Diocese of Knoxville responds to Ukraine war effort

Parishioners step up with generous donations to diocesan second collections

By Jim Wogan

Through a special collection that could be classified as historic for the Diocese of Knoxville, Bishop Richard F. Stika and Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have separately wired more than $343,000 to agencies assisting victims of the devastating war in Ukraine.

Funds raised by the cathedral parish have directly benefited war refugees fleeing to Poland and purchased two ambulances used to transport civilian and military casualties. Funds raised by other parishes in the diocese have been sent to the relief effort spearheaded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

“The generosity of our parishioners has been overwhelming during this collection, and our people continue to reflect the teachings of Jesus. I am very, very grateful,” Bishop Stika said. “Our parishes always respond with compassion and charity when urgent needs arise, especially ones that come as the result of natural or manmade disasters. This effort seems to have surpassed all others.”

War broke out on Feb. 24 when the Russian military apparatus rolled into Ukraine, the latest in a series of unilateral actions dating back to 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. In the early stages of this war, millions of Ukrainians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, fled their homes seeking safety in other countries, with most of them going to neighboring Poland, a nation that has courageously welcomed more than 4 million refugees.

As a result, the pilgrim house at the St. John Paul II Shrine in Kraków, Poland, originally built to accommodate around 20 guests, was quickly converted into a refugee shelter, and took in hundreds of people. Father Tomasz Szopa is the director of the St. John Paul II Shrine and is also a friend of Father Martin Gladysz, associate pastor of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville.

“As soon as the war began, Father Martin and I were in the rectory talking about what could we do, and so I requested from Bishop Stika permission to do a second collection on Ash Wednesday for Ukrainian refugee relief,” Father Boettner said.

In the first days of the collection, the cathedral parish raised $15,000, a substantial amount for an effort that had little advanced publicity. Over the next two weeks, that amount grew to around $70,000. The parish community so far has raised almost $100,000. Their collection was bolstered when members of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, located across Northshore Drive from the cathedral, contributed an additional $12,000.

“I am always humbled by the faith and generosity of our parishioners, and this was one of those times when I was kind of in awe,” Father Boettner said. “Father Martin was just flabbergasted that people heard the need and responded so strongly. I think it buoyed the spirits of everybody who was depressed by the invasion, but they realized, ‘Hey, I am not powerless. I can do something.’”

The assistance Father Szopa’s refugee center received wasn’t just a charitable gesture from an unknown diocese halfway around the world. Father Szopa is familiar with East Tennessee. He visited Knoxville in 2018 for the dedication of the new cathedral.

“I met him previously and knew him,” Father Boettner said. “Father Martin got his phone number so we could talk, and we were able to communicate back and forth via e-mail as well. When he told us what they were doing…we just wanted to be a part of that.”

In late March, the cathedral parish received a letter of gratitude from Father Szopa.

“Thank you for the donation of $70,000 to help the Ukrainian refugees,” Father Szopa said. “Thank you for your wide-open hearts. We will use the money for their purposes. This is a substantial support for the needs of the war refugees from Ukraine that we are hosting in our pilgrim house.”

In addition to supporting refugees in Poland, $37,000 of the cathedral funds have been used to purchase two ambulances aiding war victims. Father Gladysz, who was ordained in Czestochowa, contacted his nephew, a Redemptorist seminarian in Poland, and learned about the need for the vehicles.

“We sent funds for ambulances to Father Maciej Zieniec, CCsR, of the Redemptorist Fathers congregation,” Father Gladysz said. “At the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, he arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border and helped refugees arriving from Ukraine. Father Zieniec collaborates with Caritas Polska, a charity organization of the Polish episcopate. He continues to provide aid to Ukraine, and several times during this war he was in Ukraine, transporting medical aid.”

Father Boettner said that any unused or additional funds will be allocated according to the needs of war victims. The war is moving into its sixth month.

Inspired by the efforts of the cathedral family, Bishop Stika asked parishes across the diocese to hold a special collection March 19-20. That collection raised $231,194. Those funds have been wired to the USCCB Subcommittee on the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

Caritas Ukraine is one of many relief agencies the USCCB supports around the world. A Caritas official told Catholic News Service that the organization delivered about $1.5 million in relief supplies and services — donated by Catholics in multiple nations — by mid-May. When the war began, Caritas Ukraine had more than 35 offices across Ukraine, working in partnership with more than 3,000 parishes. It has steadily added more service centers throughout the conflict.

As a member of the USCCB subcommittee, Bishop Stika has kept an especially keen eye on the situation in Ukraine.

“In April, I was invited to participate in a video conference call with the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk,” Bishop Stika said. “As he described the physical and emotional terror that Catholics and all citizens of Ukraine were facing, I sensed something else. I could see the resolve the major archbishop had to protect the Church and all the innocent victims of the war.”

The Diocese of Knoxville often responds to local and regional crises with special collections, sometimes called second collections. The efforts to assist victims of the war in Ukraine seem to have surpassed all other efforts.

In 2017, parishes in the diocese raised $151,000 for the victims of wildfires that swept through Gatlinburg. The total contribution exceeded $200,000, which also included funds from the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation.

In late 2021, parishes raised more than $65,000 for victims of an earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 2,200 people, including a Catholic priest. Last year, after tornadoes ripped through western Kentucky, killing nearly 60 people and destroying property, the Diocese of Knoxville raised almost $70,000, which was sent to the Diocese of Owensboro to assist relief efforts there.

“Our response to special collections really defines who we are as Christians, and it is clearly rooted in Scripture,” Bishop Stika noted. “St. Paul speaks about this extensively, especially in his letters to the Corinthians.

“We schedule special collections throughout the year for specific purposes like seminarian education and school tuition support. But when something unexpected like a natural disaster occurs and our parishioners respond on short notice and with generosity like they have this time, it means so much. We are living our faith in word and deed, just as Jesus asks us to.”

Unlike an earthquake or tornado, what happened in Ukraine was manmade and Bishop Stika noted the difference.

“When human beings inflict pain on each other, and in this case great pain and death, it is clearly an evil act,” Bishop Stika said. “What we have been able to do, we hope and believe, is bring goodness to the lives of those who have been hurt by supporting them when they most need it.”

Shortly after the war began, Bishop Stika heeded the call of Pope Francis to consecrate and entrust Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The bishop also has been in touch with members of the Catholic clergy in the war-torn region.

The war in Ukraine has prompted Church leaders, from the Holy Father to Ukrainian and Polish parish priests along their border, to try to find solutions to the human rights crisis.

Prevented by war from meeting in Kyiv, 40 Ukrainian Catholic bishops from around the world met in Poland, less than 10 miles from the border with their homeland, in July.

The meeting of the Synod of Bishops of the Eastern-rite Church had been delayed two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the war in their homeland, the heightened need for ministry to their people, and the pastoral and psychological care of Ukrainians forced from their homes made the synod July 7-15 even more essential.

“We, as the Church, have found ourselves on the front line of the information war. That is why it is essential for us to experience this synod, to feel the fraternal unity of our global Church, which unites all Ukrainians around the world in Ukraine and in the diaspora,” said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, at the synod’s opening Divine Liturgy July 7 in the Ukrainian Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Przemysl.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church at home and abroad, he said, has become “a powerful voice” for sharing with the world “who Ukrainians are, what they fight for, what they live and die for.”

Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, Vatican nuncio to Poland, spoke before the Divine Liturgy, conveying the greetings of Pope Francis, who entrusted the bishops and their deliberations to the care of Blessed Mykola Charnetsky and the two dozen bishops, priests, nuns, and laypeople beatified with him in 2001 as martyrs of Soviet persecution.


[Featured photo: Bishop Marek Solarczyk of Radom, Poland, blesses care packages assembled by the Knights of Columbus at Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Radom on April 10. A total of 10,000 packages were assembled by Polish Knights and were delivered to internally displaced families in Ukraine. Each package includes meat, flour, pasta, chocolate, an Easter candle, and other items.]

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