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Ukrainian-Americans gather to pray as the Russian invasion continues

Ann Salemme walked up the steps of the church her parents helped to build when they moved to New Haven from Ukraine, and she shared a fear as Russian forces spread through the place her parents called home.

“There’s this statue in the center of Kyiv that has this beautiful angel dressed in the Ukrainian native dress, and she has her arms outstretched, and it’s called the Angel of Independence,” Salemme said of the statue known in the U.S. as Independence Monument. “And it just breaks my heart, because I just have a feeling that that’s going to be the first statue they’re gonna tear down.”

Ukrainian Americans across Connecticut came together to pray for family members, friends and Ukrainians being ousted from their home by a Russian invasion. Salemme and about 30 others gathered at St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church on Thursday night to pray. Prayer, Salemme said, “helps with the helplessness that you feel.”

Natalie Chermak, who was born in Ukraine and has lived in the U.S. for 26 years, attended the service with her husband and daughter. She teared up as she thought not just about her family’s future in Ukraine, but also the lives of all Ukrainians. “It’s very sad and very difficult … I feel bad for all Ukraine. I don’t know if it will exist anymore.”

Her daughter, Melania Korenovsky, shared that she pinned a button on her school backpack that read, “I’m proud to be Ukrainian,” and she encouraged her friends to pray and learn about Ukraine. But she was still worried about her baby cousin there when she read the news. “After there was a shelling of a day care,” she said, “all I could think, ‘What if that was his day care?’”

Inside the church and behind golden gates decorated with mosaic imagery of Jesus and his disciples, the priest told the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for a night like this, her legacy as a protector.

The tradition of praying to Mary started in another time, when foreigners invaded Constantinople in the 10th century, said Gregory Lozinskyy, an administrator at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church in Trumbull, a Ukrainian, and a visitor in the New Haven church Thursday night. Some people prayed to Mary, and as the story goes, she appeared to them, covered them with a mantle and protected them from invaders, he said.

“That’s why we keep praying to the mother of God,” Lozinskyy said. “We believe that she can protect us, and we feel better when we pray.”

After the service, Lozinskyy and church member Paul Zalonski stood together, reflecting. The people praying Thursday night may not know the specifics of that story, but Zalonski said they can still feel a sense of protection from prayer.

“They know the human experience … of a mother.”

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Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She loves hearing what you thought of her stories or story ideas you have so please email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org.

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