Parishes in Minneapolis, Bucha linked as Ukrainian Orthodox Church celebrates holiest of days

A man stands in a church.
Alex Poletz helped set up a sister parish relationship between St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, and the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in Bucha, Ukraine. Poletz, seen here Friday at the Minneapolis church, and his fellow parishioners are sending aid -- and prayers -- to the Bucha congregation ahead of Orthodox Easter.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

Alex Poletz came to the U.S. from Ukraine with his family during World War II, fleeing Russian repression that Ukrainians had suffered for decades — including the Holodomor, the catastrophic famine inflicted by Joseph Stalin. 

Poletz initially lived in Mississippi, but came eventually to Minneapolis, where he raised a family of his own and found a spiritual home at St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church. 

But his faith has another home, as well: in the once-obscure Kyiv suburb of Bucha. 

A man stands in a church.
Alex Poletz stands inside St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Minneapolis on Friday.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

“I had been going to Ukraine practically every summer since independence (in 1991),” Poletz said. And in 2000, when his Minnesota parish was marking its 75th anniversary, they asked him to find a “sister church” back in Ukraine. 

As it happened, a few dozen pensioners had decided to revive the Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian language parish in Bucha — part of Ukraine long overshadowed by the U.S.S.R and the Russian Orthodox church.

“They got a priest, and they first had services in a little house,” Poletz said. He said he knew he’d found a match. 

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A man stands in a church.
Signs of solidarity with Ukraine are seen inside St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Minneapolis on Friday, ahead of Orthodox Easter on Sunday. The church has a sister congregation in Ukraine -- the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in Bucha.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

And after a priest and a lone parishioner came to Minneapolis to visit, the popularity of the Bucha church swelled.

“It was such a little church that the priests had to set up speakers in part of the church yard, so that people would come, and they could stand outside and participate,” Poletz remembers. 

The parish in Minneapolis responded, helping raise money for a new, bigger church to welcome yet more people in Bucha. 

Onlookers gather as bodies are exhumed from a mass grave
Onlookers gather as bodies are exhumed from a mass grave on the grounds of the St. Andrew Pyervozvannoho All Saints church in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 13.
Sergei Supinsky | AFP via Getty Images file

And that new Ukrainian church, the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints, is now tragically familiar to many others. The gleaming white gold-domed church is visible in the background of photos of exhumations from a mass grave, dug in the church yard as Russian forces infamously retreated from the city. 

In talking with people in Ukraine, Poletz said he learned the parish priest oversaw burials there, after collecting dozens of bodies on a flatbed truck, then being driven away from a nearby cemetery by Russian gunfire.

“They are still finding some bodies, that were discarded or dropped off,” Poletz said. 

Photos posted on Facebook show the church’s windows blown out, its sanctuary walls pocked with damage from shelling. 

March through Minneapolis in support of Ukraine
Rev. Myron Korostil, priest of St. Michael’s and St. George's Ukrainian Orthodox Church, offers a prayer before hundreds of people from the Ukrainian American community marched through northeast and downtown Minneapolis on Feb. 27 to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tim Evans for MPR News file

The Bucha church and its congregation are very much on the mind of the faithful in northeast Minneapolis, said Fr. Myron Korostil, the priest at St. Michael’s and St. George’s. He said the retreat of the Russians and the efforts at recovery in Bucha are particularly poignant, as Orthodox churches celebrate renewal and resurrection of Jesus for Orthodox Easter this Sunday. 

“This is the most important feast in our Orthodox culture, the Resurrection,” Korostil said. It’s central to Ukrainian tradition, as well, from family gatherings to the well-known Ukrainian Easter eggs, elaborately painted and decorated for the holiday. And he said there’s even more reason to be thankful this year, as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has again survived Russian domination. 

A man stands in a church.
Alex Poletz helped set up a sister parish relationship between St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, and the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in Bucha, Ukraine -- where many civilians were killed in the Russian invasion.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

Poletz said the time difference will make it impractical for the faithful in Minneapolis and Bucha to celebrate together this Sunday, but he’s already been organizing relief efforts and passing along financial donations as Easter has approached. 

People stand next to boxes of donated medical supplies
Parishioners at St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church have been sending aid to a sister church in Bucha, Ukraine, for years, but have stepped up their help since the Russian invasion, including a shipment of badly needed prescription drugs. Bucha physician Dr. Oksana Djam and Father Andrij Halavin stand with one of the shipments from the U.S.
Submitted photo

He also called the priest and asked what Minnesotans could do. “He went out to talk to the people, and you know what they really wanted? Prescription drugs. The drugs people haven’t had, you know, for a while because of the Russian occupation.” 

The church recently posted a photo of the parish priest standing beside packages of medicines, sent from their brethren in Minneapolis.