In Ukraine We Trust: Assumption Ukrainian Catholic ChurchAug 29, 2022 04:21PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made headlines, Assumption Ukrainian Catholic Church in Omaha served its small, tight-knit community with little fanfare.
That’s changed as sympathizers and media give attention to this tiny, but mighty, parish at 16th and Martha Streets. Since the start of hostilities, Assumption has welcomed visitors from near and far wishing to show solidarity with the Ukrainian community. Banners, notes, and other expressions of support now decorate the building and grounds.
“That outpouring has been really great,” said lifelong parishioner Orest Lechnowsky.
“People opening up their hearts and willing to support total strangers is wonderful,” David Woloszyn said. “I give many tours of this church. It’s an honor to show people our heritage, our tradition.”
Ukrainian emigrés settled in South Omaha beginning in 1949. Packing house jobs employed many, their lives centered around work, family, and church.
“It’s hard to think what the Ukrainian community would have been without the church because this was the central organizing thing that kept people together,” said Dr. Alex Stolarsky, who endured the war with his parents before his family came to America. “It’s where you turned to for resources. The church is the thing that kept the Ukrainian language, customs together. Without the church we would have scattered.”
“Church,” Ukraine native Yula Schamel said, “is embedded in our DNA. There is a Ukrainian saying: ‘You can kill my body, but you cannot kill my spirit.’”
Assumption was founded in 1951 by 55 immigrant Ukrainian families, and among those original parishioners was Lechnowsky’s father.
“The people that founded this church had just been through a traumatic experience in Europe. Most had been forced from their homes to work as slave laborers in Germany. After the war they lived in displaced persons camps. The ones who came here were the survivors,” he explained.
“These immigrants said, ‘if nothing else, we will preserve a piece of Ukraine here in the United States.’ My parents’ generation raised us with the thought that someday there would be a free Ukraine. They wanted us to be prepared for that, so they taught us the Ukrainian language and culture.”
Like Lechnowsky, Woloszyn acknowledges that younger generations “stand on the shoulders of giants.” The faithful endured ruthless suppression and persecution, some even becoming martyrs.
Those original stalwarts of the faith initially met for services at the old St. Joseph Hospital chapel. In 1953, the congregation raised enough money to purchase its current building, a former Greek Orthodox Church. Renovations and additions followed and the first Mass was held there in 1954.
Fraternal organizations were birthed there and classes for children flourished. Lechnowsky can’t imagine life without the church.
“For me, it’s the community, it’s a part of who I am,” he said. “It’s a grounding in tradition, also a link to the culture. It’s a lot of different things. I would be a different person [without it], no doubt about it.”
Woloszyn finds church to be the source of his own personal salvation and transformation.
“What it brings for me is life,” said Woloszyn, who got caught up in the snare of gangs, drugs, and guns as a young man. “God brought me back to life and it started here at this church—volunteering, cutting the grass, cleaning the gutters, shoveling the snow. From there it grew into doing the work of the church, teaching children catechism and studying to be a deacon.”
Other than the domed golden cupola associated with orthodox churches, little on the outside suggests Assumption’s Byzantine rite tradition. Inside, the sanctuary is replete with icons. Though most Roman Catholics are unfamiliar with its rite, a small contingent do worship there—drawn by a traditional liturgy largely untouched by Vatican II.
“The whole liturgy is call-and-response. It’s all sung by the priest and the congregation,” Lechnowsky said. “With the congregation’s and choir’s harmonic overtones echoing in the church, it’s almost like the angels are singing along with you. It’s just an incredible experience.”
“It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous,” said Woloszyn.
Assumption’s faithful are bound by two wars decades apart. Some of Schamel’s friends in her homeland stayed to fight. Some died. She can’t imagine anything, even herself, being the same.
“Going through a shared experience, especially a traumatic experience, brings people together in a way that makes a lifelong bond,” Lechnowsky said. “The crisis makes you realize what you have as a community and what it is we’re trying to preserve and work towards. The link between the diaspora community here in the U.S. and Ukraine has never been stronger. That link which was broken for a long time is restored. There’s constant back and forth about what’s needed there and how we can provide it.”
The church is now a hub of activism. Proceeds from fundraisers support the defense of an independent Ukraine. The seemingly innocuous purchase of cabbage rolls and pierogi may ultimately arm military drones and supply battlefield vests.
Lechnowsky is joined by his two sons at street rallies in their traditional brocaded shirts, vigorously waving the Ukrainian flag. Ukrainian nationalism—whether in the sanctuary, the streets, or on social media—he said, “expresses what it means to be Ukrainian.” The prayers and petitions for victory and peace, he adds, lift up “the value of freedom being so important that we’re willing to put our lives on the line.”
The public is invited to attend Mass Sundays at 9:30 a.m. and to engage with its passionate community during the social hour that follows.
Visit @omachurchua on facebook for more information.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.