Ukrainian Catholics in the Philadelphia area are facing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week with a mixture of shock, disbelief and fright – as well as intense faith and hope.

Some 200 gathered for a liturgy Thursday evening, Feb. 24 at St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jenkintown, a standing-room-only gathering that was followed by a moleben (a service of intercession) to Mary, the Mother of God.

Prior to the liturgy, celebrant and pastor Bishop Andriy Rabiy – whose parents and younger brother live in western Ukraine — admitted he first had to “crystallize his own feelings” at the news before ministering to others.

At an earlier Mass, “it was difficult to speak,” he said. “I saw many people choking up, and you yourself have the same kind of emotion.”

Several people at the liturgy wiped away tears, with one woman declining to be interviewed by CatholicPhilly.com because she felt “too overcome.”

Dimo Dimov and his wife Maria Ostashuk are fearful for their son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in western Ukraine.

“They’re OK; we spoke with them,” said Dimov, fighting back tears. “But it’s hard. We’re very worried about them.”

Helena Kozak, also on hand for the liturgy, said her cousin in Ukraine had called her earlier in the week, fearing it might be the last conversation for some time.

Maria Ostashuk (center), seated next to her husband Dimo Dimov, wipes away tears during a Feb. 24 liturgy for Ukraine at St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jenkintown. (Sarah Webb)

“She wanted to talk to me while there are still communications (channels), while she could make contact,” said Kozak. “They’re terrified.”

In a Feb. 24 call with CatholicPhilly.com, Iryna Ivankovych said she was anxious about the safety of her mother, who manages a western Ukraine museum dedicated to Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, the major archbishop of Ukrainian Catholics who was imprisoned for 18 years under the Soviet Union.

“Our region is under air attack,” said Ivankovych, president of the nonprofit St. Sophia Religious Association in Elkins Park. “God keep us. I just wish I were there.”

The Slipyj museum complex, located in the village of Zazdrist, is now “expecting refugees from the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine,” said Ivankovych. “We are open to hosting them and giving them shelter. We haven’t ceased operations.”

The crisis has galvanized Ukrainian Americans, said Nicholas Rudnytzky, dean of academic services at Manor College in Jenkintown, a Catholic institution long connected to the Ukrainian-American community.

The school released a Feb. 24 statement denouncing the invasion and declaring that “Moscow has a long history of denying Ukrainian culture and faith. … And now, they are trying to do it again.”

Nicholas Rudnytzky, dean of academic services at Manor College, said Russian aggression against Ukraine is “a tired old story” now based on historically inaccurate information. (Manor College)

“This is not new,” said Rudnytzky, speaking Feb. 23 by telephone with CatholicPhilly.com. “Russian troops entering into (our) lands is a tired old story. We thought that chapter was closed, but … here they come again.”

The latest attempt relies on “an illusion of Russian influence” on Ukrainian heritage, said Rudnytzky.

Despite the repeated claims of Russian president Vladimir Putin that Ukraine is historically Russian and Orthodox Christian, “Putin is making stuff up,” said Rudnytzky. “Russian historiography has a vested interest in projecting this monolithic point of view, and Western scholarship got lazy (by simply accepting it).”

Western leaders also missed a crucial opportunity to prevent the invasion by failing to impose “crippling sanctions” when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, said Eugene Luciw, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s Philadelphia chapter and a member of Presentation of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lansdale.

“We allowed all of that to fester,” he said. “We should have stopped this eight years ago. …I’m not sure why we’re chasing our tail.”

Kozak agreed, adding she is “fearful for Ukrainians” of all faiths, including Catholics, Jews and Protestants.

Iryna Ivankovych, president of the nonprofit St. Sophia Religious Association in Elkins Park, said prayer is “weapon number one” for Ukrainians after this week’s invasion by Russia. (Iryna Ivankovych)

“All religions are persecuted under the Soviet style,” she said. “As Catholics, can we stand by?”

Russian aggression will not stop with Ukraine, Kozak said, referencing Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller’s quotation “First They Came,” which decried German apathy to the Shoah (Holocaust).

Left unchallenged and unchecked, the invasion will have “a domino effect,” said Rudnytzky, pointing to China’s efforts to reclaim Taiwan. “We shouldn’t be surprised when the rest fall.”

Luciw said Putin ultimately “has his eyes on control of all of eastern Europe,” including Poland.

Amid the rapidly evolving crisis, Ukrainians worldwide are “relying first on God’s help, on his mercy,” said Ivankovych.

“Our prayer is our weapon number one,” she said.

Ukraine’s 1991 independence was won “almost miraculously” through prayer, said Luciw.

“God is with us,” said Ivankovych. “As St. John Paul II would say, ‘Do not fear. God is with you.’”