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Ukrainian faith communities pray for invaded motherland

Photo by Lynne Deliman

Father Timothy Tomson led his congregation at St. Mary's Ukrainian Orthodox Church in a prayer service for the Ukrainian invasion Feb. 27.  To assist their worship, Tompson brought out a replica of an ancient icon believed to have staved off a Ukrainian city from Ottoman invasion during the 17th century.

Photo by Lynne Deliman

Oksana Kukhar, along with daughters Sophia and Victoria light candles at St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks to pray for the citizens of Ukraine following the Russian invasion. 


By Jamie Wiggan

As Russian troops fired on Ukraine’s second-largest city throughout Sunday, Orthodox faith communities here in McKees Rocks gathered to pray.

“We pray God will turn the hearts of the Russian soldiers and the president of Russia,” Father Timothy Tomson said to his parishioners at St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks. “Take it from stone and turn it into gold.”

About 30 parishioners participated in the regular morning service at St. Mary’s on Feb. 27. Most were born here to Ukrainian parents or grandparents, but many are Ukrainian natives who made the McKees Rocks parish their spiritual home after emigrating to America.

“My life is both [American and Ukrainian],” said Vitaliy Kukhar, a Ukrainian native who initially thought he would only stay temporarily in the United States to work and save money. He and his family have been worshiping at St. Mary’s since 2009.

Kukhar said his sister was living in a city in Eastern Ukraine before the invasion began last week, but hoping to avoid the path of destruction forged by Russian tanks, she moved in with her parents at their rural home further from the border.

“They’re really worried,” Kukhar said of his family. “We need help now.”

Another worshiper, Anastasiia Hanson, receives regular pictures and messages from family still in Ukraine updating her on the situation. By Sunday, her cousins had spent the past several days in an underground train station to avoid the bombings. Although their younger child has developed an ear infection since holing up underground her parents don’t dare venture to a hospital while the blasts continue.

“She can’t get help because they can’t leave,” said Hanson. “I’m very scared.”

For Hanson, who has lived in America since 2006, watching helplessly as Russian forces march through Ukraine evokes a familiar feeling. Originally from Crimea, Hanson has already seen troops march through her homeland when Russia annexed that former Ukrainian territory by force in 2014.

“Putin, he just decided one day it was his place now,” she said.

One hundred years before Hanson and Kukhar arrived here as recent immigrants, St. Mary’s Church was built in 1906 to accommodate large inflows of Ukrainians who made their homes in the New World during the first 30 years of the 20th century.

Immigration records show nearly half of the 270,000 Ukrainians who arrived in America between 1899-1930 arrived in Pennsylvania. Most of these settled west of the Alleghenies in industrial towns surrounding Pittsburgh, including McKees Rocks and Carnegie.

Locally, the Bottoms neighborhood became home to a particularly dense community of Ukrainians in the early 20th century, and their opulent churches still adorn the skyline.

Around the corner from St. Mary’s, inhabitants of the former Carpathian Ruthenia territory that’s now mostly in Ukraine founded Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church in 1907, while St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church was formed out of the St. Mary’s congregation in 1940. St. Nicholas Church on Munson Avenue was also founded primarily by Carpathian Ruthenian immigrants in 1914. Each of these held its own services on Sunday morning.

Longtime St. Mary’s parishioners born on American soil also feel a deep sense of pain over the recent invasion of their ancestral homeland.

“It’s awful,” said Marianne Tannehill, whose parents came to America shortly before World War II. “But I’m proud of the people for what they’re doing… I don’t think we could do that in the United States.”

Since fighting broke out Feb. 24 reports tell of citizens of all ages picking up weapons to defend their homeland, while more than 20,000 Ukrainians living overseas have reportedly returned home to join the cause. Much of the world has responded with unprecedented sanctions and boycotts but NATO forces have so far stopped short of military retaliation.

Hanna Dziamko-Witt regularly sings in the choir at St. Mary’s, a small chorus that leads the congregation through the sung liturgy of the orthodox tradition. Long settled in America, she feels safe in her Robinson home but laments the lack of support shown to her homeland by Western allies.

“We need all the help possible from the world, including NATO and the U.S.,” she said. “They know sanctions don’t work.”

Following the morning liturgy, St. Mary’s parishioners were later joined by residents, local officials and interdenominational clergy in a special prayer service for the Ukrainian conflict.

The service, interspersed with testimony from Ukrainian natives and messages of support from other local leaders, ended in a long prayer ceremony centered around an icon of the Virgin Mary, the church’s namesake.

The icon is a replica of one villagers of Pochayiv, Ukraine turned to while under attack from the Ottoman empire in the 17th century. Church tradition maintains the town was miraculously saved after their intercessions.

When prayers drew to a close in McKees Rocks around 1 p.m., 5,000 miles away the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv was still standing after a day of heavy Russian bombardments.

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