Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski of the Ukrainian Catholics in Great Britain talks to New Directions about the impact of the Russian invasion and its consequences
The Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile is just off Oxford Street and about 100 yards from the front door of Selfridges the department store. It’s also a prime piece of real estate in one of London’s most expensive postcodes. The church was designed by Alfred Waterhouse originally as a Congregationalist chapel and includes two neighbouring properties. Home to a wide network of Byzantine Rite Ukrainian Christians, around 2,500 faithful attend divine worship here each weekend. More than 200 baptisms last year point to a vibrant and committed gathered community
In recent weeks this discreet, hushed building has hosted a number of high-profile visitors. Prime Minister Boris Johnson rushed here soon after the invasion of Ukraine. The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall followed a few days later to express sympathy and solidarity. The Bishop of Fulham, Jonathan Baker, also comes in ecumenical fraternity, lighting a candle in front of the penumbral iconostasis, its holy watchers keeping a dignified vigil, and being invited into the sanctuary to sign the altar’s ornately covered book which bears the signatures of visiting bishops.
Bishop Nowakowski was appointed to lead the Ukrainian Holy Family Eparchy in London in January 2020, just before the Covid pandemic hit. A Canadian national, he describes himself as ‘a proud Brit’ and has clearly settled in the UK. He explains his family emigrated from Ukraine to Canada in 1890, their name being given a Polish transliteration upon arrival by immigration officials. He was ordained to the priesthood in Saskatoon, Canada, in 1989, where he has ministered as well as in Italy and Ukraine itself for ten years. He maintains an obvious affection for the city of Lviv which is being shelled by Russian military as we speak. Noting how the Evensong bells of St Paul’s Cathedral tolled in solidarity at the beginning of the conflict, he explains how touched the Mayor of Lviv was by this and has had churches across the city tolling at 6pm each day. The next Sunday (Lent 3), he says, they will do so in union as Durham Cathedral and St Paul’s make the gesture once again.
‘The day we hoped would never come’ is how he describes the fateful attempt by Russia on 24 February, 2022, to annex Ukraine. It is the greatest assault on a sovereign European state since World War II and a festering threat since the Russo-Ukrainian conflict of 2014. Reuters estimates nearly 3.5m refugees have fled the country already in the first three weeks alone, a number that will surely increase. This also has serious ongoing implications. ‘Whole cities are being pulverized,’ Bishop Kenneth says. ‘These refugees are the classic UNHR definition. Until weeks ago they were middle-class people with jobs in IT, retail, the service industry. Now they have no work and nothing to go back to. Their homes and livelihoods have been destroyed.’ He welcomes the latest British initiative to bring in refugees. ‘Over 150,000 people signed up and offered to open their homes on the first day of the scheme going live.’ He also acknowledges this is only the first step. More will be needed.
A brief tour of the building at the start of the visit set out how the cathedral is responding itself in a practical and mission-minded way. A Visitor Centre with its own entrance is being created which will help to receive people and provide immediate support. In addition, a call centre has been established, mainly through a number of donations and sponsorships. ‘The phone has been ringing off the hook,’ Nowakowski illustrates. ‘As many minutes in the hour there are is how many calls we have been getting. So many people have been offering help, which is wonderful, and soon there will be arrivals who need help and support. This is intended to give the information they need.’ There is nothing exclusive about it; the service is not intended solely for participating Ukrainian Catholics or even Ukrainians but for anyone who wants to get involved. He sees it as a ‘partnership organisation’ to engage the greater community. It is already galvanising its links with the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain and the Ukrainian Women’s Association. They also work well with the four Ukrainian Orthodox parishes here which all look to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, not Moscow, but are without a resident bishop, meaning Nowakowski is the main episcopal representative for the diaspora. (The meeting is particularly appropriate considering Bishop Jonathan Baker is the Church of England’s lead bishop for relations with the Orthodox.)
Bishop Nowakowski estimates around 70,000 people in Britain have Ukrainian ancestry and most of them have arrived here since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 90% of them have family back in Ukraine and he knows from his own congregation they are in hourly contact with them, be it at home or wherever they have fled to. Moldova has already seen a population surge of about 10% and Polish borders have been constantly open to a torrent of refugees. Anxiety levels are understandably high. ‘The order of the world has changed with this invasion, I think. International rules of engagement in place since 1945 have been totally thrown out,’ he observes. ‘Who could believe we would be seeing the bombing of maternity units and the great lie that this an operation to clean out a fascist regime? The only two countries in the world with a Jewish president are Israel and Ukraine!’
He has a clear assessment of the geopolitics. ‘For Putin, the threat of his people looking over the fence and asking why they can’t have democratic elections is the thing. President Zelensky was elected in a free and very transparent election with 80% of the popular vote. The idea that these are thugs-in-government and fascists who persecute Russian speakers is a lie. But if you’re going to tell a lie then tell it large, I guess.’ He has a breezy transatlantic turn of phrase. Pope Francis has avoided mentioning Russia by name but calls it ‘a senseless massacre where every day slaughters and atrocities are being repeated. There is no justification for this.’
The bombing is truly tragic, laments Nowakowski. ‘The pulverisation of these cities and the millions of refugees, not including the internally displaced, is a major disaster They had everything and now they leave with nothing.’ Ukrainians, however, are resilient. ‘The Russians must have thought they would be welcomed with flowers but that’s not the case,’ he says. ‘Look at them turning out to fight – opera singers, teachers, ordinary people – all defending their home. You can’t the kill the Ukrainian in the Ukrainian.’ In a nod to his own background, he underlines how he is a fourth-generation Ukrainian himself with much international exposure, but assimilation has never meant losing what it means to be Ukrainian.
He also recounts a number of personal examples. A few priests are now trapped here having coming to visit their families between Christmas and Lent but unable to return. Two have their wives and children stranded in Europe; one family is in the Czech Republic with another in Poland. ‘It’s challenging for us and for them,’ he remarks with understatement.
For now, the churches remain open in Ukraine with the bishops and clergy staying in post. At the outbreak of the war, Ukraine had eight Catholic seminaries with 750 men studying, including one from Coventry who had been sent there by Bishop Kenneth. Except he came back to the UK for his Christmas break and has not been able to return since because of the travel warning in place. He is now living in the clergy residence at Duke Street, studying remotely via online sessions, and participating fully in the liturgical life of the cathedral.
June marks the 75th anniversary of establishment of a formal ecclesiastical structure for Ukrainian Catholics in the United Kingdom. They are currently 26 parishes and mission centres served by 11 priests. The average age of their congregations is 38 or 39, and church has become a natural place for them to gather in mutual comfort. ‘We come together each weekend to embrace each other, hug, give information,’ Bishop Kenneth concludes, adding with sadness how they are seeing people dying through the conflict – ‘civilians and members of the armed forces alike, so we keep having these memorial services which is obviously very hard on everyone. The community is devastated, but people come in and pray, they show solidarity, and we believe in peace.’
He thanks us warmly for the visit and offers Bishop Jonathan a liturgical book as a gift, then moves off with efficiency to greet a Jewish delegation. He has an extraordinary role at an extraordinary time – parish priest, international chaplain, diplomat, pastor, bishop. Thank God he is an extraordinary man too.