Stories of Joy - No. 18 - A touching visit to Leciwka, the selo (village) of her grandparents

In Canada — Ukraine

In a large family. you are always waiting for your turn. and that is good. because you know it will come. So when Donia reached the age of six, it was her turn to start going to church. She sat between her Dad and Mom on the front seat of the family transport, which two harnessed ponies pulled quickly for the four mile ride to the parish church. She was excited because everyone always said that she was a most curious child: Why were there two doors to the church? We only have one to our house. Now I know — Dad pulls one open and Mom pulls the other open, so you need two. She was a bit shocked to see so many people inside. Like Mommy said, you always step aside when visitors come to your house, the people stepped aside and left a free space for them to walk. Inside her little heart, she already knew that she was the special guest they were welcoming. Her Mom picked her up to kiss the picture on that little table, but she was already thinking of what she had noticed on the wall behind the big table further up. There was the biggest holy picture she ever saw in her life — was it the biggest in the world? Maybe. One holy picture in her house had Jesus and a big heart on his shirt, one had his Mother also with a heart with flowers, and the third one had people that looked like Mom and Dad walking with a boy that was as big as her brother who went to school. At the top of the picture was an old man with lots of hair, and a bird that was flying. But this one on the wall had many people, like we have when we eat that nice sweet wheat for supper. That is why it is big — to have room for everyone. One lady in the holy picture was not standing on the ground, maybe because she had a big towel that she was holding over all the people in the picture. She couldn’t see if it was raining in the picture, and that would be the reason why the lady had to be there with the towel. She was very happy when all the children went behind the altar so she could see for herself if there was rain or not, and there wasn’t any. She became very curious — then why was she holding that towel? Mom would tell her when they come home.

Donia had three older brothers in school; the youngest one didn’t know much yet, but the other two were always talking about school, and Donia became curious. The boys didn’t mind if she listened in, and they even began to teach her some things, so when she started school two years later she already knew long division. When the teacher asked her older brother how old his sister was, and when was her birthday, he proudly replied; “Ask her. She knows.” So she spent only two days in Grade 1, two months in Grade 2, and so on, literally sailing through her schooling, completing the customary 12-year program in 9 years. At age 17, she graduated with excellent marks from Sacred Heart Academy in Yorkton. Our curious little girl reflected in her heart new possibilities for her future. There were very many things she wanted to do and the choice was not easy. One evening when she knelt by her bed to pray, she heard a hidden voice inside her heart saying: “Follow Me. Be Mine.” Only Jesus would be so gentle and she was curious where he would lead her. So she said: “Yes, I will,” and her heart leaped with joy as she joined the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate. She was so sure Jesus would know best and she felt her hand in His.

As a Sister, she prayed, studied, asked questions, learned from others, and her days and years passed in teaching, in helping form new members, (whom she liked because they were usually very curious,) was in charge of their local houses, then in charge of all Canadian houses, and at one international gathering of community delegates in Rome in 1980, she was honestly surprised when she was elected to head the entire community, then in 13 countries. All the while she had known that Jesus was leading her by the hand; at this shocking moment their grip strengthened. He gave her the words to say, when asked if she accepted the new assignment: “I said my ‘Yes’ when I pronounced my final vows.”

Her innate curiosity was aroused anew as she travelled, met beautifully dedicated Sisters in each country, prayed with them and conversed about their ministries, met church leaders, pondered new ventures, and thanked Jesus for leading her in all her visitations. She had one sorrow; how could she reach the underground church in Ukraine? A number of Sisters had been able to escape to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, France and Italy, but over 300 had remained in Halychyna to be with their people.

One summer, she took the courageous step of posing as an ordinary tourist, to whom entry into the country could not be denied. Jesus was witness to the joy, and the tears, and the apprehensions, and the love and prayer that made up each day of this visit. She was totally happy with what she saw and heard, and this time it was her turn to squeeze Jesus’ hand and to say: “From the bottom of my heart I thank you, Jesus; thank you for sending your own Mother to be with her Servants in the silent church of Ukraine.”

In the early 1990’s, their agony ended, when Ukraine officially regained freedom. She then spent much, much time there, helping the church to blossom anew in that dear land of her predecessors. Each day brought back memories of what she had heard from her parents about the village where they were born. Back then, everyone she knew in Canada seemed to come from here, so then ... who lived in that village now? She said ‘village’ but her Dad always said ‘selo,’ and now she said that, too. She felt a longing to go there, as she now knew that it was a child’s calculation that “all had left the selo for Canada,” and her curiosity prodded her on to see for herself.

The year was 1995, the summer catechetical courses offered in Lviw were done, and she was on her way to the Sisters home in Perehinsk. They drove her to the nearby Leciwka, her ancestral selo. It was the last one before the Carpathian Mountains. What a glorious view, dear God! She could see houses literally up and down the foothills. Her excitement grew. But first she needed to make personal contact. Right before them was a farm gate with a big number “ONE”. She felt the reassuring hand of Jesus — who else would lead her to a new beginning, to Number One? The gate was unlocked, so she and the Sister driver pushed it open and drove to the house. A middle-aged man came out and they met face to face. She clicked on a small tape recorder to “bring back a story to her family in Canada.” The gentleman looked friendly, and, did she say, almost familiar. Why was he reminding her of her uncle John back home? But she quickly dismissed the fantasy. Extending her hand to him, she said: “I am from Canada. My grandparents came with their children from this selo in 1907, and now I have a chance to visit. They came as part of a very large group, so we, their grandchildren, just took for granted that no one was left behind. As you see, I am a Sister, and as I visited our Sisters in Ukraine, I began to feel a deep connection to this country, and I asked them to bring me here. I just feel it in my heart that I must visit the birthplace of my parents and grandparents. Tell me please, please, sir, I want to know if, in this selo, there are family names familiar to me.” She checked her recorder and said distinctly: “My family name is Byblow, and my mother’s family name was Shumay.” She waited, he took a few steps forward, embraced her, and replied: “My name is Oleksa Shumay, and my wife is a Byblow.” “Dear God, thank you Jesus, lead me on.” So that resemblance to Uncle John was not imaginary! He was her distant cousin as was also his wife. He invited them into his house and over a bowl of chicken soup she got many assurances. Yes, the other surnames she recited were all there — Diakiw, Stefanyshyn, Pawliw, Kutcher, Spilchen, Fedun, Spelay.

Then he spoke about the selo and his own family. “Because the selo was quite hidden near the mountains, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, УПА, had hidden here for a long time, but then they were discovered and most of the selo was burned. That is why you see new houses and new roads, and a new school. The church was spared.” Suddenly he fell silent, and then with a deep sigh, he told us that his five older brothers were members of this army and all died fighting for freedom for their country. At the time, he was too young to enlist.

She wished to see the church. Yes, a priest came once a month and she was lucky because this was the Sunday, four days away. These days gave her time to meet more of her family and many other Leciwka families who had relatives in Canada. The tape could record only so much, and the rest she kept in her heart and memory. Both would lovingly unwind when she returned to Canada. On Sunday morning, as they drove up to the church, she was astonished to see an Icon on the exterior of the building, sheltered by a very low overhanging roof. It was an exact copy of the holy picture she had fallen in love with as a child in her family church, and of course by now she knew “the lady holding a long towel over the people,” was the Mother of God, the Pokrow of Ukraine.

The pastor met her at the door, brought her to the Iconostas for a short prayer, and presented her to the packed church. Not an eye was dry, and he promised them their compatriot from far away would speak to them after the Divine Liturgy. Without the slightest doubt, angels from heaven joined the choir for the service. It was a long, long time ago that her ancestors had prayed here as they left on their long voyage to seek a better life for their children. She was the living proof the bond was never broken. “Dearest Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, nurture our souls and spirits for a blessed eternity. Always I thank you.” She spoke to them from her heart and memory, and stopped occasionally, to sob with her own Leciwka people, who were overwhelmed with love and emotional disbelief at what they were experiencing. The children at the front pushed up to touch her habit and look into her eyes and she smiled and patted their little heads. She related well to their curiosity which should never be denied to a child.

Then the pastor went up to the altar, took the Gospel book, and brought it to the Sister. The church became absolutely silent, and the pastor made a touching request: “May God be praised for what we have been privileged to witness and experience this day in our humble church in our beloved selo. Sister, we thank you for your presence and we know our bond is forever. We wish to leave a legacy to future generations of family love and the strength of family roots. Please write us a message on this introductory page of the Gospels and it will blend with the message of Jesus in His Book of Life.” As she wrote, the happy parishioners sang Mnohaja Lita and their favourite hymn, Levadow Dolynow.

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