When Russian forces advanced into Ukraine and began bombing its cities Feb. 24, more than 40 million Ukrainians suddenly found themselves at war against their will. Though Russian troops had been massing along the border for several months, the full-scale invasion was still a shock.
“There were many reports of a possible attack by Russia. But no one fully believed that this was really possible, such a mass attack,” said Ukraine State Deputy Yuriy Maletskiy.
Shock, however, soon gave way to action for Ukrainians, including the nearly 2,000 Knights of Columbus in more than 40 councils throughout the country. Those not engaged in territorial defense have been working to bring relief to besieged cities and aid the millions of people displaced by the war. Meanwhile their brothers in bordering Poland have been busy shipping food, medicine and other essential supplies, as well as welcoming refugees and helping to find them housing.
In this, they are supported by a network of spiritual and material support from Knights around the world.
“You do not face this trial alone. Your brother Knights are already rallying to your side. We will stand with you in prayer and in action,” Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly told Ukrainian members in a video message February 25.
The same day, the Order committed $1 million in immediate aid to Ukrainian relief and launched the Ukraine Solidarity Fund, an international fundraising campaign that would match all funds raised up to $500,000. More than tenfold that amount was raised by mid-March, bringing the total contributions to over $6.5 million, with 100% going to assist internally displaced persons and refugees.
The following pages provide a snapshot of the Order’s initial response to this ongoing humanitarian crisis, as well as a brief history of its presence and growth in Ukraine over the last decade.
To contribute to the Knights’ continuing work for those in need, visit kofc.org/ukraine
IN THE EARLY MORNING hours of March 1, a semi-truck filled with humanitarian aid made its way from Poland to Lviv, in western Ukraine. The supplies —including food, water, medicine, generators, sleeping bags, warm clothing and other necessities — were collected by K of C councils throughout Poland and brought to regional sites in Kraków, Radom and the eastern town of Tomaszów Lubelski. The items were then loaded onto a single 18-wheeler — the “Solidarity Shuttle” — in Tomaszów Lubelski and driven to Ukraine to aid displaced families and others affected by the war.
Knights in Ukraine received the delivery at the seminary of the Archdiocese of Lviv, where an “Anti-Crisis Committee” established by the archdiocese is coordinating relief efforts. Ukraine State Deputy Yuriy Maletskiy and State Secretary Petro Galuga serve on the committee and are leading K of C efforts to receive and distribute much-needed supplies — including many more shipments, large and small, sent by Knights in Poland.
Poland State Deputy Krzysztof Zuba was among the dozens of Knights who packaged supplies at the regional collection sites in late February, several days after the Russian invasion.
“As Knights, we want to be that bridge between those who can help and those who need it,” he said. “The attack on Ukraine has caused evil, but at the same time, in the many actions of those who have responded, great good has been revealed.”
The Knights’ networks in Poland and the Order’s Ukraine Solidarity Fund have made possible the delivery of other goods as well. The Semper Fidelis Foundation, an organization in southeast Poland that supports the Lviv archdiocese, filled two warehouses with essential supplies but had no way to get them to Ukraine. The Knights secured a series of large trucks to deliver the goods, with the first “charity convoy” arriving in Lviv in mid-March.
From there, local Knights have coordinated with the archdiocese and Caritas Ukraine to distribute goods to displaced people arriving from elsewhere in the country. Other supplies have been repacked for transport via truck and train to other cities.
As Russian attacks intensified in the east, the need for basic necessities grew — and so did the difficulty of delivering them.
“We have a lot of calls, appeals from the east, where they need food and medicine,” said State Deputy Maletskiy. “The roads leading to major cities in the east, such as Zaporizhia, Kyiv, Sumy, have been seized by Russian forces. But thanks to our cooperation with Caritas, we are finding ways to distribute that aid to different cities. Our Knights are working day and night to send humanitarian aid regularly, especially to those areas most under attack.”
State Secretary Galuga noted the anguish experienced by Ukrainians as their homeland is ravaged by war.
“Seeing disturbing news and photos 24 hours a day is psychologically exhausting,” he said. “But knowing that we are working for the good of others also provides some reassurance, even confidence, that our brothers and I will help our country survive.”
ON MARCH 17, Knights worldwide joined a nine-day campaign of prayer to conclude March 25, the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, coinciding with Pope Francis’ consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In a message urging participation in the novena, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly wrote, “Together, we’ll ask Our Lady to intercede on behalf of those directly impacted by the conflict, to give strength to our Ukrainian and Polish Knights working so hard to deliver relief, and to help bring peace and healing to the region.”
The novena — initiated by Catholics in Ukraine and first requested by the Latin-rite archbishop of Lviv, Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki — has been one of many prayer initiatives undertaken throughout the Order for peace in Ukraine.
Indeed, Knights in many places — including Ukraine and Poland — participated in prayer services and Masses for weeks prior to the Russian invasion. The Order’s birthplace, St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., was the site of one of a number of K of C-organized Holy Hours held Jan. 26, in response to the Holy Father’s initial call for a special day of prayer for peace.
Days after the invasion and another worldwide day of prayer on Ash Wednesday, Supreme Knight Kelly addressed a letter to grand knights Orderwide, underscoring the Knights’ two-part response to the humanitarian crisis — charitable support facilitated by the Ukraine Solidarity Fund, and prayer, especially Holy Hours and rosaries for those suffering.
“While the benefits of our prayers may not be as tangible as dollars spent on food or medicine,” the supreme knight wrote, “we trust that their effects are even more important.”
He also referred to a conversation with Archbishop Mokrzycki and Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who were among the first members of the Order in Ukraine.
“It was moving to hear the witness of both men, who are ministering tirelessly and courageously to a people facing unimaginable stress and turmoil,” the supreme knight wrote. “I promised that the Knights of Columbus would accompany them and their people both in prayer and material support.”
Several days later, on March 10, both archbishops and a delegation of Ukrainian Knights participated in a historic event — an ecumenical prayer service for peace at the Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lviv, led by Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, papal almoner and official representative of Pope Francis.
“From the very beginning of the war, and before the war, we knew that the situation was very dangerous, uncertain,” Archbishop Mokrzycki said in an interview following the prayer service. “We encouraged our Christian people to pray and participate in the sacraments, because we know that prayer has power. We know from history that prayer has defeated evil many times and has won wars.”
WHEN TENS OF THOUSANDS of Ukrainian refugees — mostly women and children — began arriving at the border crossing in Hrebenne, Poland, in late February, border agents needed help. Hrebenne, a village of just a few hundred people, had little to offer the cold, weary, disoriented travelers — many of them on foot — as they awaited the next stage of their journey.
The Knights of St. Wojciech Patron of Poland Council 15267 in Tomaszów Lubelski, about 14 miles away from Hrebenne, immediately went to work. Beginning March 1, the council set up a series of heated tents, initially dubbed “mercy huts,” where they welcomed refugees, serving hot drinks and food. Neighboring councils began to contribute as well, with Knights and their families volunteering and bringing donations. Soon the Knights of Columbus tents were stocked with clothes, toys, diapers, formula and strollers for the many children among the refugees.
“We help women who cross the border with their children [to] escape the horrors of war,” explained Marcin Wojciechowski, grand knight of Council 15267. “We try, at least, to give them temporary warmth when they come and wait the dozen or so hours for check-in.”
Tatiana Alexandrovna, who arrived in Hrebenne March 10 with several of her grandchildren, was among the many who have fled from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the second-most populous city in the country. She and the children had spent two weeks in the basement of an apartment building — with no light, no toilets and little food or water — while Russian bombs fell on their residential neighborhood.
“The first thing I want to do is to sleep with my grandchildren — not listening for every explosion,” Alexandrovna said after crossing the border. “We lived in such horror, I can’t tell you. I am so grateful to the people who helped us escape and to the Polish people who have received us.”
Knights also arranged a dedicated space for health care workers to tend to refugees, and on March 15, a much larger Knights of Columbus Mercy Center was constructed at the Hrebenne site with support from the Poland State Council and the Supreme Council’s Ukraine Solidarity Fund. Priests and religious sisters have helped to staff the expanded mercy center, which includes a space for prayer.
A second Knights of Columbus Mercy Center opened near Budomierz, a border town further south, in mid-March, with the assistance of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Council 16380 in nearby Lubaczów and other Knights.
As refugees continue to flood Poland, the mercy centers have brought the Knights’ founding mission into sharp focus.
“Blessed Michael McGivney founded the Knights to serve the widow and the orphan — and here we are doing exactly that,” said Dominican Father Jonathan Kalisch, director of chaplains and spiritual development for the Knights of Columbus, who was among those serving at the border in early March. “We receive them here in this place of refuge, a place for them to gather their thoughts and to prepare and seek the strength they need to continue further.”
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