the siege of the city, we met together with the priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine for prayers and discussions. Now we are friends with Roman Catholics. This is probably my slight shortcoming. I want to meet an Orthodox priest who serves in my district in Chernihiv.

    Did someone ask you for humanitarian aid after the Russian troops withdrew?

    At first, I was a representative of Caritas in Chernihiv. When the Russian troops finally withdrew, I got and distributed aid (food and hygiene kits) among the people. My phone was blowing up. I used my personal number, and people called me all the time. There were times when people joined the queue outside the chapel at 4 a.m. But later, I had to make some limitations, i.e. by appointment, because there was hustle and bustle on the porch. Now everything is organized by Caritas, who has employees here, helps with stoves, food, clothes, and I am also involved in their activities. Caritas also has psychologists who provide support.  Don Calabria Foundation also arranged a psychological aid office in my chapel and provided free psychological counseling to the people affected. They worked in this field for about a year. 

    I know that your parish is small, but have you had any experience with the Sacraments? I mean, have you ever been asked to administer a baptism, church marriage, or a funeral?

    To date, I have administered one baptism, of an elderly man. People also asked about the wedding. Many people asked about the church wedding when we were in the basement. People who had been married for a long time wanted to know more about it. And I gave them some lessons, explained what church wedding is, what it is for, and how the Church treats it. I used to work in a church court and dealt with people who wanted to declare a marriage invalid, so I know exactly what things should be taken into account. After the siege of the city, a priest from Slavutych asked me to come and give funeral rites because he could not.

    What is your parish like today, how does parish life get organized?

    Today, my mission is the same as it was before – to serve people. I am trying to develop the parish, but it is rather small. About 10 people come every Sunday, which is different from Halychyna (the region of Ukraine where Greek Catholics are most widespread – editor’s note). During the holidays, there are up to 15 people, but the number may vary. For example, about 50 people came at Easter. Besides that, there are activities with children, Sunday school. We made the vertep.

    We rent the premises in a high-rise building with a separate entrance from the street, where the central room is a chapel, and there are two more rooms next to it: one is a room for children, and the other is a confession room. Conditions are pretty good. The parish is named after St. George the Victorious.

    Step by step, with God’s help, I do what I can. The main thing is to keep up my service to God and realize whom do I serve and why. It is also important to invite others to get to know Him.

    Please tell us more about the Greek Catholic parishes in Chernihiv.

    The Redemptorist Fathers were the first to have a monastery here and a chapel on the premises. Later, in 2010, the Redemptorist Sisters arrived, bought a land plot, and started construction. In 2014, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was consecrated, where the Sisters prayed and the Fathers served as priests. Later, the community of Fathers moved to that church. Currently, the Fathers relocated to another house, which they purchased later, and gave theirs to Caritas. During the siege and after it, Father Roman Khalas went to Bobrovytsia (the most damaged district of Chernihiv – editor’s note), prayed with people in the street, and then a parish was founded there. Now the Fathers have started construction of a small chapel there, where up to 40 people now attend. The Church of the Redemptorist Sisters is the largest parish of the UGCC in Chernihiv region, with up to 100 people attending services. Some parishioners left during the most difficult times, but many new ones came to the church. There are also parishes in Slavutych, Nizhyn, Pryluky, Koriukivka, Mena, all of them were founded before the full-scale war.

    As far as I know, religious buildings of Greek Catholic parishes did not suffer significant damage during the war and the siege of Chernihiv region.

    What are your plans for the future? Do you have any ideas for the development of your parish after such a difficult life and servicing experience?

    I would like to develop with God, that’s for sure. I really don’t want to let it go. I believe that for some reason God wanted me to be here. Well, if He wants me to and I’m diligent about it, then God will take care of it. 

    The interviewer: Iryna Fenno

    The interview was a part of the projectReligion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine”, implemented by the NGO “Workshop of Academic Religious Studies” with the support of “Documenting Ukraine”, a project of the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.