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Image Credit: AVSI Foundation

Benedictine Nuns remain in Ukraine to help Refugees

by Sister Augustina, Benedictine Sisters' Abbey of St Josef

A fighter jet of the Ukrainian Air Force skims low over the houses of the village of Solonka, which is attached to the western city of Lviv. Halfway between town and village, if you look closely, there are heavy howitzers and soldiers of the Ukrainian army are busy with modern-looking anti-aircraft missiles. Right on the motorway to the south: a monastery that looks old, but isn’t; the traffic rushes past the Benedictine Sisters' Abbey of St Josef. But inside, it is quiet - apart from dozens of children wandering through the corridors. A tiny baby screams. The father gently cradles the child in his arms. 'Yes, this is quite a different life than we were used to,' laughs Sister Augustina (36) as she takes off her mouth mask. Almost a year ago, on 18 March 2021, this monastery was founded at the request of the local archbishop as a place of prayer. He wanted his diocese to have praying nuns - and we still pray, as well as we can, in between jobs.

In the cloisters, women are busy with brooms and mops. In the refectory, the table is permanently set, like a buffet, and children tap cups of water and apple juice. Nuns drag potatoes and beets and in the courtyard garden refugees search among the donated clothes for warm hats and children's shoes. They come from north and east and south, the women and children, but mainly from the besieged city of Zhytomyr, from the slightly eastern capital Kyiv, the heavily shelled city of Chernihiv on the border with Belarus - where the population has been living in basements for a week - and from Kharkiv, far in the east, near the Donbas. Little is left of Kharkiv, as Nariman, the father of two-week-old baby Nicole, shows on his phone. Look, we lived here until 5 March. The video shows a burning residential area and falling shells. 'A rocket fired by a Russian plane crashed into our flat. How we survived, I do not know. Look, this is where we lived, on the sixth floor.' He points to a blackened hole. There is no longer a sixth floor. 


The young abbess, Mother Clara is short of hands. In fluttering black habit, she is everywhere at once. The silver pectoral cross swings up and down when she romps with children, her hand with the abbatial ring - the sign of High Jurisdiction: abbesses are their own boss in the house - caresses a beautiful wolfhound. Also a refugee. Came running to our sister convent in Zhytomyr. Fled here four days ago. Together with the thirteen sisters. 

'No, the much-vaunted silence of the convent will not come to pass,' says Mother Clara (44). 'And that doesn't bother me at all; on the contrary. From time immemorial, the motto of the Benedictines has been: Ora et Labora, pray and work, and both things are equal. But since two weeks, the emphasis is very much on work. Although we do not forget praying, of course. We are still praying our fixed times, that continues. We even try to practice some Gregorian chant, as best we can. We were a contemplative monastery, with a closed living area, with our cells, where we lived a life of prayer. That has completely changed now: since the war broke out, our first priority is to receive refugees.'


'Some sisters have given up their beds and sleep on the floor, so that we can accommodate as many people as possible. In this way, we try to be of service. I would feel lousy if we kept the doors closed, and I feel much better now that everything is open. And vice versa, you see, the people also help us, by keeping the place clean together. Everyone here chooses their own task and responsibility, and that helps the people to feel at home quickly. We are sure that this is the best way for the moment. Of course, it is not at all normal for a monastery to open its doors wide and for children to populate the sisters' cells, but we are not an island and we certainly do not want to be one. The monastery is not there for its own sake. It is there for the sake of God, and we are sure that it is God's will that we give up a part of our clauses. We cannot cut ourselves off from people and we see Christ in every person.'


There is Covid in the monastery. 'Well: we think it is Covid,' says Sister Augustina, apologising that no group photo could be taken. 'Of the thirteen sisters who arrived from Zhytomyr at the beginning of the week, some are in bed with corona-like symptoms.' The thirteen sisters from the convent of Zhytomyr, halfway between Lviv and Kyiv, have had a hellish week. 'The situation was critical', says Sister Augustina. 'Last week, permanent rocket attacks. Keeping prayer times was impossible: an explosion every five minutes. The sisters slept in their habit in the basement and could not change their clothes for a week. 

They lived by the grace of the air-raid alarm: not the church bell, but the siren was the signal that called for prayer.' But when a little later, in the monastery church of Solonka, the church bell rings for the afternoon prayer, almost all of them are there, the sisters of Zhytomyr, and they silently sit down in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In between praying, prioress Sister Bernadetta (49), with the phone clamped between veil and habit, quickly organised the evacuation of Nariman's family, who had fled from Kharkiv. By Friday at the latest, a bus will arrive to take grandmother and mother-in-law to Italy. But Nariman, a man of resilient age, is probably not allowed to leave Ukraine. So the family with mother Anna and baby Nicole will stay here for the time being, is the decision. 

Between veil and mouth cap, twinkling eyes: 'Although a war has been raging here for a fortnight, I am grateful to God at every moment,' says Sister Bernadetta. 'For every person who crosses our path. I am sure that there is a deeper reason that our paths cross and we have just, seemingly by chance, founded a monastery here in Ukraine last year. I do not know what the meaning or purpose of this is, but I am sure that it was meant to be. Here in Solonka there is no fighting yet: the people can take a breath and tell their stories. They are terrible: and you can see the fear in their eyes. We try to take care of them as well as we can. Until the beginning of this week, most of the refugees went on to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy after two or three days, but the last few days this has come to a standstill, and they are staying here. From the transit centre the Arena we get more and more people who have neither child nor family in the world and who do not know where to go.' 


'No, we don't ask anyone about their faith or religion,' Sister Augustina says, making a phone call at the same time, 'because food donations are phoned in constantly and transport for people who travel further, to the EU, is constantly being arranged. We only ask for name and place of origin. I have no idea who is Catholic and who is agnostic or atheist, nor do I care. Sometimes you seem to notice, when people, still with fear in their eyes, rush in here: a single Roman Catholic - rare in Ukraine: only one to two percent of the population - prays the tides in church; the vast majority of people just come here to catch their breath, unwinding, after days of travelling, after a week in the shelters. Most people arrive here through the large approach centre in the Lviv Arena, but often people just appear at the door: just this morning an old woman from Kharkiv, with nothing but a plastic bag in her hand.'


How does the abbess feel about the responsibility? She laughs. 'I feel strongly the presence of God. I am well aware of how big my responsibility is, for the sisters, for the people, but God supports me in this, I experience that strongly, these last weeks, inside, in my heart. I never feel downcast. We are all grateful for what we receive: for every morsel of food, for every potato, for every donation, from toys to prams, that comes to us. It just comes to us, the help, from all sides, through Caritas, from EU countries, from the Netherlands and from Belgium, and from our neighbours here in Solonka, and we are grateful for it all. The whole world thinks about us, we know; we know that many people pray for us and that is of great value. I feel blessed, not stressed. For us nuns, this is all a new, untrodden path, and I feel the power of the Holy Spirit stronger than ever. Of course, we live in great fear: perhaps Russian soldiers will be at the door here tomorrow, but we also feel carried away: either we will live here on earth, or soon in heaven.'


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