War in Native Land Hits Home for Newark's Ukrainian community

St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Newark's West Ward has been a focal point for the city's Ukrainian community for decades.


The dozens of people praying inside St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Newark were far from their ancestral homeland on the day Ukraine was invaded by Russia.

But home was in their hearts as they looked into their souls for the faith to help Ukraine win the fight of its life. 

"When we heard about this, we couldn't sleep at all. We've been up all night watching the news and reaching out to family and friends," said Oleh Kolodiy, a physics professor who lives in Maplewood but was born in Ukraine, wearing a scarf emblazoned with the blue-and-white colors of the country's flag. "We're optimistic they can stop them. And, more importantly, the people over there believe they can stop them." 

Any sense of geopolitical order in Europe was shattered on Thursday when Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, invaded Ukraine from multiple points after massing troops along its border for weeks. The shocking assault is an expansion of a war that began in the regions of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. The last few days have seen a full invasion of the entire country, including reports of fierce firefights in the streets of Kyiv, Ukraine's capital. 

The streets surrounding St. John's Church, located on Sanford Avenue in Newark's Valisburg section, once heard Ukrainian regularly being spoken, along with those in nearby Ivy Hill. While the Ukrainian diaspora ultimately spread deeper into New Jersey's suburbs, the church has remained the focal point of a devoted community united by family and faith.

Kolodiy found out about the Thursday night prayer service, planned days before the invasion, from his daughter-in-law. His children went to the church's former grammar school across the street. As a new generation of parents bundled up their children outside, Kolodiy looked to Ukraine's uncertain immediate future.

"The next couple of days are going to be very important. Russia is either going to roll over the Ukrainian army, or the Ukrainians will put up a really good fight. Putin may even give up if that happens. Who knows?" Kolodiy said. "But now is a good time to pray."

Yuriy Piekielko, a more recent immigrant from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, said the invasion was a time for those closely watching the unfolding war to take stock regarding what kind of world they want to live in. 

"I don't know the future for Ukraine, but know it won't be like it was before. It will be another Ukraine, but we want it to be ours," Piekielko said. "This will wake us up for the future. It will wake everybody up." 

Father Ihor Kolisnyk, who led the special prayer service, came to Newark in May 2021 from his native city of Ternopil, also in western Ukraine, where much of his family still lives. They have been scared like everybody else around them as Russian missile attacks have rained down nearby. Fellow priests living in Chernihiv, in the north of the country, and Berdyansk, in the south, are also close to the fighting. 

Here in Newark, Kolisnyk's work plays a role in helping Ukrainians around the world stay connected and focused as his homeland, an emerging democracy, tries to fight off an aggressive autocratic regime. 

"We have a few hard weeks ahead of us, but if we can withstand that and keep going, we will win this war. We are fighting for our home. Russia has no reason to fight, and you cannot believe in lies for long," Kolisnyk said. "We have our faith, and faith is something that prevails."

For Kolisnyk and the rest of Newark's Ukrainians, that faith provides a source of power that can provide not only spiritual results. 

"People in a moment of deep distress need to see a greater meaning for what they are going through, including Ukrainians. Moments like this are not just when people try to find to an explanation for their suffering. It can give people a reason as to why they should fight against injustice and stand up against what is wrong," Kolisnyk said as he prepared for another community prayer service. "God empowers people to fight against injustice. We are here not just to pray and find a way to understand the story of our lives. We are also here to find a way to change the story." 

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-26 03:34:03 -0800