Ukrainians in Calgary celebrate Orthodox Easter with newly arrived refugees

A large group spills onto the lawn of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church just northeast of downtown Calgary, to have their baskets full of pysanky (traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs), paskas (Ukrainian Easter bread), sausage, horseradish and more be blessed by the parish priest. 

The early morning blessing of the baskets on Ukrainian Orthodox Easter, which in alignment with the Julian calendar falls on April 24 this year, has a celebratory feel to it — but the stress and anxiety of the war raging in Ukraine looms in the background.

Between the greetings of “Khrystos voskres!” (“Christ is risen!”) and smiles, there is also conversation about the latest reports from the Ukrainian military that Russian forces have continued to press their attacks in the east on Easter Sunday.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said parishioner Shauna May.

Parishioners at St. Valdimir’s Orthodox Church gather outside to have their Easter baskets blessed. (Helen Pike/CBC)

May is part of a committee gathering goods at the church to support newly arrived Ukrainians in Calgary.

“They know they can’t go back home, which is terrible. So we need to be able to provide a safe haven.”

The church on this Orthodox Easter Sunday has more people in attendance than past years, including a number of Ukrainian refugees.

“Everybody’s come together,” said parishioner Jessica Irwin.

“The church has really gotten a lot busier, because of the Ukraine conflict … people are showing their support.”

First Canadian Easter

It’s Olena Shovkun’s first time celebrating Easter in Canada. She arrived here three weeks ago with her two kids, after being forced to flee her home in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv because of the war that is raging there.

“Everybody’s very friendly here. We’re safe and we’re grateful for everyone who helps us, who supports us. We’re really grateful for our Canadian friends and relatives,” said Shovkun, who is staying with family in Calgary.

Celebrating the religious holiday is bittersweet though, because her husband, mom and other relatives are still in Ukraine.

This is Olena Shovkun and her daughter Mariia’s first time celebrating Easter in Canada. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Under martial law, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 cannot leave the country in case they are called to fight.

“The only thing I wish is that the war is close to end,” she said.

It’s a sentiment many others shared on Sunday.

‘We’re all family’

Father Patrick Yamniuk, who led the Easter service at the church, said the Easter theme of light overcoming darkness “resonates deeply with everyone,” during this time in Ukraine.

The priest said he tried to bring smiles to everyone’s faces, especially the newly arrived Ukrainians, by joking around while blessing the baskets with holy water.

Father Patrick Yamniuk blesses people standing outside during the basket blessing on Orthodox Easter Sunday. (Helen Pike/CBC)

“That’s what I wanted … it’s the smile.”

The UN says more than five million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24.

A committee of volunteers at St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been helping Ukrainian families arriving in Calgary by collecting household items, creating care packages and connecting them with support agencies.

“[It’s so] they feel a lot more that they’re not alone coming into a strange country, speaking a strange language, you know, that they feel welcome,” said Yamniuk.

“That they’re not forgotten, that we’re all family. We’re all a church family.”

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