ST. PETERSBURG — After he read the gospel, before he led the Lord’s Prayer, the priest paused and looked out over the congregation. He couldn’t believe how many people had come, how many new faces there were.
On a normal Sunday, an average of 20 people show up for the early, English-speaking service at Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church. That morning, more than 50 people filled the wooden pews, many wearing the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Another 100 came for the second service, which was in Ukrainian.
Some brought donations, toiletries and medical supplies to send as relief efforts. Some had spent the weekend trying to find family and friends fleeing the Russian occupation. They all needed to pray together under the golden domes.
“In the past 10 days, Ukraine has shown the world its tough spirit, its desire for freedom as our nation demonstrates its patience and unity in this bloody war,” Father Bohdan Barytskyy said solemnly. “We pray for the thousands of victims of bombs and missiles, but most of all our hearts are bleeding for our cities, which are blocked by the enemy who does not allow people to leave and does not allow supplies or food.”
The priest has led the church on 90th Ave. N since 2005. His wife and two children live with him at the rectory across the street. But he worries about his mother, sister, cousins and so many friends who are still in the Ukraine. “Today they bombed a region next to my house,” he said. “All around, every day, alarms. My family spend their nights in basements.”
He wants the United States and other countries to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. He wants Polish planes to help battle Russian aircraft. He wants his countrymen to know, “Saints die but they keep the faith. Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid.’ They can take your life but they cannot take your soul. Because your soul is immortal.”
This war, the priest said, has unified his people — in Ukraine and abroad. “People want to protect our language, our culture, traditions, everything,” he said. “This is our home. We decide what we do. Who can protect us? Only God.”
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He prayed for mercy, the pope, peace. He asked God to bless the Ukrainian army and everyone who stays “to guard the motherland.” He told his congregants not to be silent.
“Let us do everything to stop this horrible war. Let us do anything to get humanitarian aid to those cities.
“God, save the Ukraine. God, send people wisdom and reason so that dialog conquers war.”
At the second service, many people wore brightly embroidered Ukrainian shirts and blouses. Several women covered their hair with lace scarves.
One young mother kept stroking her 7-year-old son’s back, worrying about her parents who live just west of the fighting. An elderly woman in the back pew couldn’t stop crying.
After communion, the priest invited everyone to get a poster and file onto Fourth Street. “We have to show our support, and solidarity with other nations,” he said.
A dozen people carried Ukrainian flags to line the curb. A dozen more brandished painted signs: “Punish Putin, not Ukraine.” “Hands off Ukraine.” “Stand with Ukraine.”
The priest changed out of his golden robe, then joined his parishioners at the protest. “We are peaceful. But we are at war,” he said. He looked down, shook his head and said, softly: “Amazing.”
HOW TO HELP
Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church is collecting donations to send to Ukrainian refugees and people who have been injured in the war. You can drop off money or items at the Church Hall, 434 90th Ave. N. St. Petersburg, FL 33702, from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. Most urgent needs include backpacks, toiletries, pain reliever, diapers, granola bars, pet food and 2-gallon Ziploc bags. For more information, call 727-576-1001.