Determined nun brings help to the suffering in embattled Ukraine

4 mins read
Ukrainian nun Russia attacks
Basilian Sister Lucia Murashko talks with volunteers Denys Kuprikov, left, and Ivan Smyglia, far right, in Zaporizhzhia in southeast Ukraine Feb. 7, 2023, where they planned to distribute humanitarian aid along the front in Russia's war against Ukraine. (OSV News photo/Konstantin Chernichkin, CNEWA)

(OSV News) — A woman religious based in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia asked OSV News to “tell all the world we suffer” as Russia’s 11-year war and atrocities intensify in Ukraine — and as Western aid is increasingly blocked by skeptical lawmakers.

In an April 9 call with OSV News, Basilian Sister Lucia Murashko said she and her two fellow sisters have no intention of leaving Zaporizhzhia city, held by Ukraine and capital of the surrounding Zaporizhzhia region that is largely under control of Russian occupation forces.

Facing the crisis in Zaporizhzhia

“Everyone knows that the situation right now is more and more difficult,” she admitted. “I ask my sisters from time to time … if someone wants to go to the western part of Ukraine (which has seen proportionally fewer direct attacks), and they say, ‘No, no, absolutely not.'”

The war, which continues Russian aggression launched in 2014, has been determined to constitute genocide, according to two joint reports issued by the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights.

Shortly after its full-scale invasion in February 2022, Russia seized the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar, Europe’s largest such facility, located less than 40 miles from the convent — and the scene of what U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm has called “profound Russian irresponsibility” and “disregard for nuclear … security.”

But for the sisters, personal safety is outweighed by pastoral need, said Sister Lucia.

Prioritizing pastoral care amidst danger

“Here there are many people, many people (we serve),” she said. “So we don’t (want) to leave the place because now, in our parish and around our monastery (Ss. Peter and Paul), many young people are gathered … new people, refugees, those who come to us to receive support. And now they come to pray with us too.”

Sister Lucia — who along with the entire order of Basilian Sisters recently received Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi Award for their extraordinary efforts to bring Christ to the suffering — told OSV News she and the Zaporizhzhia sisters “hear the explosions” but “continue to do what we are doing.”

That mission includes reaching villages devastated by Russia’s relentless attacks on civilian infrastructure.

She visited several communities a week earlier — returning for a second trip to one — “because there were many requests for help,” she said.

“We went there and we met the people,” said Sister Lucia. “We helped them, and we also brought 310 packages of detergent.”

Though under constant threat of death, “the people who stay there … are full of life and hope,” she said. “They value life, that they are alive, and … they care about the animals (too), dogs and cats.”

She added that “many, many people come now” to pray with the sisters and clergy at the monastery and at two Ukrainian Greek Catholic parishes in the city — St. Volodymyr the Great and the Mother of God of Perpetual Help.

Soldiers’ sacrifice and resilience

Among those worshipping with the sisters are Ukrainian soldiers, she said.

“They come every Sunday, every feast to pray with us, those for whom it is possible to come,” said Sister Lucia. “If they have a chance, they come to pray with us. They also ask for confession from a priest.”

Sister Lucia said that as Russia has doubled down on attacks while Western aid has dried up, the soldiers are clearly “exhausted,” and “sometimes, some of them are desperate.”

A first responder works at the site of residential buildings destroyed by a Russian airstrike in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, March 22, 2024. (OSV News photo/Reuters)

“It is like there is no hope,” she said. “But they have no choice. They say, ‘There is no way we can choose.’ They have to be here, to stay with us, to protect us, even without weapons. … They will not move from the front line. They will stay to the end.”

A righteous anger helps to sustain them, she said — even as Western politicians call for compromise with the authoritarian regime of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who along with three other Russian officials is the subject of a war crimes arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court.

Ukrainian soldiers “hope that God will protect us, because they know they are doing the right thing,” said Sister Lucia. “They do not come to destroy anyone, they came here to protect life, our lives. … They see a lot of deaths of their brothers on the front line … but they choose to protect us even without weapons. They will fight with their hands. They will not move from their position.”

Church’s struggle under occupation

In the same way, she said, neither will the sisters — or the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which (along with the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas) was “banned” in December 2022 by Kremlin-installed authorities in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region.

The ban “does not affect us directly, but it affects the parishioners of the Greek Catholic Church in the occupied territory,” she said. “They suffer very much, because they cannot pray (publicly), and they have not been able to go to confession for more than a year already, since our priests were sent away from them.”

Two of those priests, Redemptorist Fathers Ivan Levitsky and Bohdan Geleta, have been in Russian captivity since November 2022 for refusing to leave their parishioners in Berdyansk. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the worldwide Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, has reported both priests have been subjected to torture.

According to at least one human rights watch group, Father Levitsky was recently moved to a prison in Russia.

Sister Lucia told OSV News she had seen a video of Father Levitsky that had been circulated online a few months after his capture.

“You could not recognize him,” she said. “He was absolutely a different person; so thin, and his face was so dark.”

His fate could easily become theirs if Russian forces — who have committed tens of thousands of documented atrocities, including rape and sexual mutilation — advance on the city of Zaporizhzhia and further into Ukraine, said Sister Lucia.

Solidarity and strength: Facing adversity together

“If the Russians come — we are terrorists for them, because we are the Catholic Church,” said Sister Lucia. “God knows, if the Russians come to Zaporizhzhia, none of us Catholic nuns would like to be in Russian hands.

“(But) we are not planning to leave,” she said. “It is important to be here, to be a church among the people who pray, who trust God. The future is in God’s hands. … We have to be here.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.