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Ukraine: from contemplative silence to hosting and helping refugees

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has just approved an emergency relief package for Latin Rite female congregations involved in charity work in the Archdiocese of Lviv, such as the Benedictines of Solonka, who opened the doors of their contemplative monastery to refugees.

The contemplative Benedictines of Solonka, near Lviv in Ukraine, are used to silence and external solitude, but they have opened the doors of their monastery and cloister to host people affected by the war. Since the end of February 2022, they have welcomed hundreds of needy families.

“During the first few weeks of the war, there was a lot of movement in our monastery. People came from many different cities in Ukraine, such as Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kyiv, Boryspil, Irpin, Zhytomyr, Chernobyl, Odessa, Horlivka, Slovyansk, Donetsk and Luhansk. It was mostly women and children, accompanied by their husbands who would help their families cross the border, before returning to fight for their country,” explains Sister Klara.

The nuns estimate that to date, more than 500 people have been through their monastery. “Currently, the monastery mostly hosts those who do not plan to go abroad, and some of them don’t have a home to return to either. Now we have 75 people here, including the sisters from our community in Zhytomyr,” says Sister Klara.

The Benedictines of Zhytomyr were finally forced to evacuate their convent after spending several days in air raid shelters in the basement of the local cathedral, as their building was under constant threat of bombardment.

To help people overcome these difficult and traumatic times, the nuns involve everyone in the daily chores and services, such as cleaning the monastery or working in the kitchen and the dining hall. One of the cells has been turned into a playroom for the 20 children who are staying there.

Roman, Anna and their two children—a one-month-old baby and a seven-year-old boy—are one of the families currently living in Solonka. They are originally from Kharkiv and held on for 10 days or so after the war started, but when the situation worsened, they decided to leave. They had already packed their bags and were in the hallway when a rocket hit their building. “The house caught fire; all the windows were blown out,” Roman tells ACN. They thought they would not be able to leave as the home filled with thick black smoke. The neighbour’s house had also been hit, causing even more damage.

Out in the street, people were running in all directions to get as far from the house as possible, fearing the gas pipes might explode. Roman and Anna took their children and their bags and started walking. Eventually they waved down a car that drove them to the house of a friend’s mother. “But there were bombings there as well, especially at night. It was awful. We couldn’t sleep and the kids were getting nervous,” Roman explains.

They decided to head to Lviv, on the train with other refugees. When they arrived, they realised that what they had read online was true: the city was overcrowded and there were no rooms available. Anna found a place to stay on the floor of a home for mothers and their children, but that was not what she wanted, especially as her baby was still so small. With growing frustration, they were going from one place to the next, but nobody was able to help. They finally sat on a bench, completely worn out. The baby was cold, and they didn’t know what to dress it in. That was when a nun came up to them and asked: “Do you have a place to stay? Is anybody expecting you?” They replied in the negative, adding that they were desperate. The nun suggested they go to the monastery, where they were given a clean room, food, clothes, and powdered milk for the baby. Anna was beside herself with joy. “We will remember this moment, and be grateful for the rest of our lives.” Later they learned that Sister Hieronima, the nun who offered them help, had not planned to go by the train station that day, but felt that she should, to see if anybody needed help. Anna has no doubt: “It was divine providence. A sign from God!” And Roman agrees: “The Lord saved us!”

The sisters have left their cloister and the silence to which they are usually committed, but they believe that this is what God is asking of them at this time. “This is how our community of nuns and monks reads the signs of the times, and this is how we envision our service now.”

This ministry of selfless hospitality is bringing many people closer to God. “Most of the refugees are not believers, but sometimes they come to pray,” explains Sister Klara. “During the Feast of the Annunciation, we celebrated the wedding of an elderly couple from Zhytomyr in our church. Another young couple from Kharkiv is preparing for the sacraments of reconciliation and marriage, and will also baptise their son. Several people have made their first confession.”

She ends by saying that despite all this new work and dedication, prayer time continues to be the mainstay of their lives. “We have kept up our rhythm of common prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, and we have additional hours of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Glory to the Lord in all things!”

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