Ukrainian bishop with ties to diocese visits Colorado
By Veronica Ambuul
Photo: Bishop Vitaly Skomarovsky concelebrated Mass with Bishop James Golka on Aug. 27 at Holy Apostles Church. Pictured are (left to right) Father Tomasz Jamka, pastor of Holy Apostles; Deacon Rick Athey; Bishop Golka, Bishop Skomarovsky, Deacon David Thompson, Deaocn Patrick O’Connor, Father Matthew Kane and Father Oleksandr Zelenskyi, who was also visiting from Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of James Harris Photography)
COLORADO SPRINGS. Nearly 30 years ago, a Catholic priest from Ukraine visited Colorado Springs and forged a lifelong friendship with a local pastor — a relationship that led to the creation of a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the Ukrainian Catholic Church rebuild after decades of Soviet oppression.
Last August, the same priest returned to Colorado Springs — this time as a bishop — to give local Catholics a first-hand account of conditions in his war-torn country and ask for their ongoing support.
“I think the American people generally understand the situation, because it’s really very simple,” said Bishop Vitaly Skomarovsky of Lutsk in Ukraine, who along with a priest and religious sister visited the Diocese of Colorado Springs Aug. 23-Sept. 5. “Russia says that Ukraine doesn’t have a right to exist and must be destroyed.”
Bishop Skomarovsky, Father Oleksandr Zelinskyi and Sister Kamila Fydryszewska were hosted by Catholic Outreach to Neighbors in Ukraine (CONU), a Colorado-Springs based organization that has been working to provide emergency relief for the country.
CONU was co-founded by the late Father Paul Wicker and Bishop Skomarovsky in 1994, just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Father Wicker met then-Father Skomarovsky after the Ukrainian priest stopped into Holy Apostles Church, where Father Wicker was pastor, and asked if it could become a sister parish to Our Lady of the Annunciation in Sumy, Ukraine, where he was serving at the time.
For nearly three decades, Father Wicker and CONU supported church construction and renovation, seminary education and other initiatives to help the Catholic Church regain its footing in Ukraine, where Roman Catholics make up less than two percent of the population. Following the death of Father Wicker in 2021, a board of directors made of up of five lay volunteers has continued the work of CONU. After the Russian invasion in 2022, the board shifted the organization’s focus to providing short-term relief across the country.
“We’ve sort of put some projects aside just to provide humanitarian aid,” said board member Jim Dalrymple “A lot of people have told me that they’re hesitant to donate (to relief efforts) because they’re worried about corruption and things like that. We’ve been there for a long time and are a good, reliable way of getting aid into the country. We’re all volunteers, so for every dollar given, a dollar goes to Ukraine.”
Bishop James Golka and Bishop Skomarovsky concelebrated a Mass at Holy Apostles on Aug. 27, the first Sunday after Ukraine’s Independence Day, celebrated each year on Aug. 24. The three visitors also spoke at several parishes in the diocese to raise awareness of the ongoing need for aid.
Sister Kamila, a religious sister from Poland who is a member of the Orionist order, spoke with the Herald through an interpreter about the war’s effects on the children she works with at the House of Hope, a residence for single mothers and their children that she and two other sisters operate in eastern Ukraine.
At one point, House of Hope residents were evacuated to another location due to safety concerns, and that’s when Sister Kamila noticed the trauma experienced by the children.
“We were staying near an airport, so when the children heard the noise from the airplanes, they were full of fear and panic, remembering the bombs and explosions,” said Sister Kamila. “If the children are painting, the boys will paint tanks or something like that and girls will paint Ukrainian flags.”
“Many of the people don’t remember what ‘normal’ is like,” said Bishop Skomarovsky. “About 100,000 soldiers have been killed so far. Many husbands haven’t come back to their families.”
Father Zelinskyi has been working with Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) to produce a documentary on the war with Russia, focusing on cities and villages that were previously occupied by the Russian military. The film was shown in several locations during the group’s visit to Colorado.
“We visited some villages that were (previously) occupied” while filming the documentary, Father Zelinskyi said. “Now they are free, but their churches were destroyed and there are no priests in these areas. One Orthodox bishop asked for priests of any faith to come and help because he saw the spiritual needs of these people.”
Bishop Skomarovsky expressed gratitude for the aid Ukraine has received from bishops’ conferences around the world and Catholic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus. And both he and Father Zelinskyi emphasized that they did not come to bring a message of despair but of hope.
“We have to think that God invites us to trust him,” Bishop Skomarovsky said. “He also wants the Catholic Church to have this mission of helping people during this difficult time. The most important help is prayer. Here in America, I have heard from many people, ‘We are praying for you and for your country.’ This is most important.”
For more information on Catholic Outreach to Neighbors in Ukraine, visit www.conuhome.org.