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A church-turned-shelter in Ukraine: People pray every day in the city center


Marcin Nowak/REPORTER

Katolicka Agencja Informacyjna - published on 03/20/22

"Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox spontaneously gather together to pray. Every day for half an hour they pray for peace in Ukraine,” says the parish priest.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Fr. Jarosław Olszewski SAC points out that Divine Mercy becomes very tangible in wartime. The Pallottine priest works with his confreres in the Parish of the Divine Mercy in Zhytomyr. Each night people gather in the vaults of the church, and those most in need receive basic food supplies and medical aid.

At the beginning there was no bread

Fr. Jarosław told Vatican Radio that over half of the 270,000 residents of Zhytomyr left the city. The Pallottines dispatch groups of evacuees to Poland and help to provide material aid.

Fr. Jarosław, who has been working in Ukraine for over three decades, says:

At the beginning there was no bread; now small bakeries open up again. At present one does not hear explosions, but I spend nights near a fire brigade building and the warning sirens blare quite often. In fact they are on as we speak; the last alert was sounded a half hour ago, and there were three air raids alerts at night.

We let people spend the night in the lower church. Every day around a hundred people come; when there are air raids, the number reaches two hundred. As the church construction is quite sturdy, we treat is as a bomb shelter of sorts. Thank God the place where people take shelter is heated, has electricity and toilets. People gather here because they are worried above all about the children, the elderly, and themselves.

Evacuation and aid

People do not panic here, but they are greatly anguished and frightened. In cooperation with the local fire department, we are organizing evacuations to the Polish border and to western Ukraine. So far we have managed to evacuate over 1,500 people by bus.

We try our best to keep everyone’s spirits up. The curate is in contact with the soldiers who we are also trying to help by providing medicines, bandages and food. On Saturday, I went to the local market. The vending kiosks are slowly opening up and there is quite a decent supply of basic products, especially bread, which was missing before.

I think the problem now is that people are running out of money to buy basic things. Caritas does an excellent job here. People come and receive specific help: flour, pasta and other essentials. We try and help as much as we can and raise people’s spirits. Everyone values highly our very presence, the fact that we have stayed with them,” the Pallottine told Vatican News.

Prayer grows day by day

Fr. Jarosław points out that the war has eliminated inter-denominational divisions; an ecumenical prayer for peace takes place in the very heart of Zhytomyr.

“One interesting observation is that it is men, not women, who are the majority of the congregation now. Women with children have left. All who could, have sent their children, mothers or grandmothers to safer places. The men have stayed to defend their homeland.

The prayer intensifies every day. After each Mass there is an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. We sing Supplications; in fact, we were doing it for two months prior to the invasion, when the threat of war became very real.

People treat prayer seriously. Every day we recite the Holy Rosary. In the city center, where the Lenin Monument used to stand, a huge Ukrainian flag flutters. Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox spontaneously gather to pray. Every day for half an hour they pray for peace in Ukraine,” said Fr. Olszewski.

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