Ukraine: A tiny church that became a soup kitchen
By Svitlana Dukhovych & Edoardo Giribaldi
"If the Lord wants it, it means He has His plans."
When Fr. Oleksandr Bilskyi began his service for Greek Catholics in the small town of Beryslav, situated in the Kherson region, southern Ukraine, his community was composed of only two families.
This did not faze the young priest, and now, after more than a year of large-scale warfare, he understands that "indeed, the Lord had a plan."
Daily hot meals
Beryslav, located on the right bank of the Dnipro River, was occupied by Russian troops during the early stages of the invasion of Ukraine and was liberated by the Ukrainian army the following November during the counteroffensive that led to the liberation of Kherson.
Since the start of the conflict, Beryslav's population dropped from the initial twelve thousand to four thousand inhabitants.
The newly built little church and the small local Greek Catholic community became a crucial hotspot for the needy, offering daily hot meals as the Russian occupation had cut off the food supply from the large nearby towns.
"We simply trusted in God's hands"
Speaking with Vatican News reporter Svitlana Dukhovych, Fr. Oleksandr presented the "Five Loaves and Three Fishes" soup kitchen.
"When we started this project, we had about the same amount of resources," the priest explained, referring to the Gospel account, "our parish is small: it has only about 30 people. But we simply trusted in God's hands and, in fact, the Lord blessed those 'five loaves and two fish' of ours and, with the help of benefactors, we started feeding people."
Before the war, the parish offered lunch to about 30 people every Sunday in the courtyard of their small church dedicated to the Seven Maccabean Brothers, which was scheduled to be consecrated on August 14, 2022. The war canceled and changed all plans.
The Russian invasion
Fr. Oleksandr recounted how he left for Beryslav as soon as he heard about the start of the conflict on February 24, 2022, "but I could not get there because the Ukrainian military would not let me through, saying it was very dangerous: Russian troops had already entered the town."
After multiple attempts to get into the town, he "gave up, thinking that probably the Lord was protecting me from something, or preparing me for something else."
Fr. Oleksandr temporarily settled in the Mykolaiv region but remained close to his parishioners, directing the daily hot meal distribution inside the church.
As the parish volunteers in Beryslav distributed meals in the church, with some of them bringing lunch to the houses of those who couldn't move, Fr. Oleksandr took care of getting them groceries.
He would ask for money from different organizations, buy foodstuffs, and in the first few months, he was able to send them to Beryslav with the minibusses that went back and forth evacuating people from those areas, and then, when transit was blocked, he found another way: his parishioners would ask farmers from nearby villages to sell them vegetables and meat, and Fr. Oleksandr would pay them through e-banking.
The young priest recalled with emotion the announcement of Beryslav's liberation, dated November 11. Two days later, he was already among his parishioners.
Fr. Oleksandr is also active in the neighboring villages. Last winter, through the support of benefactors, he bought two thousand warm blankets and distributed them to the elderly, the sick, and families with small children.
"We are a big family"
As the conflict made Ukrainian rethink the meaning of so many things in life, Fr. Oleksandr understood his vocation more clearly: "I try to be like a father ready to listen, console, help, because we are a big family where everyone knows each other's needs and where we often understand each other even without words."
The benevolent atmosphere among the people helps them endure a state of continuous danger and threat, as from the Greek Catholic parish on the right side of the Dnipro bank, people can see the other bank, occupied by the Russians: about 5 km of the river water divides them.
"The heroes of our time"
"People really get to know each other in times of difficulties," the young priest affirmed, speaking about his parishioners.
Fr. Oleksandr highlighted their determination, pushing them to try to finish cooking even among the sound of bombing, saying: "If we don't feed them, who will?"
Every day, lunch is served to 110-120 people, with other 50 meals distributed to people who are not self-sufficient. "One of our volunteers, a retiree, has installed a box on his bicycle and manages to deliver up to thirty lunches a day."
The fatigue might sometimes be overwhelming; however, Fr. Oleksandr concluded, "When I come to Beryslav, I look at these people, and the Lord gives me strength. I see how they sacrifice for their neighbors, and that can't help but inspire."