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How a Ukrainian Church in Rome unites Ukrainians

Santa Sophia Cathedral in Rome is not only a place to worship God but also a key gathering point for Ukrainian immigrants in Italy. We visited the church to meet some of them.

By Liudmyla Smoliar and Anhelina Lomakina

Ukrainians in Italy

Not everyone is able to take permanent care of their older relatives. The choice is often to send them to retirement homes or to find someone to live with them and take care of their needs. Many of these Carers are Ukrainian immigrants. And since this exhausting work is usually done by women, 78% of the people who come to Italy from Ukraine are women.

Usually they have a day off on Sunday and every Thursday afternoon. On those days most of them prefer going to church rather than traveling to the seaside or doing anything else. So church is one of the few places where the Ukrainian community can gather regularly.

I have lived in Rome for 18 years and have been coming to Santa Sophia every Sunday. Here I see people who were children 18 years ago, and now they are grown up and married”, says one Ukrainian immigrant.

Santa Sophia Cathedral is one of three Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches in Rome. Each Sunday it fills up with people who come to attend the service.  “It takes me almost two hours to come here by public transport, but I still do it every Sunday. Even tourists sometimes come here”, says one of the church visitors.

More than just a job

Another visitor doesn’t have a car, but the children of the woman she takes cares of let her use theirs. “I guess they are afraid I will leave them! I can calm their Mom down with just a few words. She is a good woman and I wish her health and a long life”. “Моя бабка” is the term she uses in Ukrainian to describe her aged employer. In English it translates as, “my grandma”.

Pope Francis visited Santa Sophia at the end of January 2018.  On that occasion he addressed the Ukrainian women present and told them: “You are precious. You are heralds of God in many Italian families in the best possible way when, in your service, you take care of people with a caring and unobtrusive presence. This is important: an unobtrusive presence, which is a witness…”.

More than just a church

Santa Sophia’s Rector, Fr Marko Semehen, remembers how, when Ukrainians started coming to Italy in the mid 1990’s, Santa Sophia provided shelter, food, legal advice and even helped them to find a job. Today there is no longer need for this kind of assistance. Santa Sophia has become a place for people to communicate with God and with each other. Mostly the same people come every Sunday. That is why they know each other so well, and feel like a family.  “Imagine, I met my classmate from my Ukrainian school here in Santa Sophia. We haven’t seen each other since graduation, despite living 10 km away from each other in Ukraine”.

The church service starts at 10am and lasts for approximately an hour and a half. But most people do not leave immediately afterwards. They stay on until evening, gathering in groups, having picnics, singing songs. There is also a Sunday School for children. Many of these children were born in Italy or learnt Italian in early childhood. Visiting the Sunday School helps them to learn Ukrainian and to stay connected with their community through language, history and culture.

Gathering the scattered

Santa Sophia was intended to be a church that would “gather people who are scattered all over the world”. That’s how it was described by the former Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Josyp Slipyj. He came to Rome in 1963 after being imprisoned for 18 years by Soviet authorities. He chose to model Santa Sophia in Rome on the Cathedral of the same name in the Ukrainian capital. The whole interior of the church is covered with glittering mosaics.

Today Santa Sophia is indeed a gathering place. People come here to share memories, to discuss the challenges of today, and to dream about the future. But most of all, they come to pray together, and to feel they are part of a greater community.

13 July 2018, 10:33