Sister Martyna of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate teaches in Zbarazh, outside Lviv. (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
Sisters from the Monastery of Holy Transfiguration in Berehy carry a large bag of sugar. (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
Sisters of the Order of St. Basil play with kindergartners in Lviv. (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
In Lviv, Easter celebrations ring through the streets, heralded from afar by the joyous singing of the liturgy. Between centuries-old monoliths of Habsburg-era architecture, apricot trees bloom in the city center, blanketed with tiny white blossoms. Lilac bushes complete the palette with clusters of purple flowers.
Taken together, the sights and sounds of Bright Week — a term used for the first week of Easter in the churches of the Byzantine tradition — convey a sense of respite after more than 40 days of fasting during Great Lent.
This tranquility suffuses the convent of the Sisters of St. Basil the Great all the more strongly, its spiritual peace augmented by the silence of absence. Many of the community’s 33 sisters are currently visiting other sisters in Ukraine as part of an exchange program with other religious houses to the east, where the Basilian Sisters — the nation’s largest Greek Catholic community of women religious — are now present.
“And yes, they’re probably savoring shish kebabs right about now,” says Provincial Superior Mother Danyila Vynnyk, 39.
However, whether working in Lviv in western Ukraine — home to the majority of Ukraine’s Greek Catholics — or picnicking farther afield, the sisters can always be counted on to attend dutifully to their charism.
As if on cue, Sister Teofana Kaminska returns just in time for the afternoon liturgy.
On a typical day, the young woman awakens at 5:45 a.m. After the morning liturgy, breakfast and private prayer, she completes household duties and leaves to attend class.
Enrolled at the Ukrainian Catholic University, the country’s only Catholic institution of higher learning, Sister Teofana currently studies to be a social worker. The 28-year-old also holds a law degree from a university in Ivano-Frankivsk, located in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
Her varied skillset supports the principal charism of the order:
to help socially vulnerable children. Instruments of the Basilian Sisters’ work include a primary school and two day care centers. The sisters also assist physicians at hospitals.
Sister Teofana has been close to women religious all her life. From an early age, guided by the example of others, she felt called to a life of service as a sister.
“The choice was difficult,” she says, comparing it to a train juncture. “The monastery is my rail; that’s my path. I have the strength to carry my weight and do what God wants.”
To enter into religious life as a Basilian, Mother Danyila says, this sense of purpose is key.
“A step in the monastic life is a radical step. It requires courage to know that one belongs to God.”
Inspired by this strength of conviction, women religious are going to great lengths to serve and uplift the people of Ukraine through an extraordinary period of war and economic and social unrest.
While estimates vary regarding the size of Ukraine’s largely Orthodox population — which is complicated by competing and partisan jurisdictions and the whereabouts of many internally displaced people — a recent poll by the Kiev-based Razumkov Center suggests that of those people living in areas of the country controlled by the government in Kiev, 9.4 percent identify as Ukrainian Greek Catholic. Just a fraction of Greek Catholic women have entered religious life; there are about 850 sisters belonging to a number of congregations of women, including 187 Basilian sisters.
Even as they seek to expand geographically, the rate of new vocations has been in decline for years. Currently, it stands at less than half the rate of 20 years ago, says Mother Danyila.
“The average age of a sister is 40 years,” she says. If the trend holds, she says, there will not be enough new sisters to replace those who will have died.
Times have changed since 1991, when Ukraine gained independence amid the U.S.S.R.’s disintegration. At that time, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church experienced a renaissance. Monasteries swelled with postulants eagerly proclaiming their faith.
“Values have changed,” Mother Danyila says. “There’s [growing] consumerism and individualism, both of which emphasize focusing on the self.”
Demographic shifts also play a role, to say nothing of the troubled economy that has been spurring them.
Recently, more Ukrainians have left the country seeking work elsewhere — particularly since last year, when the European Union approved visa-free travel for citizens of Ukraine to E.U. member nations. By some estimates, the number of those who have left may exceed four million people, or nearly one-fifth of the workforce. This results in broken families, with children deprived of one or even both parents, when grandparents are available to see to their rearing.
Coupled with historically low birth rates since the 1990’s, these factors have led to a shrinking pool of candidates choosing monastic life.
Sister Nataliya Melnyk, head of the council of superiors of women religious, says the “rebuilding stage” of the early 90’s offered a chance to forge an impressive network, consisting of 21 communities of women religious and their various institutions. But before long, these “new challenges” emerged in full.
“People still have the calling,” she says, “but more are afraid to make the final decision. There are more possibilities and choices in life.”
People — especially young people — often do not know which choices will bring them happiness, she adds.
Against a backdrop of changing needs, convents have had to do more with less. For the Basilian Sisters in Lviv, sustaining activities include cultivating fruit and vegetables outside the city, and producing herbal teas.
Across town, Sister Yustyna Holubets of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate holds down two jobs.
The highly educated sister works as a geneticist specializing in prenatal and palliative care to ease life-threatening pregnancies. She is also a psychologist. And she has also studied biological ethics in Rome.
Her community’s charism focuses on pastoral work and youth outreach.
“We are hospitable,” says Provincial Superior Mother Myroslava Yakhyments. “We serve where we are needed most.”
One of the community’s 15 sisters who entered religious life in the Soviet era, she joined at age 15. During that time, the government suppressed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, forcing priests and religious to operate in secret.
Elected superior only ten months ago, Mother Myroslava says her community’s 112 sisters started working with children deprived of parental care in 1991, amid economic transition.
The sisters established a day care center for early development. And in 2013, they founded an orphanage called Home of Hope. With assistance from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton, these institutions receive support from the Bridge of Hope project, which serves some 76 children across a dozen facilities — as well as many in government-run orphanages.
Mother Myroslava says the sisters provide comprehensive child care. “We assist spiritually, as well as providing food and clothing and school supplies.”
She describes one such case: A toddler who lived his first three years in a prison, where he was born to an incarcerated mother.
“He wasn’t socialized; he couldn’t talk,” the superior recollects. “The sisters had to do everything. Now he is 7 years old and attends school.”
The Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate face the same long-term membership concerns as the Basilian Sisters, though Mother Myroslava focuses more on the logistics of the present.
“Our number one problem is financial. We’re not a commercial enterprise, so we’re always in search of benefactors,” she says.
Sister Andrea Yakynets, who teaches at the Ukrainian Catholic University, spots the silver lining of these limitations. “This motivates us to do new things, to plan ahead, to mobilize and do things better.” Above all, it demands one eye on the future — focusing on long-term benefits, rather than “one-off activities.”
Yet working with children carries different challenges than
it did 25 years ago. Mother Myroslava contrasts today’s children’s greater intellectual independence with the more relaxed values of present society.
“They cancel each other out,” she says. “Children were easier to talk to; now we need new approaches and methodologies. They may be smarter, but they’re less interested in spiritual values, how to talk, to converse, to build human relations, even to shake hands.”
She adds that today’s youngsters quickly become dependent on smartphones.
“They don’t want to read a book,” she laments, joking that if parents once complained that their children never come home, now they complain that they never go outside and play.
The sisters are taking a hard look internally at how to reverse some of these trends.
“The world is changing fast and much relies on us,” says Sister Nataliya. “We need to offer something new. Yet how do we convey this?”
In particular, she says, there exists a certain stigma that likens joining a monastic order to a prison sentence. Thus, the sisters must work to improve messaging and introduce themselves in a different light.
“Those who know us better see that we are not a closed society,” she says. “We want to talk about serving the Lord as a blessing — that it’s one of the best things to happen in life.”
As youth outreach has expanded throughout the network of Ukraine’s women religious, the sisters realize needs exceed their capabilities.
“There are too few of us,” says Sister Nataliya. “The more work we do, the more challenges appear.”
To compensate for the shortage of personnel, women religious have been enlisting help from the secular community — training people to either augment services or take them up independently under their guidance.
“This demands more time from us, more preparation,” she says. “Obviously, this leads to fatigue or burnout, so this forces us to prioritize. This isn’t easy to do.”
For example, she says, if catechism is taught in one village, a neighboring hamlet will invariably ask for the same service. In time, parish priests and sisters will outsource this to trained students.
In more dire situations, says Sister Nataliya, “certain services must be suspended because of burnout; otherwise we’ll lose more human resources.”
To avoid work duplication and unnecessary mistakes, weekly informational sessions are held where groups of 20 to 30 sisters can share their experiences on what works and what does not in their communities.
They also routinely bring in instructors to raise their qualification levels.
“This saves resources and time,” the head of the council of superiors says. “There’s enough work to go around for everyone — there’s no competition.”
Some communities only have three or four sisters left. There are those communities that emerged from the underground, but struggled to attract new members.
That certain communities of religious women will eventually cease to exist, Sister Nataliya regards as inevitable.
“This is the life of the church, some will naturally disappear.”
Looking back at the church’s storied history, she says there are “hills and valleys in good and bad times.” Yet in the end, they accept what God has laid before them.
“Monastic life is a house of worship,” she says, citing only two certainties: “prayer and service.”
Although the sisters would prefer to concentrate on the prayer component more, they realize they are needed.
Sister Nataliya says that to persevere, sisters must assert themselves at 200 percent: “100 percent on their capabilities, and 100 percent of God’s.”
For now, doing more with less is the norm, and the sisters are
making do with the multitudinous talents and dedication of their members.
Or as Mother Danyila says: “It’s about quality, not quantity.”
Yet, hope remains that the numbers will improve. Sister Nataliya points to a new generation of children growing up with catechism at school, community centers and church grounds — as with Sister Teofana. This exposure could convince more to choose a monastic life.
“It will be very interesting to see what comes of this generation.”
Mark Raczkiewycz is the Kiev correspondent for the New Jersey-based The Ukrainian Weekly. He is the former editor at large of the Kyiv Post in Ukraine, and his work has appeared in the The Financial Times, Bloomberg News, The Irish Times and Jane’s Intelligence.