By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 16, 2022
CONYERS—As the Divine Liturgy concluded at Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church, the priest standing before the altar led the faithful to pray for “mercy and compassions” for the people in his homeland as “enemies have once more gathered together, in order to cause division and enmity.”
It was the second Sunday of the Great Lent at the Conyers church, some 25 miles east of Atlanta. It draws people with Ukrainian heritage, and others attracted to its spirituality.
The three dozen worshippers in the wooden pews attending the English liturgy filled the modest-sized church. Brightly colored sacred paintings of Jesus’ miracles and icons of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and other revered holy men cover every wall and the ceiling.
“Visit your mercies and compassions upon your humble servants,” Father Volodymyr Petrytsya chanted wearing flowing golden vestments. “Judge them that provoke and make war, and turn their impious boldness into fear and flight. But grant unto the just and God-fearing armies of the children of Ukraine, great boldness and courage to advance and overtake them, and to defeat them in your name.”
Father Petrytsya, 33, is the spiritual leader here. The Ukrainian-born priest watches from afar as his country is devastated by the invading Russian military. He arrived here in 2015, two years after his ordination and a short time in Florida.
“There are no words to describe. There is lots of pain for all the people who suffer unjustly,” he said in an interview.
The Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church is a member of the Eparchy of St. Josaphat, located in Parma, Ohio. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest of the Byzantine Eastern Catholic Churches. It is rooted in its ancient faith celebrated with elaborate rituals with Pope Francis holding the highest religious authority. Another Ukrainian Catholic Church is in Augusta.
Ukrainian pride is on display, as people fly the yellow and blue national flag on their cars. There are some 15,268 residents of Georgia who trace their roots to Ukraine, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. And just under 12,000 live in the Atlanta region.
The church in Conyers began more than 20 years ago. There are three services each weekend, two in English on Saturday and Sunday and one in Ukrainian on Sunday. An estimated 100 people attend the services.
Father Petrytsya has spoken to family members who live in west of the country while the east side is under siege and bombing by the Russian military. The war has not yet disrupted his family’s life but the threat of explosions and rockets landing nearby is distressing, he said.
Watching from a safe distance can be hard for some, he said.
“God placed them here. They have obligations” and can support the country from afar, he said. “Overall, it is heartbreaking.”
The war began on Feb. 24 when Russia sent its army into Ukraine.
The United Nations reported on March 14 refugees fleeing the war have topped more than 2.8 million people, most heading to Poland.
On March 7, the U.N. reported 406 killed and 801 injured since the attack. But the international agency said the “real figures are considerably higher” with the surge in bombings and attacks on civilian areas.
The source of consolation
Deborah Harrison is a second-generation Ukrainian American. Her grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe just before World War I. She drives close to an hour to the Conyers parish from her home in Hoschton to worship.
“This touches my heart greatly. When there is a war, everyone suffers. Being these are Ukrainians, which is my heritage, it makes it even more heartfelt.”
Harrison, 64, a retired educator, said she feels also badly for the Russian people and the soldiers who “are fighting for an injustice, for lies that were given to them through propaganda.” People are dying for “no righteous cause,” she said.
The church has served as a source of consolation for many. People come to pray and be with each other.
“Many times, we come in and we hug each other in silence because we don’t know what to say,” she said.
Deacon Michael Guerrucci said the community is upset and distraught at what they see and read and is relying on prayer to turn back the war.
“By praying, God will open the door to peace,” he said.
Paul Sloniowski, 83, an Atlanta lawyer, came to attend the Ukrainian liturgy. Born in Canada, his parents were from Ukraine.
He said this conflict is rooted in Ukraine’s history of conquest by neighboring empires. The war exists because Ukraine is working to end “thousands of years of colonization,” he said.
Sloniowski said Russia’s attack represents a larger historical moment.
“We are fighting your battle. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is on the march,” he said.
Anna La Lande, 42, served as a missionary for many years. She grew up in a Roman Catholic parish, but has been attracted for several years to the spirituality of the Eastern church. Her family tree traces to France, but feels connected to battles in Ukraine by faith.
“These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should be standing up and doing something for them,” she said. La Lande is a widow so she feels especially connected to families torn apart by the violence, knowing the deep feeling of grief.
Blue and yellow ribbons of the Ukrainian flag are pinned to Harrison’s shirt. She said while running errands people stop her to share stories of support. The influx of aid has temporarily overwhelmed the humanitarian assistance the church is collecting, according to the website.
The priest has gathered the community and encouraged them “to continue to pray and to stand strong,” Harrison said. “I would ask that everyone continues to pray because there is power in prayer.”
On Monday, March 28 at 7 p.m. the Archdiocese of Atlanta will host the Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox communities in prayer at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Atlanta.