In Ukraine, the Basilian Sisters intervene and prepare for the consequences of the war



IVANO-FRANKIVSK, Ukraine (CNS) — The Sisters of the Order of Saint Basil the Great are framing conversations about their life in this city in terms of before and after the war.

Sister Yeronima Rybakova, principal of St. Basil the Great Catholic School, which the order runs near the bustling city center, said a lot had changed in their community after February 24, the day Russia declared invaded Ukraine.

“Before the war,” she said in an interview with Global Sisters Report, a glimmer of hope had arrived for the sisters and their school community. Teachers and students had resumed in-person classes for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020.

Sister Josifa Lesnichenko poses next to a pile of sandbags that cover one of the basement windows of St. Joseph’s Monastery, home of the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great in Ivano-Frankivsk, Russia Ukraine. (CNS Photo/Rhina Guidos)

But hope quickly faded “after the war”. In-person classes had already closed when Russian aggression reached Ivano-Frankivsk in March: missiles rocked a nearby airport and military base, which the community of nuns heard and felt.

More than six months after the start of the conflict, the sisters, like most Ukrainians, do not dwell on the initial shock. There is too much to do to help their fellow Ukrainians.

When refugees from the heavily attacked eastern part of the country arrived in droves in the sisters’ city during the first months of the war, the Basilians rushed to offer them food, clothing and shelter at the monastery. But the recent advance of Ukrainian forces, gradually reclaiming many eastern territories that Russia had previously invaded, has allowed the refugees to return home, and the corridors where they sought refuge are empty.

Life, however, remains changed for the community of sisters.

Some families who were part of the school – and of the sisters’ lives – fled, seeking safety in the United States, Canada, Italy. Some of their students’ fathers, and in some cases their mothers, left Ivano-Frankivsk to fight on the front lines in eastern Ukraine.

While the sisters were busy in early September welcoming students back to in-person classes, they were also organizing fundraisers, visiting soldiers at nearby hospitals, collecting food and clothing to send to the front lines, and brought comfort and psychological help to students trying to grapple with what the war brought and took from their lives.

“We don’t know what will happen next,” said Sister Josifa Lesnichenko, who teaches English at St. Basil.

The sisters piled sandbags near the windows of the 110-year-old St. Joseph Monastery where they live, hoping that if something hits the building the bags will minimize damage from shards of glass to the passing civilians.

For decades before the war, the mission of the sisters was education, but they also cared for the elderly and the sick and made clerical clothes for priests among their daily work.

“The main purpose of the (St. Basil’s) school is…Christianity and moral education,” Sister Rybakova said. But the school also relies on a classic education, long valued by families in the neighborhood and their children.

The sisters also look after “lonely and needy people and take care of household chores”, she added.

Part of the sisters’ work focuses on older women who are bedridden and have no one to care for them. The sisters spend time with them, feed them, clean their homes and make sure a priest comes to hear their confessions and offer communion.

With the war, the sisters were also at the forefront of the spiritual life of the Ivano-Frankivsk community, leading daily prayer and calls to action.

“We don’t know what (else) to do, but only (pray) with the students,” Sister Lesnichenko told Global Sisters Report.

They broadcast live liturgical services as well as the rosary and other prayers during some of the most difficult days at the start of the war. It is a practice that has remained and which helps their teachers, parents and students who have left Ivano-Frankivsk but yearn to return home.

“Together we (have) a common prayer for Ukraine,” Sister Rybakova said. “Prayer is our first mission.

This is what gives them strength but also drives them to actively participate in efforts to help their fellow Ukrainians in these dark days, the nuns said.

“We have to do something, not just pray,” Sister Rybakova said. “We collected clothes, medicine, food and different types of products for our soldiers. We received humanitarian aid and gave everything for the armed forces, for our soldiers.

Their students have followed their example, sending letters and drawings to the soldiers who are trying to prevent the fall of their country.

“In this way we show our (gratitude) for our soldiers,” Sister Rybakova said.

Although the school is experiencing financial difficulties, the sisters have enrolled 10 refugee students in the city and 10 others whose parents are fighting during the war free of charge. They have expanded their online classes to include former students who had to leave town and are now in nearby or neighboring countries, such as Poland, Slovakia and Austria.

The sisters also plan to help the government care for children whose parents were both killed in the war and provide them with a temporary home until a more stable family can be found.

“Every day we pray for peace in Ukraine and for the victims of war,” said Sister Rybakova. “We only know this moment…we don’t know what tomorrow will be like, only this day, and we pray every time for peace, for our life for Ukraine, and maybe the war will end. “

Read more Crisis in Ukraine

Copyright © 2022 Catholic News Service/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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