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St. Byzantine welcomes first married priest to lead parish

By Sarah Whitman, Times Columnist
Courtesy of St. Byzantine Catholic Church
Father Oleksiy Nebesnyk, the new priest at St. Byzantine Catholic Church in New Port Richey, is shown with his wife, Zoriana, and their three daughters.

Zoriana Nebesnyk, the new pastor's wife at St. Byzantine Catholic Church in New Port Richey, is breaking new ground.

Her husband, Father Oleksiy Nebesnyk, is the only married priest to ever lead the church.

In June, the Nebesnyks and their three daughters — age 8, 7 and 3 — traveled from the Ukraine to Florida to serve at St. Byzantine.

Both Oleksiy and Zoriana grew up in the Eastern Catholic Church, which allows priests to marry. Born in the Ukraine, they never found it odd to see priests with families, as 95 percent there are not celibate. In 2014, Pope Francis lifted the 1929 order banning married Eastern Catholic priests from serving in the United States.

Arriving in Florida, the Nebesnkys didn't know how St. Byzantine's congregation might react. They prepared for some opposition. Instead, they received curiosity and kindness.

"We didn't lose any parishioners," Zoriana Nebesnyk said. "They all seem to like us."

"We thought people would be more surprised seeing a priest with children," said Oleksiy Nebesknyk, 34. "From time to time I get questions, but they have welcomed us so nicely."

The Nebesnyks came to Florida for something different, they say.

"When we got off the plane, we were shocked as it was like walking into a sauna," Oleksiy said. "The humidity was an adjustment, but now we are used to it."

Zoriana Nebesnyk, 28, had never visited the United States before arriving in early summer. She felt a bit of a culture shock, but enjoys the warmer weather, especially at the beach. Her oldest girls started school in August and are adapting to the English language.

"It is so different in Ukraine," Nebesnyk said. "It is very cold. The houses are older. It is much dirtier. The roads are in bad condition. We like it here. The people are friendly and polite."

Nebesnyk said she feels welcome at St. Byzantine and intends to strengthen the women's ministry. Already, women come to her for advice and support. She looks forward to bake sales and fundraisers. She and her husband also hope to bring more young families to the church.

St. Byzantine Catholic Church is at 7120 Massachusetts Ave. For more information, visit flbyzantinecatholic.com/home.html.