Convent in western Ukraine housing refugees from war


ROME – Indian Sister Ligy Payyappilly has an overwhelming challenge. She runs a home currently hosting 80 people and will be opening a retreat center where another 200 will find refuge. 

And she is powering through, despite having her mission in Western Ukraine, which is currently under attack by Russia.

“I am seeing a country that is on its knees, not because they are ready to yield but in prayer, with their trust placed in God,” she told Crux, explaining the decision to finish the retreat house and host another 200 refugees.

Their expenses will skyrocket when it opens. As it is, this home run by the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Saint Marc pays $3,300 a month in heating alone. In addition, they still are in the process of buying the beds, chairs, and tables for the refugees.

“God will provide,” Payyappilly said when asked how the seven nuns and the dozen novices currently working in the convent plan on paying for these expenses. “Providence has not failed us thus far; I don’t believe it will do so now.”

“God is using me to save people from death in Ukraine,” the sister said. Among those she’s been able to help is a mother of two children, the youngest of whom is the same age as the war, having been born on born Feb. 24, the day of the invasion. The man of the household brought them to the convent in Mokachevo, in the western part of Ukraine, and then went back to Kyiv, ready to fight for his country.

Payyappilly is originally from the province of Sanjo, in India’s Kerala State, but the 48-year-old superior has lived in Ukraine for the past 20 years. When the war broke out, she announced through Facebook that the convent would open its doors to refugees. People have been arriving ever since.

“I’m a well-known preacher here in Ukraine,” she said. “That’s why, even before we put out that message, people knew they could come to us, and that we would do our best to keep them safe and to keep them warm and fed.”

The convent of the congregation, founded in France in 1845 by Father Pierre Paul Blanck, is located in Mukachevo, where tens of thousands of refugees start the route to Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. “For now, we are safe, the police are doing a great job,” the religious sister said.

They opened the doors of the convent on Feb. 24. “People came to our gate, asked if they could stay with us, and we said, ‘OK, you can stay.” They then went out to the train station to see if they could help out. They saw a mother of three, who didn’t know where to go. When she asked Payyappilly if she could stay, again the Indian nun said, “OK, you can come.”

“I have seen very touching scenes, parents who send their children away without knowing what will happen to them. They evacuate them to keep them away from the war, but they are 8, 9, 10, 12 years old and they leave alone by train without knowing what their final destination will be,” she said.

The people of Ukraine, according to the sister, “are very, very generous,” always ready to help when help is needed. Ever since she first arrived in this country, she said, “help always came.”

During these days, despite the fact that people know with certainty that the situation will get worse before it improves, thy have remained generous: “We got some food from Germany, a microbus full with food. But that was on Thursday. Until then, the Ukrainian people were the ones helping us. Those who have shops knocked on our doors and offered to give us food. If we needed it, these people are very ready to help us.”

“At the moment we don’t need much material aid because we are receiving humanitarian assistance from Germany and Ukraine itself, and we have enough to eat,” Payyappilly said. “But my concern is for how many months this situation will go on.”

No matter the length of the crisis, however, she has no intention of leaving, and together with two other Indian nuns who live with her, she plans on staying as long as necessary: “In addition to the convent and the retreat center, we also run a house for elderly women. We have no intentions of leaving them behind, and they cannot be moved. They too are orphans, had no family even before the war began.”

“Maybe God sent us here to save these people. I know that God will help us help them. And he will give us the strength to stay,” she said.

“Ukrainian people are trusting in God. They are kneeling in front of God. So I believe firmly that Ukraine will remain standing. These people know how to pray. They are kneeling in front of God. Children too. God is with us. Surely, there is suffering. But God will not abandon us, for we have our trust placed in him.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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