ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Argentina’s Ukrainians

Generations of Ukrainian-Argentines celebrate faith and tradition

by Sean Sprague

Less than 20 miles from the neurotic chaos that defines the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, a quiet calm dominates the beautiful grounds of the Ukrainian cemetery. Two sisters in their late 60’s, Eugenia Pavlyshyn and Marusia Lytwyn, leave flowers on the graves of their parents. As they wander about the tombstones — many marking the final resting places of family members and friends — Mrs. Pavlyshyn breaks the silence, remarking, “this will be a good place to rest!”

These days, Mrs. Lytwyn explains, burial plots in Buenos Aires are worth a fortune; cemetery administrators have been known to disinter the remains of the dead a few years after burial to make room for new customers.

“That is why we have our own cemetery,” she adds, “we like to think that once we get here, it will be forever. We don’t want to be dug up again.”

Despite the intense summer heat, the women linger in the graveyard — which is shared by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Orthodox communities — and pause before a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33. It is a poignant moment for the sisters. Their parents fled to Argentina to escape the famine, which some historians believe Stalin engineered to thwart rising nationalist aspirations among Ukrainians. Though exact numbers are disputed, it is believed up to 10 million people died of starvation.

Argentina is home to a thriving Ukrainian community, numbering as many as 300,000 people. Well integrated in Argentine society, the Ukrainian community holds steadfast to its cultural and religious traditions. Not as well organized as Ukrainian communities in North America, most Ukrainian-Argentines focus on the church as the custodian of their cultural identity. About 160,000 people belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The rest, apart from a handful of Evangelical Baptists, belong to Ukrainian Orthodox parishes.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Protection, led by Bishop Miguel Mykycej, F.D.P., and his auxiliary, Bishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, covers the entire country and coordinates the duties of 17 priests, who administer the sacraments and minister to the pastoral needs of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in 42 churches.

First established as an exarchate in 1968, the eparchy also guides the many charitable, educational and spiritual works of 88 religious sisters. This includes Hogar Santa Macrina, a home for orphaned girls run by the Basilians in the northern province of Misiones; the home receives considerable support from CNEWA’s donors.

Buenos Aires is home to Argentina’s largest Ukrainian Greek Catholic community and includes four parishes, the oldest of which dates to 1940.

Though a few Ukrainian families arrived in Argentina as early as 1885, historians generally consider 1897 the year that marks the first major wave of Ukrainian immigrants to Argentina. Most were Greek Catholic serfs from Galicia (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) who regarded Argentina, as well as Brazil and Paraguay, as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to begin new lives as free, landowning farmers. At the time, South American governments lured settlers from Europe with incentives; Argentina offered each family a farming plot of 50 acres.

Most settled in the northern province of Misiones. There, as they accrued stability and wealth over the next century, these Ukrainian Greek Catholics built more than 30 small chapels and shrines.

In the early years, Argentina’s Roman Catholic bishops discouraged Ukrainian Greek Catholic settlers from celebrating their Byzantine rites and denied requests to establish separate Ukrainian Greek Catholic parishes. As a result, many Greek Catholics simply embraced Orthodoxy, with whom they shared the same Byzantine customs, beliefs and rites.

By 1908, however, Argentina’s Roman Catholic bishops — a dominant force in Argentine society — became accustomed to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic tradition, and priests from Europe were recruited to serve the faithful. In 1922, the spiritual leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky of Lviv, paid a visit to Misiones, consecrating churches and encouraging catechesis.

The next and largest wave of Ukrainian immigrants to Argentina occurred between the world wars, when tens of thousands fled famine in Soviet-occupied eastern Ukraine and oppression in Polish-controlled western Ukraine. Many who found refuge were nationalists or intellectuals belonging to either the Greek Catholic or Orthodox traditions. Most settled in Buenos Aires.

A third wave arrived in the wake of World War II, when the Soviet Union annexed western Ukraine and integrated it with its own Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Some of the region’s Greek Catholics fled after the Soviets staged a Greek Catholic synod in Lviv in 1946, integrated the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches and arrested or shot those who resisted. The Soviet authorities especially objected to Ukrainian Greek Catholic communion with the pope, to them a “foreign” potentate.

The most recent wave began after Ukraine gained independence in 1991. About 4,000 Ukrainians have settled in Argentina in the last two decades, most are young adults in search of better economic opportunities.

Throughout history, Ukrainians have enjoyed brief periods of independence, most notably since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Despite centuries of foreign subjugation and occupation, they have strived for a national identity. But there are many ways to be Ukrainian.

Those Ukrainians dominated by Austria, Hungary and Poland gradually identified themselves with a distinctly Catholic and Western European perspective. Those who lived under the Russians gravitated toward an Orthodox and Russian worldview. And though these differences exist among communities in the diaspora, they pale in comparison to the schisms that threaten Ukraine today.

On a quiet street on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a hundred or so middle-aged and elderly parishioners of Holy Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church celebrate a birthday in the church basement. Singing festively and enjoying a Sunday meal with fine Argentine wine, the revelers welcome Mrs. Pavlyshyn and Mrs. Lytwyn, who explain all that unites Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Orthodox Argentines.

“Though our churches are distinct,” says Mrs. Lytwyn, “our liturgies are almost identical — we share the same roots.”

The onion-domed Greek Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Protection dominates the sleepy Floresta district. Consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1987 in anticipation of the millennial anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus’, the cathedral has a richly decorated interior that reflects the Byzantine traditions shared by the peoples who descend from the Rus’ — Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russians and Ukrainians. Murals depicting the lives of the saints adorn the walls and stylized icons grace a carved and gilded wooden screen that separates the nave from the sanctuary.

To shield the blazing sun, the cathedral’s pastor, Father Luis Glinka, wears a wide-brimmed straw hat, typical of the Misiones province from where he originates.

A third-generation Ukrainian-Argentine, Father Glinka is both a South American and a Ukrainian. His grandparents immigrated to Argentina from Galicia in 1907. Father Glinka is fluent in Ukrainian and celebrates the Divine Liturgy in his native Spanish or Ukrainian, depending on the congregation.

“Things were hard for my grandparents at first: not knowing the language, enduring the heat and humidity, no help from the home country and having to grow unfamiliar crops,” he says. “Some people became desperate and even ended their lives. But most settlers eventually flourished, integrating well into Argentine society, prospering and later sending their children to college. They were honest, hard-working people with a strong faith in God,” the priest adds after he celebrates the liturgy one Sunday.

Among the parishioners attending the Eucharist is Halya Slotylo. Blond, single and feeling slightly out of place, Mrs. Slotylo left Ukraine for Argentina in 1993 when the Argentine economy was booming and Ukrainians could travel unrestricted for the first time in half a century. Disillusioned and nearing retirement age, Ms. Slotylo now wonders whether or not she should have ever left Ukraine.

“I did not need a work visa to come here,” she says, “that is why I chose Argentina. I survived as a domestic cleaner, a step down from my profession as a teacher of literature in Ukraine. I didn’t mind at first because the pay was better. But now the Argentine peso has dropped against other currencies and I am no better off than I would have been in Ukraine. I was a bit too old to emigrate and do not feel settled in Argentina.

“In a few years,” she adds, “I will be eligible for a pension in Ukraine, so I think I will go back.”

Hanna Lyashchuk, another parishioner, immigrated to Argentina at the same time. But unlike Ms. Slotylo, she wants to stay.

“We are now Argentine citizens and my daughter, Nadia, who works as a beautician, has been here most of her life and has a baby who was born here,” she says.

“I work as a nurse. Though we will never forget our roots, we love Argentina. Every Sunday, we go to church and meet up with our Ukrainian friends.”

Father Glinka laments the fact that the younger generation of new arrivals have assimilated into Argentina’s mainstream at an alarming rate. He says half the young people in his parish have married non-Ukrainians. Many do not know nor care to learn the Ukrainian language or about Ukrainian traditions; as a result, he says, the “old” culture is being lost. He expresses particular disappointment in the latest wave of post-Soviet immigrants, who he believes use the church as a cultural point of reference but do not truly believe.

“They are indifferent to religion as a result of a Communist system that has destroyed their moral ethics. When they come here, they do not really integrate well with the Ukrainians from earlier waves. They do not appreciate their Ukrainian culture or language as much as those who have been here for generations. Many prefer to speak Russian, while their kids are growing up speaking only Spanish!”

A recent crop of young religious from Ukraine, however, attests that a new generation of post-Soviet Ukrainians, eager to embrace Christianity, has also come forth.

No one exemplifies better the revival of Ukrainian Greek Catholicism in post-Soviet Ukraine than Argentina’s recently appointed auxiliary, 39-year-old Bishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Born in Ukraine in 1970, he came of age more than three decades after the Communist authorities had forced the Greek Catholic Church underground. Unshakable in his faith, he answered the call to priesthood, enrolling in a clandestine Greek Catholic seminary from the ages of 13 to 19. A few years later, he came to Argentina and studied philosophy at the Don Bosco University Center in Buenos Aires.

During this period, the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine emerged as an independent state. No longer persecuted, Greek Catholics came out of hiding and began rebuilding the church.

Pining to take part in the church revival back home, the young seminarian left the Don Bosco Center and enrolled in the newly reopened major seminary in Lviv, which was subsidized in part by CNEWA’s benefactors. In 1994, he was ordained a priest and in 2009 was appointed auxiliary bishop for Argentina’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to which he brings a youthful dynamism.

“As a young bishop, I am able to act as an intermediary between the youth of Ukrainian origin in Argentina and the youth of Ukraine itself,” he explains.

“I have been pleasantly surprised at how the Ukrainian-Argentine youth are interested in finding out about their origins. This has encouraged me to bring over young priests from Ukraine to help instill our Greek Catholic values in Argentina.”

Every summer in Misiones, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Protection organizes a camp for Argentine Greek Catholic youth from all over the country. They attend intensive Ukrainian language classes as well as classes on Ukrainian civilization and the tenets of Greek Catholicism.

Many of today’s proudest second- and third-generation Ukrainian-Argentines participated in the program as youngsters. Among the alumni are Mrs. Pavlyshyn and Mrs. Lytwyn. The sisters, who make every effort to preserve their identity, normally speak Ukrainian with one another, their family and their friends.

This past January marked the camp’s 25th anniversary. A jubilee celebration, hosted by Bishop Shevchuk, was held in Misiones.

“We had 50 students attend from where Ukrainians have settled: Buenos Aires, Chaco, Mendoza and Misiones,” says the bishop. “They enroll in total immersion courses that last 15 days and run over four years during the summer month of January. The main things taught are Ukrainian language, theology, Byzantine rites, history and geography of Ukraine, literature, popular culture, handicrafts and singing.”

Such programs deepen a sense of pride among Ukrainians in Argentina, which, far from the discord in the homeland, has enabled the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to not only survive but flourish.

Sean Sprague is a regular contributor to these pages.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español