COLORADO SPRINGS. When Father Paul Wicker and Holy Apostles Parish began providing aid to the Catholic Church in Ukraine in 1995, the country had recently emerged from decades of Soviet rule and its citizens were struggling just to meet basic needs such as food and medical care. These days, Ukraine’s economy is much more robust, but helping the Catholic Church re-emerge after years of Communist repression is still an uphill battle, Father Wicker said.
“When I first went there, it was about survival,” said Father Wicker, who retired in 2016.
“Now it’s not quite the same. The Church is allowed but the Russian government still has a lot of influence. ”
Catholic Outreach to Northern Ukraine (CONU), which was incorporated as a non-profit in 2000, is adjusting its approach in response to the changing dynamics in the country. The organization has assisted with the construction of several churches and is currently helping to build more.
Rebuilding Catholic parishes in Ukraine is not simply a matter of funding, however. In some cases, the biggest obstacles is opposition from the Orthodox Church, whose clergy may still have ties to the Russian government, Father Wicker said.
“Depending on where you are in Ukraine, the Orthodox priests work with you or against you, or sometimes they disappear after it becomes known that they are friends with Catholic priests from America,” he said.
One parish that has encountered opposition from Orthodox clergy is Our Lady of Mercy in Mirgorod, a city of about 40,000 people in central Ukraine, where the pastor — Father Stanislaus — is attempting to build the only Catholic church in the area with help from CONU .
“Father Stanislaus got a house and started having Mass in it, but the house should be condemned,” Father Wicker said. “It has rugs spread around so you don’t fall through the floor. Father Stanislaus asked the city council if he could tear down the house and build a new church. The city council is all Moscow Orthodox — very anti-Catholic. The Orthodox priest told the council members that if they let him build it, he would excommunicate them.”
Not willing to give up, Father Stanislaus instead obtained permission to “remodel” the house, which essentially consists of building a new church behind the existing structure, Father Wicker said.
But Father Stanislaus’ challenges didn’t end there. Due to fluctuations in the exchange rate for Ukraine’s currency, it is very difficult to project building costs, Father Wicker said.
“He can’t tell me how long it will take or how much it will cost because of the uncertainty caused by (Russian president Vladimir) Putin,” he said.
Another challenge is trying to re-establish the role of the family in Ukrainian culture, which was devastated by widespread abortion under communism, Father Wicker said. Recently he has been in contact with a married Ukrainian couple that has 11 children and is starting a movement to foster family values. CONU has been helping them to rent a building for the ministry, which is growing rapidly, he said.
“You have to say yes to that; I can’t turn my back on them,” he said.
Father Wicker plans to make another trip to Ukraine March 28-April 18. For more information or to donate online, visit www.catholicoutreachnorthernukraine.org.