On Sundays, the Saint-Germain-des-Pres quarter of Paris – known for its artistic cafes, expensive boutiques and numerous bookstores – is filled with people in embroidered shirts who speak Ukrainian.
Since 1943, the Ukrainian Catholic community has prayed at the Cathedral of St Volodymyr the Great on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Through the years, the parish has become the centre of Ukrainian cultural and social life in Paris.
“We don’t have a feeling that we are in Paris as we are walking down the Boulevard Saint-Germain on Sunday or other feasts; it’s like in our city of Ivano-Frankivsk,” said Zoriana Dolishniak. She, her husband, Andriy, and two children came to Paris from Western Ukraine six years ago. In Ukraine, Andriy Dolishniak had his own little business, but it did not go well, and they decided to start over in France. He works as an electrician in a construction firm; Zoriana Dolishniak cleans private houses. Their children go to school – ordinary French school and Saturday Ukrainian school.
The Dolishniaks do not have legal status in France; they are waiting for documents. Their story is typical for the Paris Ukrainian parish, where new immigrants are the majority.
“Eighty percent of our faithful are undocumented,” said Bishop Borys Gudziak, who serves the Ukrainian Catholics in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg. He said the Paris parish has been totally transformed by an influx of immigrants who are fleeing social and economic dislocation and, more recently, war.
“We have before us the example of the apostles and the first generation of Christians,” the bishop said. “What chance did St Peter have in Rome where he didn’t know the language, he was an undocumented immigrant with no citizen rights, while living in the city of marble, senators, warriors and chariots? What chance do the Greek (Byzantine) Catholics have in Paris with the population of 10 million? We ask ourselves with a smile and in confidence in God’s guidance.”
Fr Mykhailo Romaniuk knows well about the parish transformation. Eighteen years ago as a young priest, he was appointed to Paris, where most of the congregation was an aging post-war diaspora. His appointment coincided with the start of mass immigration of Ukrainians to Western Europe, and he was one of the first to welcome them in Paris.
“When the inflow started, doors of the cathedral never closed. People needed support and information. Sometimes people who arrived had no place to sleep, and they slept in a tiny parish hall,” recalled Fr Romaniuk. He said they were difficult years, yet the openness of the church for the people in need helped build up the community. “We now have many people because we were there for them.”
On Sundays, about 600 attend liturgies, but the parish can see up to 3,500 on Easter, the priest said. It has more than 80 baptisms annually.
Bishop Gudziak said the parish raises the spirit of people. “They come to church to be together with God and with each other. In the city they work hard, often in demeaning circumstances, they live very modestly in tenement dwellings. But in church the glory of the Lord and the fellowship of the community is theirs.”
One reason people are attracted to the parish is the school, established in the 1950s. Today it has more than 200 students.
“The Ukrainian school at the parish is a great advantage,” said Andriy Dolishniak, who is convinced that it is very important for the children to grow learning Christian values. School offers lessons on Ukrainian language, literature, history and catechism. Dolishniak said that while accompanying his daughter Solomiya to her catechism classes, he was able to deepen his own faith.
The working immigrants are modern-days nomads; some of them stay for a couple of years, some move to other cities and countries. Father Romaniuk said he considers his parish a missionary parish.
“It’s hard to implement long-term programmes, but we would like to give as much as we can to the parishioners,” he said.
One of the programmes the parish implements is the global Ukrainian Catholic Church strategy, “The Vibrant Parish – a place to encounter the living Christ.”
“For our eparchy, Paris is a model parish which develops programmes and conducts experiments that then radiate throughout the other 29 communities that we have so far,” said Bishop Gudziak.
One of the tasks is to foster lay involvement and initiative in administration, in ministry and in outreach. Lawyer Stephane Dunikowski is actively engaged in parish and eparchy life, which she said makes her feel needed. She said she tries “to help with my efforts, my energy, my time and also financially.”
Bishop Gudziak said parishioners organised collections for sick children in Ukraine whose parents do not have money for treatment. He said parishioners have been generous towards those who are suffering in Ukraine because of war and the Russian invasion.
Some French Catholics have discovered Byzantine spirituality in the parish, even though they do not always understand national tradition and even the language; cathedral liturgies are celebrated in Ukrainian.
“I feel at home in this community,” said a woman who asked only to be identified as Natalie, who visits the cathedral almost every day. “I don’t understand a word during the service, but I get a lot.”
Picture: Ukrainian Catholic Fr Mykhailo Romaniuk speaks to families outside St Volodymyr the Great Cathedral in Paris at the beginning of a new Ukrainian school year. Many children attend French schools during the week and Ukrainian school on Saturdays.