Stories of Joy - No. 5 - Father Wasyl Preyma and the church in Lourdes

In Ukraine - France – Canada - USA

World War II was over, the Blessed Mother had spared his life, and now the ex-soldier Wasyl was on his way from Ukraine to the seminary in Holland, and happy to fulfill his promise to Mary to become a priest of her son, Jesus. Furthermore, he would one day build a church in Her honour. Many priests refugees from Ukraine had emigrated to North America; he would have a choice because his brother lived in Chicago and his sister in Toronto. He could not at that time guess that Mary also held a choice for him. As the newly-ordained Father Wasyl Preyma approached Bishop Ivan Buchko for a blessing, he was taken aback by the words he heard: “And who will care for Ukrainian refugees in France?” Once again he felt Mary’s steadying hand; shedding his plans of emigrating, he heard himself replying: “Yes, I will.”

So he travelled to Paris, and then on to Toulouse where the Franciscan Fathers gave him a room in the monastery. Yes, they had heard about the sorry plight of post-war Ukraine and, yes, they did know a few families who were Ukrainian. He found them in small groups around Toulouse and slightly further, and celebrated the Liturgy and the Sacraments in their homes, or, when the groups were larger, the Roman Catholic priests were glad to accommodate them in their churches. Father Wasyl was happy in the company of the friendly Franciscans, and shared many of his missionary stories with them. Again Mary was beckoning to him to listen carefully to her next plan for him.

One Sunday after the Liturgy, at a house of a Ukrainian refugee, he was asked: “Father, did you ever go to Lourdes?” Of course not … but he felt a great longing in his heart, when they told him about the apparitions of Mary, and how people were flocking to this place and receiving extraordinary graces. So he went and when he witnessed the huge crowds of pilgrims at the grotto, his love for Mary grew even stronger. When he saw daily processions of the healthy and of the sick on stretchers and wheel chairs, assisted by volunteers, and being individually blessed with the Holy Eucharist, he was deeply touched. He joined the evening rosary procession, but was saddened not to hear the Hail Mary prayed in Ukrainian when many other languages were privileged. Suddenly he realized that he had just prayed it in his heart, and even more, he had said, quite audibly: “This is the place where I will build the church to honour Mary.”

At this awesome moment in the history of what would evolve, the first Ukrainian had just recently settled in the vicinity, opening a hotel in nearby Poueyferre, so it was small wonder when his superior, Bishop V. Malanchuk, said “No” to Father Wasyl’s proposal of building a church in Lourdes. They were both, literally, penniless, as were all their people, wherever they were in France. “The Blessed Mother will help us,” the priest replied silently to himself. He would write, in poetry and prose, appeals for funds to Ukrainians in North America, who he heard were generous when asked for a good cause. Was there ever a better one?

After visiting Chicago and Toronto in 1976, he returned with a surprise for his bishop, for in the short time there he had collected enough funds to confidently begin the project. Now the bishop’s answer was a hearty “Yes!” They would need a general manager to help the poet-priest. Father Paul Kohut, of the Mackwiller mission, a great devotee of Mary, was asked. The site for the new church was carefully chosen, in close proximity to the grotto of the apparitions. An architect from USA donated his services. Cheques and pledges of support continued to come in, and the beautiful Ukrainian Church of the Dormition of the Blessed Mother of God was built, and in time, duly adorned with Icons and an Iconostas. There is no Marian Icon anywhere in the world that matches the Icon here on the altar wall – the Icon of the Sorrowful Mother of God, weeping big tears for her people in Ukraine. Everyone who comes here to pray is moved to cry with Mary our Mother.

The church was officially blessed by the Major Archbishop Cardinal Myroslav Lubachiwsky in 1982, on August 28, its patronal feast, with the participation of a huge international pilgrimage from the Ukrainian diaspora. The Mother Church in the ancestral land was still underground. There were enough funds to also purchase and renovate a house to accommodate the priest who would serve here and the already present hostesses of the pilgrims – the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate. The Sisters had, a few years earlier, spent some time at Poueyferre; however, it was Sister Isidore’s arrival, in 1979, that signalled their permanent presence in Lourdes. The new bishop of France, Michael Hrynchyshyn, told the Mother General it was fitting that Servants of Mary Immaculate should be missioned here, where Mary herself had wished to be called the “Immaculate Conception.” Many Sisters from various provinces were privileged to serve here for shorter periods of time; Sister Isidore, a Canadian, stayed on forever, literally until her death in Lourdes, in 1997. On April 7th, the Marian Feast of the Annunciation and the memorial day of Sister Josaphata’s holy death, Sister Isidore felt ill. After the Divine Liturgy in our church, the family doctor sent her to a specialist, who confirmed her weakened state of health. On the way back home, she enjoyed a cup of coffee at a friendly café. Later in the day, she reminisced about the joys that were hers in Lourdes. There had not been a single day without a visit to the grotto where she told us she prayed a daily rosary for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Many pilgrims saw this frail, gentle woman, kneeling on the concrete step before Mary in the grotto, her rosary moving rhythmically through her fingers.

There was the last time, but not before Mary Immaculate provided a successor to chaperone her people. In 1983, Sister Stephanie arrived from Canada, to be the faithful companion to Sister Isidore in the ministry at Lourdes. She was with her when she died. For all those years, they had accompanied their people, who came in ever larger pilgrimages from the diaspora, and in many new ones from Ukraine, where the church had been freed from persecution in the early 1990’s. The latter were a joy to behold — pious, eager, grateful, loving people who had suffered long, and were now on their knees before the faithful Mother of God who had wept for them. The Sisters hosted the groups in the new church and in their home, accompanied them to the grotto, the basilicas and the healing baths, and participated with them in the rosary processions, where the Hail Mary in Ukrainian was by now a daily practice. They walked the Stations of the Cross with them, prepared them for Confession, and made certain that their sick and disabled were blessed by the Eucharistic Jesus. Only God knows how many pilgrims returned home strengthened in their faith, in hope, and eager to share what they had received in Lourdes. All the while, the Sisters. Servants of Mary, remembered how She had hurried to serve Elizabeth in her need, and so they, too, would stay here, “where the need was one of the greatest,” as their Foundress Blessed Josaphata, whose Icon was now in the Basilica of St. Pius X, had asked of her followers. On April 8th, Father Wasyl anointed Sister Isidore with the blessed oils of the Sacrament of the Sick, and kissing the rosary she held tightly in her hands, she peacefully went to the Lord.

With a short break, Sister Stephanie served in Lourdes for a total of 28 years, assisted by Sister Yvonne for close to 15 years, and Sister Veronica for 7 years. Many others were assigned to help out for shorter periods. Serving here was a privilege. In 2013, Sister Stephanie returned to Canada, rich in memories and never failing to speak of the initiatives and priestly mission of Father Wasyl, who after the blessing of the Ukrainian rite church in Lourdes, continued to live seven more years in Toulouse from where he now served Lourdes, in addition to his first missions. In 1989, he made the Lourdes residence his permanent home. In 2004, he peacefully departed from this world in a nursing home, with the Sisters at his bedside. He had requested to be buried in Ukraine, the land of his birth and priestly vocation. Bishop Michael conducted the funeral services in Lourdes. The domes of the Church of the Dormition gently gave cover to the tears of those gathered to say farewell — Vichnaya Pamiatj — to Father Wasyl Preyma who, a quarter century earlier, had believed that their spiraling heights would forever illuminate the way for Ukrainian pilgrims to Lourdes, where his beloved Mother of God, silently praying in the grotto, would embrace them with maternal love and joy. For more than one thousand years, She is faithfully venerated as the Pokrow of Ukraine, the Immoveable Wall of Refuge in the nation’s difficult journey.


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