WASHINGTON (CNS) — When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the winds of change were in the air. One particularly strong breeze was the effort by the Catholic Church in the United States to revitalize the church in the Warsaw Pact nations and former Soviet republics.

Some found it a daunting task, as the church in many of those nations had been battered by the Nazis before losing their sovereignty anew to the USSR.

But the U.S. bishops, with generous help from Catholics across the country, allowed the church in Ukraine and other nations to regain much of what had been lost after nearly a half-century of repression.

About $23 million has been distributed to the church in Ukraine since the 1990s, when the U.S. bishops began their collection to aid the church in Central and Eastern Europe.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, then archbishop of Newark, N.J., was the first chairman of the bishops’ Committee to Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe. He said that in the early years after the fall of communism, representatives of the U.S. church traveled with cash in their luggage to assure that it would reach its intended destination safely.

“It was amazing to see the (Ukrainian) church was alive after all they’d gone through,” he told Catholic News Service March 10 from a seminary in the Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Md., where he lives in retirement.

Under Soviet rule, from 1946 to 1989, the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church was illegal. The strongest members lived their faith clandestinely, while others attended an Orthodox Church or no church at all. The government confiscated all church property, giving some buildings to the Orthodox and putting other buildings to secular uses.

Cardinal McCarrick said that after Ukraine split from the Soviet Union, Catholic priests “came out of hiding. They presented themselves. They came back to their old parishes. Some (laity) had gone to the other side (the Soviet-supported Orthodox). When they saw they would get their priest again, many said, ‘Praise God. Now we can worship the way we believe!'”

Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash., the current committee chairman, said Ukrainian Catholics had to insist on the return of their churches that had been appropriated by the Soviets. In some cases where it was not possible, other buildings were given to the church.

“We helped with that kind of work,” Bishop Cupich said. “One of the smaller rural dioceses where the government gave a property to the diocese, the diocese used it for its headquarters, like its chancery offices.” In earlier years that building was used as the regional headquarters for the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency.

“The diocese renovated the two floors and left the basement the way it was, because that’s where people were imprisoned during the repressive years, and many of them were tortured. There were scribblings of many of the people who were tortured,” Bishop Cupich said. “The bishop decided not to scrub them, but leave them as they were. The work on the upper two floors could be done because of the sacrifice of those in the basement.”

“It was a wonderful way to keep in mind the price that was paid for the freedoms they now enjoy,” Bishop Cupich said. “I was quite proud that the American Catholic Church helped in an instance like that. Not only did we give them the possibility of a building (they) could use for operations in their own diocese, but we participated in something that would be a living memory of the sufferings the people endured.”

Ukrainian Archbishop Stefan Soroka of Philadelphia said the Eastern Europe collection is now helping fund Ukrainian orphanages and the orphans’ medical needs, among other critical needs.

“The generosity has been really, really significant,” he said, adding that seemingly routine needs like “providing cars for priests and sisters so they can get around and reach out” are also funded through the collection.

“I thank God every day in my prayers for people who have given so very much,” said Archbishop Soroka said, adding of his Ukrainian countrymen: “They teach us, they teach me. They’re continuously amazing. Would I be as strong?”