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Getting Support to the War Zone

The Ukrainian Catholic Church in America facilitates financial, material, and spiritual assistance to Ukraine through a network of churches and a university in Lviv

Maggie Phillips
February 24, 2023
Religious Literacy in America
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Original photos courtesy John Kurey
Original photos courtesy John Kurey
Original photos courtesy John Kurey
Original photos courtesy John Kurey
This article is part of Ukraine.
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In America, members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church number around 49,000. In Ukraine, their membership accounts for around 10% of the predominantly Orthodox Christian country. While still falling under the aegis of the Vatican, their church is distinct from Roman Catholicism, and has become an important link in the chain of Western aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion one year ago. This link was forged two decades earlier, when the Ukrainian Catholic Church in America helped establish the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, which opened in 2002. Today, the university’s students and faculty provide spiritual, material, and physical support to their countrymen and women, made possible through help from Catholics living thousands of miles away.

Many Americans began displaying blue and yellow flags and donating to charities in Ukraine after the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S. had already been doing it for years, with much of their support being solicited and managed by two men: John Kurey and Borys Gudziak. A 2019 Atlantic Council blog post described Gudziak, whom Pope Francis had selected to become the head of America’s approximately 200 Ukrainian Catholic churches that year, as “the right man for the right time,” citing his educational background, charisma, fundraising prowess, and dedication to preaching freedom and human dignity. If those were assets for Ukrainian-American relations two-and-a-half years ago, their value has only increased.

The Ukrainian Catholic University’s development from an existing theological school in Lviv was made possible through an effort spearheaded by Gudziak, a Syracuse, New York native and the son of Ukrainian immigrants. It was in 1996, early in the process, that he engaged Kurey—a lawyer and fellow American—to help fundraise. Kurey stayed on after the university’s founding, switching his focus to the slightly wider but still niche world of Eastern (also known as Byzantine rite) Catholicism in the U.S., helping these often-smaller parishes and communities to raise and steward funds. Today, like Gudziak, his work has taken on a global significance.

An American with deep attachments and connections to Ukraine, Gudziak holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in Slavic and Byzantine cultural history. In the past year, he has emerged as a kind of global spokesman for the country of Ukraine. While the Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Russia are mired in controversy and mutual mistrust, Gudziak is the head of a powerful bloc in what has long been a diaspora church, providing the valuable perspective of an outsider who is nevertheless conversant in the cultural and religious landscape of Ukraine. Last month, he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, interviewing Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska. Speaking at a breakfast in Davos, Gudziak appealed to the sensibilities of the crowd. “I hope our capitalism is compassionate,” he said. “I hope there is a new Ukrainian capitalism that will show the world, and encourage Indians, people from Sudan, and Venezuela that the free market has at its heart God-given human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good. These are the four principles of the Catholic social doctrine.”

But these remarks are more than tailored messaging. Their optimistic, very American confidence in both God and mammon, and their orientation toward Catholic social doctrine, are reflected in the kind of support Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S. have been able to provide to their faith’s ancestral homeland since the onset of the war. As citizens of a global superpower—whose government, according to USAID, is the largest donor to the humanitarian response in Ukraine, and who are far from the fighting—Ukrainian Catholics in America have been able to access the broader American Catholic community’s network of charities and churches. This puts them in a unique position to effectively provide resources to Ukraine and its citizens, largely through a university in Lviv with just under 2,000 students.

A National Catholic Reporter article dated Feb. 25, 2022, the day after the Russian invasion, described Gudziak wrapping up “a packed European trip that included two weeks in Ukraine as well as visits to Rome, London, and Paris,” while working the phones with the media, NGOs, and Catholic leadership. Among his concerns over a Russian takeover, which he shared with the NCR from Ukraine over Zoom, was the potential for Ukrainian Catholics to be pushed back underground. This was the case under the Soviets, he said, who ordered them to renounce their faith and convert to Russian Orthodoxy.

One clergyman at the time had refused: Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj. He was sentenced to a Soviet prison camp, where he lived for nearly two decades. Slipyj visited Syracuse in 1968, a few years after his release. It was an event that would have a profound impact on Gudziak, who eventually moved to Ukraine in 1992, six years before his ordination to the priesthood, and just over 20 years before he would serve, in 2013, as president of the university he helped create.

In 2020, professor Thomas Landy of the Catholics & Culture initiative at the College of the Holy Cross wrote a history of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the U.S. The church itself dates its existence to the 16th-century Union of Brest, when Orthodox Christian bishops in the Polish-controlled area of what is today western Ukraine, reunited with Rome. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is also known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a confusing term that simply connotes that the church adheres to Catholicism’s Byzantine rite of worship, which originated among early Christians in the Greek (at the time) city of Antioch. Liturgies in Byzantine rite Catholic churches are typically quite similar to those practiced in Eastern Orthodox churches, even as they recognize the authority of the pope in Rome (Orthodox Christians do not; Christianity split into Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in the Great Schism of 1054).

In Landy’s telling, the theme of the suppression of Catholicism under Russian rule would run right up until the fall of the Soviet Union. It began when the Russian Empire took control of western Ukraine from Poland. Orthodoxy was reimposed in the region, with two areas remaining Catholic holdouts: Transcarpathia and Galicia, which would come to fall under the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Landy writes that Galicia in particular would later account for a significant amount of immigration to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. This migration occurred in response to jobs in American coal mines and factories, and led to the establishment of Ukrainian Catholic Churches in the U.S.

After WWII, the Soviet Union suppressed the Ukrainian Catholic Church, creating a church that, in Landy’s words, “legally existed only in diaspora” until 1990.

American Catholics have provided a small, but important touchpoint in the relationship between America and Ukraine for years. By its own account, U.S. charity Catholic Extension has supported the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the U.S. since 1979. Last month, the organization hosted a webinar with Kurey, who was visiting Lviv at the time.

Speaking from the Ukrainian Catholic University during the webinar, Kurey was a few days into an 11-day trip to western Ukraine. He described the city, about 40 miles from the Polish border, as relatively calm and normal. He told webinar attendees that he had come at his own expense, and that his purpose was threefold: to bring hope, see how money sent from abroad to churches and religious orders was being put to use, and to visit a Ukrainian priest preparing to come over to the U.S. to pastor.

Kurey was recently out of law school in 1996 when a mutual friend of Gudziak’s approached him about assisting with a pro bono legal project: creating a foundation in America to support what would become the Ukrainian Catholic University. The initiative was to build upon the existing Catholic Lviv Theological Academy (LTA). The LTA was the revival of Lviv’s previous Ukrainian Catholic theological academy, founded in the late 1920s when the city was part of Poland. Gudziak’s hero Slipyj served at the school’s helm in the early years. Shut down by the Soviets in 1944, the Lviv Theological Academy returned a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence, in 1994. Kurey stayed involved with the initiative to establish a Catholic university in Lviv “in various ways,” still busily practicing law and pursuing an MBA. “But Borys [Gudziak] was always inviting me over to visit, and I finally did that in mid-2002,” Kurey said. It was the year that the Lviv Theological Academy was officially inaugurated as the Ukrainian Catholic University, an event that was being celebrated both on and off campus with several days of events in Lviv, he said: “When I was over there, I decided to leave my job and my career, and to help full time” with the foundation’s work of supporting the university.

Really, financial support is the most effective way to help people there.

Twenty years before February 2022, when the resilience of many average Ukrainians in the face of the Russian invasion stunned the American public, Kurey experienced something similar on his first visit to Lviv and the Ukrainian Catholic University.

“I was taken aback at what I saw,” Kurey said in an email, “this young, dynamic institution that had so much potential to serve the Lord and His Church and humanity. I realized that this cause needed someone with my skills and experience to help it take off. I’m not Ukrainian, or Ukrainian Catholic for that matter, but I was a lawyer with nine years of experience in several areas and I had an MBA from one of the best business schools in the world. I was perfectly situated to take up the cause and help. So I did.”

Although it ended his previous career, it made a new path possible. “It was my best ‘career move’ ever,” he said.

By 2010, he was working to assist other eastern Catholic bishops in the U.S. with their own local fundraising efforts. Today, he is a member of the Ukrainian American Bar Association, which lists him on their website as a consultant, adviser, and director of stewardship and development for various smaller eparchies, the administrative bodies within the Ukrainian Catholic Church, overseen by bishops.

Almost exactly a year before Russia invaded Ukraine, Kurey appeared in a 2021 YouTube video, speaking about the Home Missions Appeal for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. The money brought in through the Home Missions Appeal allows the American Catholic Church to sustain its smaller or more remote parishes and dioceses, he said. At that time, Kurey was almost apologetic about the fund’s role: helping these smaller Catholic communities keep the heat and lights on. “It’s not as exciting as front-line evangelization,” he said with a smile. “But it’s helping in the background, here.”

The Home Missions Appeal would give $165,000 of the money raised in 2021 to the Ukrainian Eparchy of St. Nicholas in Chicago. In 2022, a Chicago Sun Times article about Ukrainian refugee families would describe St. Nicholas as supporting a “hub” for those fleeing the conflict at home.

The eparchy—the equivalent of a diocese in Roman Catholicism—has a school, St. Nicholas Cathedral School, which the September 2022 Sun Times article said had helped 75 refugee students and their families (Kurey said in a phone call that he heard an estimate as high as 100). “Many of the parents from Ukraine arrived with next to nothing,” wrote reporter Anna Savchenko. “So the school is offering far more than an education.” In addition to providing free tuition, clothes, food, and school supplies for a preschooler named Sasha, the article states that the school helped his mother find an apartment. “These families can’t afford tuition or whatever the fees are,” Kurey said, “So schools are just carrying them, which is, it’s a privilege, but it’s also a little bit of a financial burden as well.”

In Gudziak’s own diocese, Kurey said there are around 25 students from Ukraine who have enrolled at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic School in Passaic, New Jersey, since the war’s outbreak.

When he was speaking two years ago on YouTube, Kurey’s self-deprecating Home Missions pitch failed to anticipate the high adventure he would be living at the turn of 2023. Although he said in the webinar that Lviv was “pretty safe,” Kurey said his family was still “not ecstatic” when he told them he was headed there. Kurey said he flew from the U.S. into Poland in late December 2022, and waited an hour for processing at the border there to go into Ukraine, where he was one of the few Americans.

He showed pictures on the bus from Warsaw to Lviv, with passengers who were predominantly women, he said due to the wartime restrictions on military-aged males being able to leave Ukraine. Kurey said that although things were fairly calm, stores in Lviv closed during air raids, as he showed a picture of people lined up outside a closed store. He spoke of displays of bombed cars and trucks in downtown Lviv’s Prospekt Svoboda, and children playing on the monument to the Holodomor famine.

But Kurey also shows pictures of what he calls “a container town” for refugees, next to the Catholic University. Shipping containers have been converted into temporary private residences that run on electricity provided by generators, Kurey said, “almost like a cruise ship cabin.”

Part of the university’s response to the crisis, Kurey said, included around 500 people living in the university’s theology department, which could sleep around 200 at any given time, from the beginning of the war into the summer of last year. He also described students and faculty loading vans with supplies for the military, driving them further into Ukraine, as much as 18 hours east. NGOs made their headquarters at the school, he said, and university basement space was prepared as a bomb shelter, set up with sandbags and classrooms, so that instruction could continue.

Kurey showed an image of Catholic sisters in habits, belonging to the Redemptorist Order, who he said gave shelter to Muslim refugees from Crimea. He said one couple delivered a baby while staying with the sisters. A few months after their stay, they returned as a family to visit their former hosts at the monastery. The sisters also delivered food and supplies to soldiers (the women aren’t allowed on the front, he said, so they arrange to meet the soldiers about a half hour away from the fighting), and in December, they held a St. Nicholas Day celebration for children close to the front, to give them a sense of normalcy. Kurey said some refugees from Eastern Ukraine whose homes have been destroyed are living at Catholic monasteries run by the sisters, although many have either left to go further west in Ukraine, or have determined it was safe to return to their homes.

This work, he said, has been supported by Ukrainian Catholic eparchies in the U.S.

“Some of the people have given everything to support because they believe in it so much,” he said, speaking not only of the creation of the university, but the dream of an independent Ukraine. “So now this invasion,” he said, “is the biggest event in their lives. It’s as big as fleeing Ukraine in the 1940s, for those of them that are still alive that did that. And so they are willing to do anything. I mean, you’ve got people who are in their 80s who want to go over and take up arms and protect Ukraine. Of course, they can’t do that, they’re too old. But they’re doing what they can to support her from back here.”

Added to this core of longtime supporters of Ukraine in the U.S., is the wider network of American Roman Catholics, who are channeling their goodwill toward Ukrainians’ fight for independence through the fundraising efforts of Ukrainian Catholic groups at home. Kurey said that the biggest donors by far to the humanitarian efforts of the Ukrainian Catholic bishops in America are Roman Catholics and Roman Catholic dioceses. “Ukrainian Catholics are very generous, but really it’s Roman Catholics who are providing the bulk of the support,” he said.

When people from Ukraine need help, they come to the parishes here in America.

But it is the Ukrainian Catholics’ transnational networks that allow the Ukrainian Catholic bishops in the U.S. to deploy those funds effectively—the fruits of Gudziak’s decadeslong, peripatetic clerical career between Ukraine and America, as well as lay people like Kurey who have cultivated personal relationships between the two countries over the years. This allows Ukrainians to swiftly notify their American counterparts to a particular need on the ground.

Kurey echoes USAID guidance that monetary, rather than in-kind donations, are the best kind to send to Ukraine. “The people there know what they need,” said Kurey. “When they buy stuff, it supports the local economy. Really, financial support is the most effective way to help people there.”

“When people from Ukraine need help,” Kurey said, “they come to the parishes here in America.” When someone from Ukrainian Catholic University has a need, he said, “Where are they going to fundraise? They go down to St. Josephat Cathedral in Cleveland, or Prokova Ukrainian Catholic Parish.”

“In my view, they’re the finest organizations in Ukraine,” Kurey said of the Ukrainian Catholic University and the Ukrainian Catholic Church in a phone call. “These are the most effective NGOs in Ukraine today, without question.”

“Of course, you can never generalize about a group of people,” he said, but he believes that Ukrainian Catholics tend to engender a high degree of confidence and respect from non-Catholics within their own country. The nearly back-to-back visits to the university by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the head of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, would seem to bear this out.

Broglio visited the school in late December.

“There is also a sizable Ukrainian community in the United States,” Broglio said in a recorded interview with the university’s dean of philosophy and theology. “Particularly the Ukrainian Catholic Church. And that has been a catalyst to enable us to respond in a more direct way, because we hear about what is being experienced, and that always elicits a response, and traditionally, at least in the United States, Catholics have been very generous when they’re asked to respond to a need.” Broglio said this tradition goes back to at least the end of the 19th century, when Mother Francis Cabrini (“later the first saint with an American passport,” he said, “she was born in Italy, but we claim her as our own”) would ask even poor communities to contribute to those who were poorer than they were. “She was able to get a response,” he said. “And I think that’s fundamental to our notion of living the faith is responding to those in need, even if it means sacrificing something that we might need.”

Broglio spoke of the way the Catholic university in Lviv has worked as an “agency of assistance” since the outbreak of the war: housing refugees, supplying soldiers on the front lines, and volunteering “to assist those most in need.”

On his visit, Broglio visited the Garrison Church of St. Peter and Paul. Although a Catholic Church in the predominantly Orthodox country of Ukraine, since Russia’s invasion of the Crimea in 2014, the house of worship has become a monument to Ukrainian service members, both fallen and active. A Los Angeles Times article from May of last year describes pictures of the fallen and items retrieved from battlefields on display in the sanctuary, alongside ornate 17th-century architecture and art. There, Broglio, who is also the archbishop for the Archdiocese of the Military Services in the U.S., met with Ukrainian military chaplains. He concelebrated a funeral Mass, together with Auxiliary Bishop of the Lviv Archeparchy Volodymyr Hrutsa, for three Ukrainian soldiers killed in action.

During Zelensky’s visit a couple of weeks later on Jan. 11, school rector Bohdan Prach told the Ukrainian president about the work the school has been carrying out. Prach told Zelensky the school had raised over $6 million to help soldiers, refugees, and people living in active war zones. “Our main focus is medical help for military hospitals, the purchase of medicine and medical items,” he is quoted as saying in a university press release about the visit. “UCU is a unique center to which benefactors from the whole world send aid, in particular, food, clothing, and hygiene items. In the first months of the invasion, the university also became a shelter for many children and people with special needs, who were able to lodge at the university and receive psychological and spiritual support.”

Although he also serves Maronite Catholics from Syria and Lebanon, Kurey estimates that about three-quarters of his time is spent helping Ukrainian Catholic initiatives in the U.S.

When we spoke over the phone, Kurey was in Florida to do some fundraising for the eparchy over the weekend. “We’ll be raising money for the eparchy,” he said of the trip, on which he was accompanied by the Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Parma, Ohio. “But one of the things that we’re telling people is, you know, a strong eparchy for a strong Ukraine, meaning we want the eparchy to continue to be strong so that it can support Ukraine.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.