Like a scene from a Pasternak novel, the domes loomed up over a pure-white, windswept, snow-blanketed landscape. St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church is just the building you might expect to find on the icy, windswept plains of a frozen eastern land. Ascending the steps only heightened the impression of being on the steppes, as I found myself surrounded by Cyrillic inscriptions, icons, flickering candles, and parishioners speaking a language closely related to Russian. I’d arrived at the end of the Ukrainian-language liturgy, one of the few such services still conducted weekly in western New York.
I was immediately taken with the magic of the place, and you will be, too, at this Sunday’s Buffalo Mass Mob – the twenty-fifth such, believe it or not, since a few of us co-founded the Mass Mob in late 2013. The Mass Mob will experience St. Nicholas’ noon liturgy in English, but if you arrive early, at 10AM, you can hear the liturgy in Ukrainian, too.
Why “liturgy” and not “mass”? A perceptive question, the answer to which requires a trip back over a millennium.
Exactly what kind of church is the Ukrainian Church, with one foot in the Eastern Church and one in the Western? My questions to Father Marijan Procyk initially left me more confused than enlightened. “Is this a Diocesan parish?” No. “Is this a Latin-rite church?” No. “Is this an Orthodox church?” No. He seemed to enjoy my confusion, probably knowing that my questions indicated someone willing to delve into the matter. So he sat me down in a pew and walked me through it.
Soon it became clear why the architecture, iconography, language, and experience at St. Nicholas seems exotic and eastern: the Ukrainian Catholic Church is, literally, Byzantine. The Ukrainian Church is one of a handful of Orthodox churches that entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church after the fall of Constantinople diminished the gravitational pull of Orthodoxy’s sun and early stirrings of nationalism led some national churches to chafe against Moscow’s increasing dominance of the Eastern Church.
Since the Ukrainian Church restored communion with Rome in 1596, something that had been broken by the Great Schism between the principally Latin western church and the principally Greek Eastern Church in 1054, the Vatican has taken a light-handed approach. The church maintains its own leadership hierarchy, with a patriarch in Ukraine and a metropolitan overseeing the church in America. It even has its own Diocese, based in Stamford, Connecticut.
And many aspects of the church are unrecognizable, and even unthinkable, to most Roman Catholics. As in the Orthodox Church, Ukrainian priests can be married. Father Procyk was married, but his wife sadly passed away a decade ago. A Ukrainian Catholic service is not a “mass,” but a “divine liturgy,” which historian Dr. Martin Ederer recently told me is actually a more appropriate term – even if “Buffalo Liturgy Mob” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Regardless of name, Father Procyk assured me the liturgy does count toward weekly Catholic obligation.
After hearing all this I had to ask about filioque. After all, the overly simplistic understanding of the Great Schism is that the eastern and western churches split over this single word which signifies, in the Creed, that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the son.” Father Procyk told me the answer boiled down to, essentially, agreeing to disagree. In fact, one of his priestly mentors once told him that, in a conversation with Pope John Paul II, the Pontiff told him he thought the issue not important enough to fight over. John Paul II even described the eastern and western churches as two lungs, both essential to keeping the body functioning. Father Procyk told me that as for him, he was comfortable with the Creed either way. After all, he told me, the Roman church only added the clause in the post-Charlemagne era. In many ways, the dispute was as much about politics and process as theology.
To illustrate, he pulled a copy of the Ukrainian prayer book from the pew rack in front of us and showed me how the filioque clause in the Creed therein was bracketed – that is, optional. I laughed out loud when I saw that, in the prayer book he picked at random, the clause was not only bracketed but had actually been inked out in English and whited out in the parallel Ukrainian, perhaps by some parishioner who felt much more strongly about the issue than Father Procyk or Pope John Paul II.
The other side of the tracks
If you’re looking at pictures of St. Nicholas Church thinking, “where is that? I’ve never seen that before,” I wouldn’t be surprised. The church is off the beaten track in a seemingly forgotten part of the city between the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood and the Larkin District. It is, quite literally, on the other side of the tracks from everywhere else, surrounded by railroad embankments and viaducts both active and abandoned. In that respect, the church’s current location shares a trait with the neighborhood where it began, the “iron island” of Lovejoy. It also has an intriguing connection with the most recent church to be Mass mobbed they share an origin.
As Dr. Martin Ederer has the story in his book on Buffalo’s Catholic churches, the Ukrainian immigrants in Buffalo established their first church on Ideal Street in Lovejoy, in 1894. According to Ederer,
The Russian Orthodox took that church over, largely because no Byzantine Catholic priest was available, and created SS. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church out of that originally Ukrainian-Byzantine Catholic Church.
Undeterred, the Ukrainian Catholics formed the “Brotherhood of St. Nicholas,” and built a small, wooden church on Central Avenue in Lovejoy (no longer extant). In a familiar story, their numbers grew to fill the space and more, and they began to discuss building a larger, more permanent church. An early sketch shows a much more elaborate church than was ultimately built, perhaps because delays and some dissension over the site meant that the project didn’t get underway until the eve of America’s entry into WWI.
It proved to be a “perfect storm” of difficulties for St. Nicholas Church, per Ederer:
Financial problems prevented the small parish from completing the original elaborate plan for the church. The 1918 flu pandemic was disastrous; the church lost 78 parishioners, and the Great Depression put the parish in the red until 1943. The interest on the loans actually ended up surpassing the principal.
The church was erected, but with a flat roof and no domes. For the lifetime of most of those present for the 1920 dedication, they would never know it any other way.
Postwar prosperity brought a rebound in the fortunes of St. Nicholas Church. Although a half-dozen parishioners gave their lives in WWII, including one at Pearl Harbor, the church received an influx of immigrants and wartime refugees. According to the church’s history,
After World War II a refugee committee was formed in March 1949… They helped former countrymen [POWs] who came here after their liberation by American forces in Germany. By July 1950 a total of 450 Ukrainians were sponsored. They procured housing and employment. More than 2,000 families had been assisted when the program terminated in 1952.
With so many families to serve, the parish built a school and chapel where they could find land, at 995 Fillmore Avenue. In recent years, the church closed the school and sold the building, which is still extant.
In contrast to most European ethnic city churches in Buffalo, especially on the east side, which by the 1980s were struggling to simply operate and maintain their buildings, and even closing and demolishing some, the 1980s and 1990s were a time of investment for St. Nicholas. After celebrating the 1988 centennial of the conversion of the Ukrainians (Kievan Rus’) to Christianity – images of the mass baptism are a staple of both Ukrainian and Russian religious art – the church embarked on an ambitious effort to replace the flat ceiling and roof that really had no place in Byzantine architecture. You can see for yourself at Sunday’s Mass Mob just how successful they were.
All these upgrades were completed just in time for a banner year in the church’s history: 1994, which marked both the centenary of the founding of the parish and the 75th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the present church. Father Procyk gave me a copy of the commemorative book published at the time, a goldmine of information. There are plans in the works to celebrate the centennial of the laying of the cornerstone next year.
Despite being almost cloistered by railroads, St. Nicholas Church is not insulated against the events of the outside world. Like the Poles, Ukrainians are from a land frequently invaded, fought over, divided, ruled from distant capitals, and oppressed. Despite assimilating and becoming great Americans – and they have – Ukrainian-Americans can’t escape the struggles of their homeland, past and present. The first Ukrainian I ever met told me stories about fighting as a partisan – first against the Soviets, then against the Nazis, and then against the Soviets again.
At the end of WWII, the Soviets arrested the patriarch of the Ukrainian church, Josyf Slipyj, who then spent nearly two decades in the Siberian gulags. When he was released, he traveled to Rome and, with the Pope’s blessing, raised funds to build St. Sophia Cathedral there, which served as a kind of mother church in exile while Ukraine was under Soviet domination. Father Procyk knew Slipyj, who visited St. Nicholas Church in 1972 on a trip to America.
After enjoying just two decades out from under the Soviet thumb, Ukraine again came under threat from the east, this time by resurgent Russian nationalism. A few years ago Artvoice published an insider perspective on these troubles by local political strategist Michael Caputo, who spent years in both Russia and Ukraine advising pro-reform candidates.
All Buffalo – as all America – seemed to be with Ukraine during the Euromaidan protest, with proclamations and solidarity rallies and the Electric Tower lit in blue and gold. But came the Russian invasion of Crimea, the burden of grappling with the effects of political chaos and a kind of civil war in the eastern part of their homeland has largely fallen on the Ukrainian-American community. This effort has been coordinated through institutions such as the Ukrainian-American Civic Center in Black Rock, the Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Center, and the half-dozen Ukrainian churches in western New York, especially St. Nicholas. Sarah Maurer’s piece from 2014 is a good read on this.
Locals such as Yuri Hreshchyshyn, Greg Olma, and Dianna Derhak have traveled to Ukraine as election monitors and organized solidarity rallies. The institutions have raised funds for relief and medical supplies for those on the front lines of the conflict.
When I spoke with Father Procyk, he was quite excited that, later this month, the Pope will be visiting St. Sophia in Rome in a show of solidarity with the Ukrainian church. Pope Francis, who got to know Ukrainian Catholics when he was in seminary, has been seen as having a special affinity for the church. The weekly bulletin at St. Nicholas had a full-page writeup on the news, including this:
Although Friday’s Vatican statement did not provide any reason for the timing of the Pope’s January 28 visit, it’s well known that the Catholic community in Ukraine has been deeply affected by the long-simmering conflict in the eastern part of the country that pits government forces against Russian-backed separatists, which over the past three years is believed to have left 10,000 people dead and sparked a humanitarian crisis.
In addition to Ukrainian Catholic efforts to participate in relief efforts for the affected populations, the church has long identified itself with the Ukrainian nationalist cause, seeing a Ukraine independent of Russian domination as the best guarantee of pluralism and democracy, including the rights of religious minorities in the country.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has also produced new immigrants and refugees. As with other ethnic churches past and present, St. Nicholas serves as a kind of switchboard for new arrivals who need help getting established, and those already established looking to help newcomers and those back in the old country. Even in an era of smartphones and social media, church bulletin boards like the crowded ones at St. Nicholas still play a vital role.
And despite the grim times, I was delighted to see that the Ukrainian-Americans at St. Nicholas still have a healthy sense of humor, as evidenced by a visual joke in their crèche. See if you can spot it (click photo to enlarge).
Hopefully this post has given you a taste of what awaits you at a visit to St. Nicholas Church. What better time to visit than this Sunday’s Mass Mob? The Mass Mob will gather for noon liturgy in English, but you are also welcome to come early to hear the Ukrainian-language liturgy at 10AM. In the Ukrainian church, the sacramental host is placed directly on the tongue by the priest and Eucharistic ministers, so be prepared for that if you plan to take the sacraments. As said before, the liturgy serves as weekly Catholic obligation.
Father Procyk told me he plans to type up a guide to the differences in the service, which should be very helpful to Mass Mobsters.
After liturgy, there will be a reception in the parish hall downstairs. Also on Sunday, vendors of Slavic books and merchandise will be on hand, a good opportunity to purchase colorful and unique gifts. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to St. Nicholas Church.
Plenty of parking will be available on-street and in the school lot across the street. Buffalo Science Academy, across the street, was designed by African-American architect Robert Traynam Coles. While it couldn’t be more different from the church across the street, it is a notable work of architecture in its own right.