ODESSA, Ukraine — More than 20 years ago the local Ukrainian Catholic community celebrated the liturgy in the basement of the Roman Catholic church.
Later, in 2005, the community was able to purchase a private house and reconstruct it into a small chapel, which served as the cathedral for the Odessa Exarchate, which covers huge territory of southern Ukraine and at that time, Crimea.
But about 10,000 Ukrainian Catholics lived in Odessa, and the chapel could not house more than 100 people at a time.
On May 21, local Ukrainian Catholics blessed a new chapel at the outskirts of Odessa. With the help of Dutch and German aid agencies — and some financial support from Ukrainian Catholics in the United States — parishioners were able to buy abandoned Soviet-style construction materials and construct the chapel.
The faithful were really engaged in this project, because they waited so long for a more suitable place to pray, said Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Mykhaylo Bubniy of Odessa.
“We dreamed of a golden-domed church,” he told Catholic News Service. “This is very important in our circumstances in Odessa, where we are often not considered as a ‘real’ church. A dome is a sign.”
“It’s hard to be a Greek (Ukrainian) Catholic in Odessa,” said Anastasia Voinikova, “because the Orthodox majority doesn’t recognize us as a canonical church, they just reject us.”
For more than dozen years community members sought a parcel of the land from the local authorities to build the proper church, as allowed by law. But because of the harsh opposition from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate — their demands were rejected.
The Orthodox hierarchy considers southern Ukraine part of its “canonical territory” and objects to the right of other communities to establish their structures there. Roman Catholics and some Protestants have had it easier than Ukrainian Catholics, because those churches were present from the establishment of the port and the city.
Ukrainian Catholics came later, explained Bubniy.
“During the times of the Soviet Union and after Ukraine got independence, many people from the Western part of the country, who were traditionally Greek (Ukrainian) Catholic, moved to Odessa. We just followed our faithful, who invited us,” he said.
“But it would be wrong to say that only Western Ukrainians are members of our community,” he added. “There are many locals who are joining our church.”
The May blessing of the new parish also included members of the Roman Catholic and Armenian Catholic communities; different Protestant denominations; even the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine.
One priest who had worked in Odessa for 13 years said that opening such a small chapel in Odessa was a much bigger event than opening a huge cathedral in Western Ukraine.
“Every church is a house of God, but for our city, the new church is a true blessing,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Bronislaw Bernacki, “because Odessa needs God’s word, faith, and mercy.”
Bubniy dreams of a parish “in every area of Odessa” and plans construction of a pastoral center with a school and kindergarten.
The parish already has a catechetical program, but U.S.-born Father Roman Mirchuk, administrator of the parish, sees the real work as just beginning.
“It is easy to build the church of stones, but much harder to ‘build churches’ in the hearts of people,” he told CNS.