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Ukrainian Coloradans gather for prayer, solace in Denver church

Father Valeryi Kandyuk
Tess Novotny
Father Valeryi Kandyuk, pastor of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukranian Catholic Church in northwest Denver, shakes a thurible holding incense during the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022.

On Sunday morning at Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukranian Catholic Church in northwest Denver, families took their places in sturdy wooden pews.

Moms and dads hushed rambunctious little ones in their native language. Incense wafted near the priest’s podium, and rows of candles flickered below icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other religious figures.

There are about 11,000 people of Ukrainian descent living in Colorado, according to recent census data. Some have found community with each other in the Shoshone St. church, which was opened in 1954.

An image of a book, The Divine Liturgy of Saint Joseph Chrysostom, sitting on a wooden table in sunlight.
Tess Novotny
A book of The Divine Liturgy of Saint Joseph Chrysostom at the Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukranian Catholic Church in northwest Denver.

On recent Sundays, congregants have prayed for their country and loved ones back home. Whether they moved from Ukraine themselves or were born in the United States, they share the same concern over the future of their homeland.

Stefan Kruszelnyckyj of Lakewood is one of them.

Kruszelnyckyj has been coming to the church his entire life, and was even baptized there. His father is from western Ukraine, and his mom is from Buenos Aires, Agentina. However, her parents are from Ukraine and immigrated during the times of the Soviet revolution and World War I.

“So that gives you an idea of how scattered the Ukrainian people are because of revolutions, wars, and other atrocities,” Kruszelnyckyj said.

Kruszelnyckyj is hoping for more substantial support for Ukraine from Americans and the international community.

“Yes, we’ve supplied arms, tactical equipment and things necessary for defense, however that’s going to run out and we are wondering what’s next,” Kruszelnyckyj said. “Everyone’s asking what is Putin’s goal and end game. It’s quite simple if no one has figured it out – it is complete obliteration of democracy, death and destruction, and complete and total control and global domination. He’s not going to stop at Ukraine.”

Kruszelnyckyj still has friends and family in Ukraine. His friends in Kyiv are under attack, but they are still doing okay.

“As for my family, I have not been able to get ahold of them,” he said.

Father Valeryi Kandyuk, the pastor of the church, also has family in the country. Through translation by Johanna Saldyt, Kandyuk said they are in the midst of a battle, but God will help and protect them.

His message Sunday morning was about the upcoming season of Lent, forgiveness, and getting help to the people of Ukraine.

"We are doing fundraisers, we will try to help them financially as much as we can. And we are asking the world to help, also," Kandyuk said. He added that he is thankful for the assistance from the United States, financial and emotional.

Saldyt lives in Denver, and is President of the Denver chapter of the Ukrainian National Women's League. She isn’t a regular at Transfiguration of Our Lord church, but she came for the sense of community.

Saldyt’s parents emigrated from Ukraine after WWII.

 Prayer candles at the Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukranian Catholic Church in northwest Denver
Tess Novotny
Prayer candles at the Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukranian Catholic Church in northwest Denver.

“I’m born American, but my heart is Ukrainian,” she said.

Saldyt is keeping in touch with her family in Ukraine. She has to speak with them in the middle of the night because of the nine-hour time difference.

“They are so brave and strong and they’re not leaving,” she said. “They’re staying because they don’t want to lose their independence to a maniac.”

Saldyt said she is grateful for the support from Colorado’s congressional delegation and from Gov. Jared Polis, who last Thursday announced that Colorado stands ready to welcome refugees and provide support to those fleeing Ukraine.

She wiped away a few tears as she described the crush of emotions she felt.

“I’m heartbroken, I’m sad, I’m proud,” she said.

Iryna Lubyanetska of Lakewood, Colorado was also feeling sad, but energized to help Ukraine. She has been seeing Ukrainians in and outside of the country stepping up to support the resistance against Russia.

“Ukranian people are so feisty, they’re not gonna let Putin rule the Ukraine ever,” she said.

Lubyanetska has attended the church for more than 20 years, since around the time she moved to America. She and others have been organizing support for their loved ones back home.

She is in touch with her mother-in-law, cousins and friends in Ukraine.

“They all do whatever they were told to do,” she said. “Whenever they hear the sirens they hide in the cells in their basement, and during the day, they go and help all of those refugees.”

Lubyanetska’s loved ones can’t always reveal where they are because of safety concerns.

“They said they are scared but they are ready to fight and they are praying to God to help them,” she said.

The Ukrainian language Liturgy ended with members of the congregation standing and raising their voices together in a final hymn. Lubyanetska described the final message:

“God, please help Ukraine and protect us.”

As a producer for Colorado Edition, I pitch segment ideas, pre-interview guests, craft scripts and cut audio. I also write tweets, build web posts and occasionally host.
As host of KUNC's Colorado Edition, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. And because life is best when it's a balance of work and play, I love finding stories that highlight culture, music, the outdoors, and anything that makes Colorado such a great place to live.
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