FRONT ROYAL — A year after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the congregation of a small church in Front Royal plans to gather this week to pray for peace and to show solidarity with the besieged country.
For the members of Saints Joachim and Anna Ukrainian Catholic Church in Front Royal — 4,903 miles from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv — the war tugs at their hearts more than it does for many Americans.
Saints Joachim and Anna Catholic Church is a Ukrainian Orthodox church that provides worship services to the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley. The church, located at 1396 Linden St., is the largest Ukrainian congregation in Virginia with just over 100 parishioners.
Both of the church’s priests, Father Andrii Chornopyskyi and Father Robert Hitchens, are based full time at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington, D.C.
They have made the trek to Front Royal several times a week to lead the congregation since the church’s formation as a mission in 2015. Hitchens said the Front Royal mission was formed after many Eastern Orthodox people, including many Ukrainians in the area, asked for a church to be formed closer to their homes.
Many church members can trace their lineage to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. Eastern European heritage, however, is not required to join the church.
From his front row seat as the congregation’s cantor, Kyle Hayes noticed the tone of the worship services changed once the war began.
“It seems to have taken more urgency, it’s hard to characterize that, but it seems more intentioned,” he said. Since the war began the church has opened its doors more to allow more time for prayer, he added.
For Father Hitchens, prayer is the ammunition needed to bring about peace in Ukraine.
“This war is going to be won through a conversion of heart, a change of attitudes. We’re always looking for people to be joining us in prayer,” said Hitchens, who traces his lineage to Ukraine through his great-grandparents, who moved to the United States in 1913 from the city of Ternopil.
Hitchens has no illusions about the reality of what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine.
“Ukraine has been the subject of invasion since 2014, so when February 24th of last year happened, our prayers for the people there and for peace intensified,” he said. “It’s more than just a land grab. It’s also to exterminate the Ukrainian identity. There is a difference between Ukrainians and Russians. They are related, nobody denies that, but they are separate people with their own language and customs.”
The priest also said that there were fears among his colleagues that leaders of the Ukrainian church inside the country would be targeted.
“We kind of believe that some of the leadership of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church would be targeted and tried to be captured and who knows,” Hitchens said. “A lot of people have ‘been disappeared,’ including the children of Ukraine who have been sent into Russia.”
To mark the one-year anniversary of the war’s start, a prayer service will be held today at Saints Joachim and Anna Ukrainian Catholic Church to pray for peace in Ukraine.
Another vigil outside of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., will take place at 7 p.m. today.
And on Saturday, there will be a large rally to “stand with Ukraine” at the Lincoln Memorial, Hitchens said.
Several organizations are collecting funds for the citizens of Ukraine, and Hitchens recommended donating money instead of supplies due to the logistical challenges of getting goods into the country.
Those who want to donate through the church can do so through the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family’s website at https://www.ucns-holyfamily.org/index.php
This war tugs at my heart also. The Ukrainian people are presenting an example to the world of courage and resolve. I hope your country will soon be free of the Russian menace.
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