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Ukranians in Denver Pray and Rally for Homeland

The Sunnyside neighborhood of Denver was living up to its name as parishioners settled into their pews at Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church on Sunday morning.  Despite the bright day and blue sky, a certain heaviness hung in the air. Reverend Valeriy Kandyuk kept services as normal as possible, but he had to acknowledge what was unfolding in his home country.  It’s a time of crisis.    

“You know, brother and sister, in Ukraine right now we have war. It’s a very bad situation. One people kill another people – kill old people, kill women, kill children,” he said, urging parishioners to “pray to Ukraine every time, every day.”

Founded in 1954, the church’s unassuming brick exterior houses red carpets, a wood and gold-accented altar, and paintings and woven tapestries of biblical figures in every direction. As the only Ukrainian church of any denomination in the Denver area, Transfiguration of Our Lord hosts weekly back-to-back services to serve its community as a whole – the first is in English, and the second in Ukrainian. 

The English service is always the smaller of the two, but this week it was more crowded than usual, drawing about 20 attendees. Several of them weren’t Ukrainian at all.

“One gentleman that gave flowers – his grandmother grew up in this area and he’s Italian,” said Maddie Martinek, who attends the church because her husband is Ukrainian. “He said, ”I’ve always remembered this church and I wanted to drop them off, so that was sweet.”

Marsha Doll has been the cantor for the English services for over a decade, even though, like Martinek, she isn’t Ukrainian herself. At one point in the service, Doll, without turning around in her first-row pew, implored the congregation to sing louder. “I admire the people for their gumption and courage,” she said, before dashing off to catch a ride home with a fellow parishioner.

Soon after, at 10:30 am, the Ukrainian service began. Some stood in the entryway as the sweet smell of frankincense filled the air for the second time that morning, and it became clear why the duct-taped prayer books looked so well-loved.

“This is the heart of our little community. This is the place where people connect,” said Eugene, who spent most of his life in a village near Chernobyl before immigrating in 1997. Eugene requested to have his last name withheld for the safety of family members living back home. 

While Eugene’s village has yet to be affected by the unfolding crisis, the ballistic missiles flying

overhead have prompted his family to hide in their basement. “Being here, far away, when I have to look up and blue sky. You know, I’m safe, but thinking about the family,” he said. “My mom is 82 years old. I’m probably not going to see her.”

Tilda Theodosiafedak, 90, has been attending the church since moving to Colorado in 1972. “I grew up with it. I just can’t imagine being without it,” she said.

With bobbed silver hair and bright fuchsia pants, Theodosiafedak laughed as she described a lighter part of this very difficult week. “Putin is spelled with a P-O-O. My granddaughter sent it to me, says I hope it’ll put a smile on your face,” she said. “And it did!”

A rally organized by Ukrainians in Colorado took place at the Denver Capitol on Thursday afternoon. Someone brought a stack of paper cups and big glass dispensers of hot tea – one green and one raspberry – to warm the crowd. According to Lana Fenkanyn, raspberry tea flowed freely in her vibrant Ukrainian community in Chicago, where she lived until moving to Denver two years ago.

Fenkanyn heard about the protest through the Ukrainians in Colorado Facebook page and knew she had to go. She wasn’t expecting much – Fenkanyn didn’t think that many Ukrainians lived in Denver, and was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong.

“There’s no Ukrainian store, no Ukrainian restaurant, there’s just nowhere for us to really go so it’s been nice that this is – not the reasoning – but that this is something that can bring us together,” she said. “It feels like home.”

Hlib Hayuk, 83, came to the United States from Ukraine when he was four years old and would go on to serve as a colonel in the U.S. Army. Hayuk, who moved to Denver with his wife, former Navy spokesperson T.K. Kaltenbacher, brought Ukrainian flags to the demonstration, each adorned with a strip of black fabric as a somber symbol – “To show that a nation is dying,” Hayuk said. “Being killed. Right now, in Europe.”

Misha Vavryshchuk and Daryna Skliarova came to the protest in blue and yellow jackets, respectively, making a human Ukrainian flag. The couple met in Denver after moving from their home country some 15 years ago. “The whole family’s still back in Ukraine so we are worried,” Vavryshchuk said. “We’ve been in touch all night long, haven’t slept all night.”

Skliarova stood on the very edge of curb, holding up a giant yellow sign that read “STOP ALL TRADES W/ RUSSIA” for passing cars to read.

“What brought me here is anger simply because I don’t see strong reaction of West to what is going on in Ukraine,” she said. “I don’t understand how people can be apolitical, because this attitude brings monsters like Putin to power, and they do whatever they want and that’s not right.”

Indeed, a prominent theme of the homemade signs on display at the Capitol was anger and hatred towards President Putin. Some called him evil and a killer, and many compared him to Adolf Hitler. One woman held a photo of Putin with a drawn-on mustache and devil horns surrounded by cries for help – “Save my family and friends,” “Save my Ukraine,” “People are scared.”

Earlier in the day, there were flags from Georgia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Lithuania dotted amongst the sea of blue and yellow. Sergey, who is originally from Belarus, stood towards the top of the steps. He wouldn’t give his last name out of concern for his family’s safety, and Putin is partly to blame for that. Belarussians engaged in unprecedented widespreadpeaceful protests calling for free and fair elections in 2020, resulting in thousands being detained by the incumbent regime of the self-proclaimed “last European dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko. It’s estimated that several hundred Belarussians were tortured.

“The only way he was able to do that was because he had support from Putin, from Russia,” Sergey said. “And so, we were impacted directly by the collusion of two evil regimes – Lukashenko and Putin.”

Ukrainians of Colorado is continuing to share resources and organize rallies and support groups for the Ukrainian community in Denver and beyond. Reverend Valeriy Kandyuk will be holding daily 10 am liturgies and hosting support groups at Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church.

During his service, Reverend Valeriy Kandyuk called his congregants brothers and sisters, and urged them to continue praying for peace in Ukraine. “Brother” has become something of a loaded term for Eugene because of how he believes it’s been adulterated by Russia over the years. “They call us brothers. We never invite them, and they keep coming. For centuries,” he said. “I’m tired for that kind of brothers.”

While the anger and sorrow amongst the Ukrainian community is palpable at these gatherings, Lana Fenkanyn hopes to carry the sense of solidarity she’s found through this crisis into the future.

“It’s making me want to create the Ukrainian community, find a place for us to meet and gather because it’s needed,” she said. “We need each other.”

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