PHILADELPHIA -- The Sisters of St. Basil never put out so much as a leaflet seeking donations for Ukraine.
It wasn’t necessary. Stuff simply started showing up.
Sleeping bags. Medicines. Clothing. Children’s games. Socks for soldiers. Baby bottles, wipes, diapers and strollers, walkers and wheelchairs, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, water bottles, Ramen noodles, granola bars, fruit rolls, and at least 40 bags of Pirate Booty snacks.
And money. More than $100,000.
People knew the Ukrainian American sisters would figure out how to get the supplies and currency from the motherhouse in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, into cities in Ukraine, and from there into the hands of people who need it.
On Thursday, a tractor trailer stacked floor to ceiling pulled out from the parking lot on Fox Chase Road, headed to the New York City metro area, the goods to be transferred onto ships or planes bound for Eastern Europe. A second truck was being loaded on Friday, while tons of additional donations, boxed and stacked in 10-foot towers in a downstairs auditorium, awaited their turn to depart.
“A very busy time,” Sister Dorothy Ann Busowski said in measured understatement.
For the sisters, the Russian attack on Ukraine has turned the motherhouse into an action center, spurring to new, rigorous duty an order that came to Philadelphia more than a century ago to serve immigrants and orphans.
The convent has become a departure point not just for supplies, but for one Ukrainian nun who was headed into the war zone last week. And it’s a new home to one sister who managed to escape the country after surviving an intense Russian shelling.
“I was there, with 30 sisters, when they bombed,” said Sister Dia Zagurska, who endured long-range missile attacks in Ivano-Frankivsk. “We understood our lives had changed. It wasn’t going to be the same.”
Many of the 30-some sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Some are retired, some in active ministry, all Ukrainian or of Ukrainian heritage. Most have family in the country and the majority speak the language, often learned at home as first- or second-generation immigrants.
Some worked teaching at nearby St. Basil Academy, which closed last year amid shrinking enrollment and funding. Others taught at schools in Chicago, Detroit, and New York.
“At times the situation in Ukraine can feel beyond hope,” said Sister Joann Sosler, the provincial superior.
But it’s not hopeless, she insisted, the proof apparent in the generosity of scores of people who give to help Ukraine endure. Some volunteers brought their own boxes and tape to help pack. The prayers ship free.
“I’ve shared with the sisters there [in Ukraine],” Sister Sosler said, “‘Know that the people here are with you.’”
The goods are going to Basilian sisters in places such as Poland, Romania, and Hungary — the Order of St. Basil is international — and then into Ukraine. The plan is for about a third to go to sisters in Lviv, and another third to those in Ivano-Frankivsk, and all distributed from there to people in western Ukraine.
The final third, mostly medical supplies and clothing, will go to the Ukraine military.
“People have really opened their hearts,” said Sister Teodora Kopyn, who was born and raised in western Ukraine, and whose sisters, brother, nieces, and nephews remain in the country. “Our people, they try to do the best for their lives, for their nation, for their family. Now everyone has to leave their home.”
She left for Ukraine on Wednesday night, not nervous, she said, but eager to help.
Drivers who speed past the broad, green fields along Fox Chase Road may not know they’re passing through a Ukrainian enclave. It stretches from St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, to Manor College, to the convent just southeast of the campus.
The foundation of the local Order of St. Basil reaches back more than a century, to 1907 when Bishop Soter Ortynsky of Ukraine was named bishop for all Catholics of the Byzantine Rite in America.
He established headquarters in Philadelphia, where he found the churches run down and the immigrant parishioners illiterate and desperately poor, according to an order history. Scores of children were orphans.
Needing help, Bishop Ortynsky and other church officials arranged for a group of Basilian nuns from the Yavoriv monastery to come here. They arrived about 1911, teaching religion, language, and culture, and opened an orphanage and school at Seventh and Parrish Streets in North Philadelphia.
To provide financial support, the nuns started carpet-weaving and printing businesses. Some of the early books they printed now are displayed in the Legacy Room at the motherhouse.
In the 1920s the immigrant community was growing, and in 1926 the order secured a 130-acre property in Fox Chase, where an existing farmhouse served as both motherhouse and novitiate.
The sisters laid the cornerstone for a new motherhouse in 1930, and a year later they opened St. Basil Academy, a boarding school for girls of Ukrainian heritage. In 1947 the Sisters founded Manor College, which opened with a student body of 11 young women.
Today the private, Catholic institution embraces its Ukrainian heritage as it offers two- and four-year degrees to 750 students of all faiths and backgrounds.
The campus lies a short walk from the motherhouse, where donations continue to arrive. One person went shopping at Target, then dropped off a big red-and-white bag of supplies, the $300 receipt still inside.
The sisters say they’ll continue to accept, sort, and send goods and money for as long as needed — including after the war.
“It will take years to rebuild, many years to heal and heal hearts,” said Sister Kopyn. “I wish and dream that one day we will wake up and hear the good news that everything is ended. And all people can be peaceful, and go home, and make a new life again.”
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