Among the nondescript buildings of George Street there stands a church; an elegant and unusually decorated construction for what would otherwise seem a normal New Haven road. Instead of the spires and steeples that typically adorn a church in New England, two stone towers capped by golden domes rise above the house of worship. Its façade is decked with intricate mosaics in lively colors, the largest of which is a portrait of Christ that crowns the front of the building, and on either side wave two flags: the American in familiar red, white, and blue; and a second one, in bright blue and yellow.

This is Saint Michael’s Ukrainian Church, described by its parishioners as the center of the Ukrainian community of New Haven. Every activity that involves the Ukrainian community, whether political, educational, or cultural, revolves around this locale and its affiliated organizations. Its influence extends not only to the rest of the city, but past the government of Connecticut and into Congress in Washington D.C.

St. Michael’s Church hosted both of Connecticut’s senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, on Thursday, July 17th and Sunday, August 3rd of this year, respectively, to voice the Ukrainian community’s concerns regarding the situation in Ukraine and to suggest steps the American government might take to resolve the conflict. Murphy, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has had a history in the nation, having visited the protesters in Kiev in December of last year. Both senators spoke out in support of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian community of New Haven, however, is concerned about much more than just political activism. Plastered to the walls of the foyer of St. Michael’s, for instance, are a handful of posters that educate the public about the differences between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Catholicism and discuss the history and the construction of religious icons, common in Eastern European Christianity. Women wearing traditional vyshyvankas sit serenely in their pews during mass, and the service is marked by unwaveringly solemn music, sung collectively by the congregation. Flyers advertising Ukrainian festivals, community discussions, or activities organized by the church are displayed for all to take, and the windows, wrought in stained glass, throw a colorful light onto the altar’s icons.

Clearly, maintaining culture and tradition is an enormous part of life for the ethnic Ukrainians living in New Haven, and a palpable pride for the homeland permeates throughout the community. Its story begins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the first rush of Ukrainian immigrants, looking for work, left an impoverished homeland in favor of the industrial boom that characterized the American economy in that period. The predecessor to St. Michael’s was built around this time, on Park Street, and the Ukrainian community of New Haven established itself firmly in the narrative of the city. The next few waves of immigrants came fleeing war and political pressure from the Soviet Union: first, immediately following the First World War; then, after World War II; and, finally, after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Immigration from Ukraine to the United States was hardly easy. Romana Thibodeau, a parishioner at St. Michael’s and an outspoken member of the Ukrainian community of the city, related the story of how her parents left Ukraine following World War II. She spoke of the political and economic factors that led to her parents fleeing the country and settling among an already well-established Ukrainian population in New Haven and the struggle of living away from home, doing what they could to help friends and family still in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. “My mother would send packages of food and clothing to relatives in Ukraine,” she recalled, describing how her mother would have to sow money into shirts and pants and weave cryptic clues as to where it was located in letters to avoid the Soviet censor.

Much of the Ukrainian identity is intertwined with Russian historical tradition, and vice versa. Russia, in fact, finds its ethnic and historical beginnings in the former federation of Kyivan Rus’, centered around the city of Kiev, the current capital of Ukraine. Over the course of the Middle Ages and into the last few centuries, the area now known as Ukraine passed into Polish, Lithuanian, Ottoman, and eventually Russian hands. For a while in the 19th century, ethnic Ukrainians were divided between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire. Finally, following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Ukraine became independent—but only until 1922, when it was absorbed by the Soviet Union. Throughout history, many ethnic Ukrainians strove to preserve their culture, which is distinct from any other in the region but has deeply Slavic roots. In short, Ukrainians are neither Polish, nor Austro-Hungarian, nor Lithuanian, nor Ottoman, nor Russian. They are and have always been Ukrainian.

The story of self-determination in Ukraine is complicated, and as one of the contributing causes of the conflict in the eastern regions of the nation—i.e., Ukrainians in the east speak Russian, while in the west they speak Ukrainian—has been divisive in the nation. But the Ukrainian community in New Haven has always maintained a patriotic pride towards its people, even when its country was under the control of another power. Thibodeau recalls how Ukrainians in New Haven would celebrate historically and nationally significant events throughout the existence of the Ukrainian SSR and past the dissolution of the Soviet Union in order to keep “the painful history” alive and in memory. The reports of rampant poverty and political repression that Ukrainian communities throughout the United States received, especially over the second half of the 20th century, aggravated an already established animosity towards the Soviet Union and, more specifically, Russia. A somewhat religious group, the Ukrainian community of New Haven was appalled to hear of repressed priests and desecrated churches, and thus the community began to develop a powerful political voice distinct from its strong cultural identity.

Thibodeau’s parents helped construct St. Michael’s in the 1950s and contributed to a growing movement among the first- and second-generation Ukrainians living in New Haven for cultural preservation. “Their whole mission,” says Thibodeau, “was to retain that Ukrainian culture by promoting things like dance and fine arts.” St. Michael’s, in and of itself a solid testament to that spirit of cultural and historical memory, calls to mind the domes and icons of churches in Kiev or Odessa and its parishioners, wearing traditional clothing and singing songs in Ukrainian, bring both artistic and oral tradition to a place like New Haven, as far away from Ukraine as any other.

Walking into a place like St. Michael’s as a non-Ukrainian is like entering an entirely different world; like exploring something you never even considered looking into before, and the setting is so warm, so welcoming—from the posters inviting you to learn more about Byzantine Rite Catholicism to the men and women eager to talk about their culture—that you wonder why, exactly, you never thought twice about such an exuberant community, such an exciting yet far-removed culture. On the day I happened to visit, everyone was hurrying off for a celebration of the 23rd anniversary of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union, and I hardly had time to chat with some of the parishioners as they left for New Haven Green. I saw many of them later, gathered under the flagpole in the Green on which both the Ukrainian and American flags were raised, happily commemorating their nationality.

Today, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, pitting pro-Russian separatists against a post-revolutionary nationalist army, is multi-faceted, to say the least. In New Haven, Ukrainian immigrants and their children—and their children in turn—are facing it as comprehensively as they can, with the resources available to them. They are using the conflict not only as an opportunity to educate the public on Ukrainian cultural values but as a way to support a fledgling nation that represents the hopes of generations: an end to “the painful history,” and the beginning of a new one. “Despite the conflict,” says Thibodeau, musing on the media hype the situation has received, “now people know that Ukrainians are not Russian.” She continues to talk about the violence as though it were another foreign aggression on a country that considers itself independent: “This isn’t a civil war,” she says, noting that many of the separatists are allegedly working with Russian support.

Many of the more than 5,000 ethnic Ukrainians living in New Haven County return to St. Michael’s every Sunday, take their children to its language school, or participate in events organized by the Women’s League or the community center located immediately next to the church itself. They pass by the pamphlets that are always haphazardly piled by the foyer: some asking for funds to send military material (but no weapons) to the Ukrainian army; others touting programs organized by the parish, like the one that brought 25 Ukrainians from Kiev to “provide psychological counseling to victims of events at the Maidan;” still others explaining how to get to the “Connecticut Ukrainian Day Festival.” From the days of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, through the years of repression and of both World Wars, and past the collapse of the Soviet Union, this community remains as robust as ever. As the conflict in Ukraine continues, the Ukrainians in the Elm City come together, like they always have. “Whether from Western or Eastern Ukraine,” says Thibodeau, summarizing many of the opinions in her community, “we are all Ukrainians.”

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