After Sunday Mass, the Rev. James Morris will bless baskets filled with traditional Easter foods such as kielbasa, sweetbread, and ornately decorated eggs at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Parishioners of the Salem church will take them back to their homes for a traditional holiday dinner.
“In Ukraine, the week before Easter is very solemn,” said Eva Sacharuk, 83, an immigrant who lives in Wenham. “Everybody prays and you didn’t eat much. . . . The first food you eat on Easter, it has
to be blessed.”
Faith and culture are celebrated at St. John’s, one of six Ukrainian Catholic churches in Massachusetts. On Palm Sunday last week, Morris blessed pussy willow branches, which Ukrainians use in place of palms, which do not grow in their cold climate.
“I keep them from every year,” said Halyna Mushak, 27, who immigrated to Salem from western Ukraine seven years ago. “We don’t throw away what is blessed.”
But the joy of Easter this year is tempered by a deep concern over the political turmoil in eastern Ukraine. Since mass protests and deadly clashes with Russia began months ago, parishioners at St. John’s have been praying for peace in their homeland.
“We pause at this time of year, in a special way, to be in
a union of faith and prayer,” Morris said during his homily on Palm Sunday. “All the people of Ukraine are, in fact, our brothers and sisters, if not by blood then by our faith.
“It is fitting, at this time . . . that we think of that bond, and that solidarity that we have with all our brothers and sisters in Ukraine.”
The unrest is especially painful for parishioners with close ties to the Eastern European country.
“I’m all-Ukrainian,” said Christine Hezzey, 58, of Ipswich, a daughter of immigrants. “I’m afraid it’s going to get really bad there. Normally Easter is so joyous, but it’s frightening to think about what may happen there.”
For some, the current conflict evokes painful memories of Ukraine’s complex relationship with Russia. The country did not become independent until 1991, after the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
“We left in 1945,” said Sacharuk, who was 14 and with her widowed mother and brother when she escaped from her home in western Ukraine. “We were fleeing from the communist Russians. We ended up in a displaced persons camp in Austria.”
There she met her future husband, Serge Sacharuk, now 86, who moved to the camp after a brief stay in Germany. “The [Soviet] front was approaching,” Serge recalled. “I was working in a German field hospital and a surgeon said, ‘Come with us.’ ”
Serge Sacharuk is concerned that Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine could spread.
“There are big army tanks lined up on the border,” said Serge, a retired chemical engineer who still speaks with the accent of his homeland. “We ache about this, obviously, because we were born there.”
The kinship with a country nearly 6,000 miles away played out in the pews of St. John’s. “O Great God,” a hymn sung at the end of each Mass, seemed more poignant these last few months, Morris said.
“It’s been very emotional to sing it,” Morris said. “Its last [verse] says ‘O Great God, give to Ukraine strength, glory, and eternal fortune.’ ”
St. John’s, founded in 1918, is a small parish with only 30 active members. A few are immigrants, but most members are second- or third-generation Ukrainians.
Tim Hezzey, 19, of Ipswich, is the only altar server.
“I’ve been doing it for 12 years, the majority of my life,” said Hezzey, a student at North Shore Community College. “There isn’t anyone else now to take over.”
St. John’s is part of the Eastern Catholic Church, which is led by Pope Francis in Rome. But Eastern Catholicism differs from Roman Catholicism in key ways.
In the Eastern culture, the Mass follows the Byzantine liturgical rite, which involves solemn chanting and the veneration of icons instead of statues.
The priest stands for long periods with his back to the congregation. Priests also may marry.
“We believe the same things as Roman Catholics, but we celebrate differently,” said Morris, 63, who has been married since 1978 to his wife, Joy.
St. John’s is one of 18 Ukrainian parishes in New England run by the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford, Conn.
“I don’t think it was ever considered a big parish,” said Morris, a Malden native who converted from Roman Catholicism. “But having their own church was important for their Ukrainian identity.”
The simple brick-and-wood church blends into a working-class neighborhood on Bridge Street in Salem. A gold-plated crucifix graces the altar adorned with beautiful icons of Jesus, Mary, and Ukrainian saints Olga and Vladimir.
“Icon comes from a word that means true image,” said Morris, who also teaches religion at Austin Prep in Reading.
Mass is said in a mix of Ukrainian and English. Parishioners travel from Chelmsford, Ipswich, Gloucester, and other communities.
“We like the liturgy,” said Gene Skrabut, 63, of Rockport, a parishioner for 35 years. “We felt welcome here from the beginning.”
Many help to preserve Ukrainian traditions, such as decorating eggs with folk designs or religious symbols.
“This one represents Palm Sunday,” said Betty Ripson, 83, of Chelmsford, holding an egg decorated with a pussy willow. “Here’s a rooster, a symbol of food.”
Non-Ukrainians feel at home, too.
Joe Cesario of Malden is the former music director at St. Peter’s Church, a small Italian parish in Malden, which was closed in 2004 by the Archdiocese of Boston. He’s now a cantor at St. John’s, where he assists Morris, his longtime friend.
“Musically, this is a whole lot different,” said Cesario, 66. “Spiritually, I feel nourished here.”
Myron and Rosemarie Romanyk of Gloucester returned on Palm Sunday for the first time since Myron suffered severe burns in a chemical explosion at a Lynn factory the week before Christmas.
Said Rosemarie, “We wanted to be back for Easter.”