Ukrainian church finally has home

TUCSON - A small Tucson congregation, rich and complicated in its history, has a permanent home after more than 25 years.

The new church building is powerful in its symbolism for parishioners of St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church. Some members had parents who suffered religious persecution in Ukraine, where the church was banned for decades. Services during those years were held secretly in people's homes, or even in the woods.

What binds these Tucson Ukrainian Catholics now is a shared longing for a strong faith community.

Since the early 1980s, about 25 people have met in a makeshift chapel adjoining a house on the city's East Side. The site was difficult to find, and newcomers often didn't return.

"There was no church there, really," said the parish council president, Ihor Kunasz. "There was nothing that identified it as a church. It was just a building."

About three years ago, interest grew in a North Side church occupied by the Holy Resurrection Antiochian Orthodox Church. That congregation was hoping to move after outgrowing the Miracle Manor neighborhood church.

In February, the sale was finalized.

"We have been trying for so many years, but we have such a small group and we just couldn't get anywhere," said Christina Vecbastiks, who moved from Alaska to Green Valley with her husband, Ivars, 14 years ago.

She said they are overjoyed to have a home at last.

In the past, Vecbastiks said, the congregation had trouble finding priests. Mass sometimes had to be celebrated on Saturday, when a visiting priest could do it. There were no regular services on holidays.

Vecbastiks, 64, was born in Ukraine and moved to the United States with her family in 1949. Her husband is Latvian, she said, but he now enjoys her church.

The new priest at St. Michael's, the Rev. Andriy Chirovsky, is returning the parish to its traditions, Vecbastiks said.

"He's taking us back to the way things should be, both spiritually and culturally," she said.

Chirovsky, 52, said it's critical for Ukrainian Catholics to feel a sense of belonging. Their faith was banned in Ukraine in 1945 and wasn't restored until 1989.

Freedom to practice Ukrainian Catholicism returned 20 years ago, after Mikhail Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II.

Chirovsky commutes each week from Tempe to celebrate Mass in Tucson. He is a married priest, which is common in Eastern Catholic churches, and he has three children.

Chirovsky was born in New Jersey after his parents escaped Josef Stalin's dictatorship.

Chirovsky was ordained by Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, who spent 18 years in Siberian concentration camps for his beliefs.

Parish member Bohban "Buddy" Gojnycz remembers working with his mother in a German labor camp. At that time, he was terrified of being returned to Ukraine, his homeland, where many were executed for allegations of treason.

Gojnycz, 71, moved to New York City with his mother when he was 12. His father died in World War II.

"We always pray for our brothers back home and the welfare of the country," he said. "We're very happy the Ukraine is independent now and that the church is allowed to practice freely."

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