May 24. 2024. 6:29

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Catholic cathedral plays crucial role in supporting the citizens of Kharkiv

The main Catholic church in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, has not come unscathed through the country’s year of all-out war with Russia.

Missile strikes that gutted the headquarters of the nearby Kharkiv regional council last March also hurled a cluster munition through the roof of an administrative building at the 130-year-old Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Masses on Sundays were halved to two as hundreds of thousands of people fled Kharkiv, but as regular worshippers dwindled, the cathedral became a hub for those needing and offering help as a vibrant university city steeled itselSf to serve as a frontline fortress.

“We started small by giving out what we had in our stores, and then help began to arrive from Poland, Italy, Germany and other countries,” Fr Hryhoriy Semenkov says, as cars and trucks are loaded and unloaded outside the cathedral.

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“Now we’ve got projects to distribute medical supplies, food, clothing, heaters and other things, all run by the local Caritas office,” he adds, while volunteers prepare to hand out aid to dozens of locals who seek help here each day.

Parishioners quickly came here because we have a basement where they could shelter. There were about 40 people with children and it was a very worrying and tense time

Fr Hryhoriy Semenkov

Fr Hryhoriy has served in Kharkiv since returning to Ukraine in 2010 from Rome, where he attended the Pontifical Irish College for six years.

“The Irish College was wonderful. It opened my eyes and helped me understand the experience of the Irish church. And it was very international – there were people from 23 countries there – so it was really a great experience. I’ve had many invitations to Ireland but haven’t managed to go yet; hopefully I will one day.”

Kharkiv and its 1.5 million residents faced the threat of swift occupation last February when troops and armour poured in from the Russian border, which is only 35km from the city.

“On February 24th a year ago, I woke up at 5am and saw the bishop already standing in the corridor saying war had begun. I had heard explosions but couldn’t really believe this was all-out war,” Fr Hryhoriy recalls.

“Parishioners quickly came here because we have a basement where they could shelter. It was a difficult situation, because there were about 40 people with children and it was a very worrying and tense time.”

A bishop of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine stayed with cathedral clergy for three months because his residence was in a particularly dangerous area, Fr Hryhoriy says.

“There are five parishes of the Catholic Church in Kharkiv. On a normal Sunday before the war, maybe 3,000-5,000 people would attend Mass. We used to say Mass four times at the cathedral, in Ukrainian, Polish, Russian and Vietnamese, because we had a big community from Vietnam,” he recalls.

“Now we have fewer people coming to Mass, of course. But we have welcomed many people who became, let’s say, disappointed elsewhere,” he adds, in discreet reference to Ukrainian Orthodox churches of the so-called Moscow Patriarchate, which historically is close to Russia.

Kharkiv suffered daily and often deadly shelling during the first months of the war, but became safer from late spring onwards as Ukrainian forces drove Russian units away from the city, and then liberated almost the entire region in September.

Lots of people might have thought we were silly for planting flowers during war, but we needed it to lift our spirits... things like that gave us strength

Fr Hryhoriy Semenkov

Many evacuees have now come home to Kharkiv, but missile strikes sometimes still jolt the city – a salvo last Wednesday injured two people – and outlying parts of the region still suffer regular, heavy damage.

“At first the shelling was scary, but I got used to it. For a while there was almost a schedule, when the Russians would fire at the same times each day and you’d just wait for it to end. Then the shelling became less regular and you sort of got out of the habit, and when they did fire it was even scarier because it was unexpected and you weren’t prepared,” he explains.

“Even now in the evenings it’s unpleasant, because most streets are not lit and it’s pitch black, so no one is around.”

Daylight reveals how council workers and residents have cared for their scarred city, by clearing away debris, patching up damaged buildings and tending to Kharkiv’s parks and flower beds.

“Lots of people might have thought we were silly for planting flowers during war,” Fr Hryhoriy says.

“But we needed it to lift our spirits and understand that life goes on, that we must go forward and defend our independence – things like that gave us strength,” he explains.

“People here believed that Kharkiv would not fall. And faith gave them strength.”