Home Church community The Willimantic Church has been the center of Ukrainian aid locally

The Willimantic Church has been the center of Ukrainian aid locally


By Michelle Warren, The Chronicle

April 5, 2022

In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the pastor of St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, Ivan Bilyk, was inundated with calls from people seeking help.

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While some donated money, medical supplies or clothes to send to Ukraine, others offered the refugees to stay in their homes for a few months.

If any Ukrainian refugees need help, Bilyk is confident that the Ukrainian community in Thread City will step in, as the church is the epicenter of local Ukraine relief efforts.

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He said the community support was heartwarming, noting that many supporters aren’t even parishioners.

“I sincerely thank everyone who is working hard to support Ukraine,” he said.

Russian President Vladamir Putin ordered the Russian military to invade Ukraine on February 24, a decision the brutality of which shocked the world and subjected Russia to unprecedented global isolation.

Locally, the Ukrainian community – which has its genesis after World War II, when many Ukrainians came to Willimantic to work in the textile factories – is mainly centered around the church, located on Oak Street.

These days, church services there almost always feature war speeches between congregants.

At a recent church service, Bilyk said the Ukrainian people had two choices: to fight for freedom or not to fight.

Ukraine, he said, chose to fight “because everyone knows our enemy is evil.”

Bilyk expressed his thoughts on the situation, both in Ukrainian and English, during the service.

“We would like to live in a democracy,” he said. “First of all, thank you for your prayers.”

Bilyk expressed a mix of emotions about the situation.

“I feel tired,” he said. “I feel disappointed, sad and helpless.”

The situation in Ukraine has caused millions of Ukrainians to flee to neighboring countries.

The family of Willimantic resident Olha Nechyporenko, however, does not want to leave their home. “They say they are waiting for the victory and hope it will come soon,” said Nechyporenko, who is a parishioner at the Bilyk church.

Nechyporenko, who moved to the United States from Ukraine in 2004, said his family was “struggling” with the situation in Ukraine.

She said she visited Ukraine every year until the pandemic hit and because of the pandemic she missed her mother’s funeral.

Olha Bilyk, the pastor’s wife, mentioned the recent bombing in her hometown of Lviv, where Russia launched missile strikes near an airport on March 18.

“I’m terrified,” she said. “I go to sleep watching the news.”

Olha Bilyk said she speaks almost daily with her family in Ukraine, including via Facebook.

She said it’s heartwarming to get likes from them or to see pictures they’ve posted on Facebook.

“I know they are doing well, but it’s very difficult,” said Olha Bilyk.

She said the situation is difficult for children and adults.

“I don’t know what will happen next,” said Olha Bilyk.

For her, the current crisis is reminiscent of her childhood, when Ukraine was a member of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine left the collapsing Soviet Union and became independent on August 24, 1991.

Olha Bilyk said that at the time the Soviet Union wanted to take her family away because they were Christians, noting that two of her brothers became priests.

Nechyporenko said she remembers the Cold War and now there is another war in her home country.

The Cold War began in 1947 and ended in 1991.

“We want to move forward,” Nechyporenko said, referring to the current crisis.

Meanwhile, local officials are urging people to support Ukraine and the local church in any way they can.

On his Facebook Live Thursday, Windham Mayor Thomas DeVivo encouraged community members to grow sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower, in support of the Ukrainian people.

“I think that would be a good thing,” he said.

The church forwards donations to the Ukrainian Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Checks can be made payable to St Mary’s Ukrainian Church, 70 Oak St., Willimantic 06226.

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