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Texas parishioners affected by Ukrainian war, a wildfire have relied on faith, community to survive turmoil

Father Vijaya Mareedu, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Eastland, Texas, inspects the burnt remains of the Guillen residence in Carbon, Texas, March 2022. The Guillens were among seven families at the parish who lost their homes, vehicles, and belongings in the wildfires that razed Eastland County last year. (OSV News photo/Juan Guajardo, North Texas Catholic)

By Susan Moses

(OSV News) — St. Sophia Ukrainian Catholic Church in The Colony, Texas, is thousands of miles from the front lines of the fighting in Ukraine, but the hearts of its faithful are close to the war-torn country.

In his flock, Father Pavlo Popov ministers to a broad scope of Catholics. Refugees recently arrived from Ukraine — some living with local family, some with no ties to the area. Immigrants who arrived in Texas decades ago but worry about family who remain in the East European country. Texans proud of their Ukrainian ancestry. Even worshippers whose only link to the parish is an affinity for the country or the Eastern Catholic Rite.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, 2022, more people fill the pews of the church. According to Father Popov, “People are back in church because they feel this urge to pray. They feel so much in pain; they feel so hurt; so they come to church looking for that healing.” he told North Texas Catholic, the news outlet of the Diocese of Fort Worth.

Anxiety about the uncertain duration of the war and the safety of loved ones and family haunts many parishioners.

Father Popov ministers to his congregation by looking back, looking out and looking up.
The past provides assurance the Ukrainian people will endure. “We are going through some tough times, but it’s not the first. It’s nothing new for Ukraine, for the history of Ukraine, for Ukrainian people,” said the pastor.

Having lived through great famine, genocide, two world wars, and communism, the Ukrainian people are no strangers to hardship. He explained, “We’ve been familiar with persecution and suffering and challenges.”

Liz Moroz Harper, a St. Sophia parishioner and president of the Ukrainian American Society of Texas, agrees that Ukrainians are tenacious and resilient.

“We are a proud people with a love for freedom. We will not give up. I hope([the war) ends soon, but Ukraine will not submit,” said Harper, whose four grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine.

Many in the community, including Father Popov and Harper, look out for opportunities to help, given the constraints of living here. At times they work together. For example, the Ukrainian American Society of Texas created an angel tree to provide Christmas gifts to about 15 refugee families who worship at St. Sophia.

Some St. Sophia parishioners sponsor refugees, helping them adjust to their new community by assisting with transportation, language barriers and other needs.

Father Popov has been impressed with the generosity of the community, even those without a personal connection to Ukraine. The parish has collected funds for humanitarian aid in Ukraine, and donors at Holy Cross Parish in The Colony have provided local refugees with food and household items.

The Ukrainian American Society of Texas was formed 40 years ago to preserve and celebrate Ukrainian heritage and culture.

Now, Harper said, the nonprofit’s purpose includes fundraising, educating, sustaining awareness of the war, and maintaining a website — uast.org — with vetted organizations that provide humanitarian and defense assistance.

Despite the injustice of an unprovoked war and the loss of innocent lives, Father Popov delivers a message of hope to his congregation.

He references the apostles, saints, and martyrs, who experienced great hardships which advanced their personal holiness and expanded the church.

God can work through terrible situations, he said, and his care can be observed in the support of the international community, in tales of unlikely survival on the battlefield, and in signs that Russia is weakening.

“Focus on Christ, focus on God, and just (remember) the challenges of life shape us, to make us better, to make us stronger,” he said. “Keep your eyes on eternity.”

Ultimately, Christians must look to the cross for hope, where they see the sorrow of Jesus’ crucifixion followed by the joy of his resurrection.

Just as parishioners in The Colony have relied on their faith and community to get through the turmoil happening in Ukraine, some 140 or so miles away, residents of Eastland County have done the same in the aftermath of wildfires that raged through dry grasses and dense brush March 17, 2022.

The fires destroyed more than 54,000 acres, including most of the town of Carbon, where 86 homes were razed, including those of seven families belonging to St. Francis Xavier Parish in Eastland.

Winds surpassing 35 mph pushed the fire so quickly that individuals only had time to grab their keys or their purse, leaving medications, documents, animals, and family treasures behind.
Two young men, Ernesto and Jesus Perales, suffered burns as they escaped.

The next morning, Pallottine Father Vijaya Mareedu, then pastor of St. Francis Xavier, accompanied some of the survivors as they returned to survey the damage. And on March 20, Fort Worth Bishop Michael F. Olson celebrated Mass at St. Francis Xavier, staying to pray with the seven families and the Perales brothers.

Although their homes and possessions were ashes, the families were resolute: They would start over and rebuild in Carbon.

In the weeks that followed, the parish provided lunch for the families after each Sunday Mass. Father Mareedu explained, “Not only just for the meal, but for coming together. There is a lot of sorrow, which they may not be sharing, but that has built up.”

For Evelyn Guillen, who was at work at Ranger College when the fire consumed the home she shared with her parents and brothers, the Sunday lunches were more than a meal. In coming together each week, “God says, ‘No, you are not alone. You have me and you have all of these people too,'” she remembered.

Guillen said she also experienced love and support from the greater community. Donations of practical necessities and financial assistance totaling $230,984 came from the diocese and beyond. The funds were disbursed to the seven families who lost their homes and another parishioner who lost outlying structures for their livestock.

Father Mareedu recalls gratefully Bishop Olson’s presence and support and the generosity of donors in the diocese, the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Charities Fort Worth.

Before the disaster, the families knew each other, but now “the bond is stronger between all of us,” Guillen told North Texas Catholic.

Not only did they share a common catastrophe, but each Sunday the families still meet to help each other repair and renovate the used mobile homes they have purchased and placed on their properties. Two families are building more permanent structures with community assistance.

Gullen said, “We’re going to remember the bad moments of course, but we are going to embrace all the love that we have received and just keep moving forward with our lives in the presence of God.”

Father Mareedu has spent much time with the families, recently blessing each one in their homes.

“I see God’s hand very much present in the community because this situation has brought all of them together,” the priest said. “And with this pain, there is strength that is built up in the community. God is very much showing us a way to stay together, work together, and be committed.”

Susan Moses is the editor of North Texas Catholic, the news outlet of the Diocese of Fort Worth.

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