Notes from Ukraine, Sunday, May 22, 2022

Dominican Shield

I received this latest letter from my Dominican Brother Jarosław and share it here with the friends of Shem Center. He writes about what ordinary life is like for them in Kyiv and also includes some news of particular interest to the Dominican family of Brothers and Sisters throughout the world.
— Joseph Kilikevice ,OP 

Notes from Ukraine. Sunday, May 22 –
Wieści z Ukrainy. Niedziela, 22 maja

Dear sisters, dear brothers, 

Recently I’ve spent most of my time sending letters. It was hard to find spare time to do it sooner, but it’s very important to me that thank-you notes from the brothers in Ukraine find their way to all the people supporting the Dominican mission in the country at war. Many people and many institutions around the world help us, so the work of sending letters will still take some time. Writing addresses, signing letters, and attaching post stamps might seem boring and purely mechanical. It isn’t so, however. For me, all these actions became emotionally absorbing, stirring my curiosity and, above all, bringing forth an enormous gratitude. I know that behind every name, address, priory, province, and institution are good and generous people. You are our friends — our sisters and brothers. Unfortunately, we don’t have the addresses of all our benefactors, so if any of you don’t receive my handwritten letter, please be assured that we remember all of you in our prayers. We are in Ukraine, and we serve all those in need on your behalf as well. 

Two days ago Father Misha, with the help of volunteers from the House of Saint Martin in Fastiv, organized a picnic for the inhabitants of Borodyanka. Borodyanka is one of the most devastated cities around Kyiv. I’ve already mentioned it a few times because our brothers in Fastiv have been helping its citizens for a while now. Last year, Father Misha finally fulfilled one of his dreams and bought a food truck. It’s a truck that can be used to prepare and serve hot meals. This ancient vehicle, with two large propane tanks attached to the back, drove the 70 km between Fastiv and Borodyanka surprisingly nimbly. And the children weren’t the only ones who were excited. Although we didn’t manage to provide french fries, we were capable of making delightful hotdogs and hamburgers. I fully shared everyone’s enthusiasm. Nowadays it’s hard to find good fast food, even in Kyiv, because the most popular of these chains are closed. How much worse it must be in Borodyanka, so tragically destroyed by Russian bombs and tanks, where it’s hard to find even a grocery store. 

The menu of our food truck, which offered everything free of charge, also featured coffee: real, delightful, and aromatic. That was the biggest hit among the adults. Only a few months ago, coffee was absolutely normal, and nobody paid attention to it. Before the war, while driving overnight from Kyiv or Fastiv to Warsaw, we would stop in the morning for coffee in this very city. Today you can’t buy coffee in Borodyanka. I learned that while trying to find one for myself. “If I could find the money, I would immediately open a coffee house in this place,” said Father Misha when we talked about it last night. “People are longing for it. They want to go back to normal, everyday comforts.” I agree with him wholeheartedly; I’m very happy that, apart from building materials for renovating destroyed houses and necessary items like medicine, flour, oil, canned meat and bread, the volunteers from the House of Saint Martin make a huge effort to provide some token of a different, normal, pre-war world for those who have been suffering. Mrs. Natalia, who lives in our Kyiv priory with her elderly parents, told me how much she longs for this lost, normal world — how much she would love to simply sit down in front of her house in the morning and peacefully drink a cup of hot coffee. 

Over the last week, I traveled a lot on trains. Partly out of comfort, partly out of necessity due to the lack of gasoline. Many trains in Ukraine consist mostly of sleeping cars. Each of these cars has its “providnyk”, a railroad employee who serves the passengers. “Have you been working throughout the whole war?” I asked the woman responsible for my car. “Yes, I’ve been riding all this time,” she responded. “I would like to thank you. You are a real hero to me.” She was a little surprised by what I said. She immediately stopped what she was doing and called over her colleague. I listened to their stories about how they served on the evacuation trains in the most dangerous moments of war. They showed me pictures of bullet-ridden cars and rockets flying over the Kyiv train station from the first weeks of war. People like them are real heros. Without their work, millions of human beings wouldn’t be able to evacuate to safety. Many Ukrainian railroad workers suffered as a result of war. Mr. Volodymyr showed me a picture on his phone of his relative whose face was covered with wounds after one of the most recent rocket attacks. As we were finishing our conversation, I ordered a coffee. The paper cup had an advertisement with a beautiful slogan: “Ukrainian things are becoming the best.” I don’t know how to say it better. 

On the way to Kyiv, I overheard the conversation of the children running around in the car. They were traveling home with their moms. They didn’t know each other before, so they were describing their houses while they were playing. In their conversation, they mentioned alarms, explosions, artillery barrages. I wondered how deep the psychological wounds are, in all of us and especially in the young Ukrainians afflicted by this war. 

The Institute of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Kyiv, run by the Dominicans, is operating online just like all the other schools and universities. It allows students who are spread around Ukraine, or even the world, to participate in the classes. Father Thomas, who moved to Kyiv about a year ago, recently started his topics course on the concept of a person in the writings of Romano Guardini and Joseph Ratzinger. The course is attended by seven people. That’s pretty good for our school and wartime. Father Petro, the director of the institute, has already opened a recruitment campaign for the new academic year. I’m very curious how many people, and who, will apply to begin studies in September. Among the prospective students, we have one soldier. He asked if we offer remote classes, since it will be very difficult for him to travel to Kyiv. I’m glad that in such a difficult time in Ukraine there are people willing to study theology. 

Today our Dominican community in Khmelnytskyi is celebrating a unique solemnity of the elevation of the relics of Saint Dominic. A year ago, the brothers expressed their desire to have the relics of our Father and the founder of the Order in their house. These dreams were supported by Father Wojciech, the theologian of the papal household, who advised us to make a request for relics to the Roman monastery of the Dominican nuns on Monte Mario. The nuns responded favorably, and the relics of Saint Dominic and Saint Sixtus arrived in Khmelnytskyi. As preparation for the solemnity, Father Oleksandr from Kyiv preached the retreat at the parish of Christ the King in Khmelnytskyi, which is the parish of our priory. Today’s Mass will be presided by Bishop Nicholas. It’s another chance to see this Dominican brother who recently ordained Father Igor. Bishop Nicholas praised the pastoral work of Father Irenaeus in Mukachevo, who was evacuated from Kharkiv along with his parishioners at the beginning of the war. “Nicholas made me a confessor at the cathedral,” said Father Irenaeus, who spends a lot of time in the confessional but also helps the bishop by celebrating Masses in the neighboring parishes. God assures that people have access to the sacraments in this difficult time of war. 

There’s a saying that you help more by giving a fishing rod than by giving a fish. Our sisters, brothers, and volunteers from the House of Saint Martin de Porres preferred to bring the people from Andriivka and Krasnohirka chicken rather than eggs. Both towns still look horrible, although their residents fixed a lot and cleaned up what was left by the unwanted guests from the east. Most of the household animals were lost during the war or were eaten by the Russian soldiers stationed there. That’s why a long line of smiling people quickly formed around our car to receive small chickens. We gave away over two thousand of them. After all, it’s Easter, and chicks symbolize new life, hope, and rebirth. 

With warm greetings and request for prayer,
Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, Sunday, May 22, 2022, 10:45pm 

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