War-weary Ukrainian village finding solace in newly vibrant church

This Orthodox Easter season, an extraordinary new church is bringing spiritual comfort to war-weary residents of the village of Lypivka. Two years ago, it also provided physical refuge from the horrors outside. Almost 100 residents sheltered in a basement chapel at the Church of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary while Russians occupied the village in March 2022 as they closed in on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, 40 miles to the east.”The fighting was right here,” said the Rev. Hennadii Kharkivskyi. He pointed to the churchyard, where a memorial stone commemorates six Ukrainian soldiers killed in the battle for Lypivka.”They were injured and then the Russians came and shot each one, finished them off,” he said.The two-week Russian occupation left the village shattered and the church itself — a modern replacement for an older structure — damaged while still under construction. It’s one of 129 war-damaged Ukrainian religious sites recorded by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organization.”It’s solid concrete,” the priest said. “But it was pierced easily” by Russian shells, which blasted holes in the church and left a wall inside pockmarked with shrapnel scars. At the bottom of the basement staircase, a black scorch mark shows where a grenade was lobbed down.But within weeks, workers were starting to repair the damage and work to finish the solid building topped by red domes that towers over the village, with its scarred and damaged buildings, blooming fruit trees and fields that the Russians left littered with land mines.For many of those involved — including a tenacious priest, a wealthy philanthropist, a famous artist and a team of craftspeople — rebuilding this church plays a part in Ukraine’s struggle for culture, identity and its very existence. The building, a striking fusion of the ancient and the modern, reflects a country determined to express its soul even in wartime.The building’s austere exterior masks a blaze of color inside. The vibrant red, blue, orange and gold panels decorating walls and ceiling are the work of Anatoliy Kryvolap, an artist whose bold, modernist images of saints and angels make this church unique in Ukraine.The 77-year-old Kryvolap, whose abstract paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction, said that he wanted to eschew the severe-looking icons he’d seen in many Orthodox churches.”It seems to me that going to church to meet God should be a celebration,” he said.There has been a church on this site for more than 300 years. An earlier building was destroyed by shelling during World War II. The small wooden church that replaced it was put to more workaday uses in Soviet times, when religion was suppressed.Kharkivskyi reopened the parish in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and set about rebuilding the church, spiritually and physically, with funding from Bohdan Batrukh, a Ukrainian film producer and distributor.Work stopped when Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Moscow’s forces reached the fringes of Kyiv before being driven back. Lypivka was liberated by the start of April.Since then, fighting has been concentrated in the east and south of Ukraine, though aerial attacks with rockets, missiles and drones are a constant threat across the country.By May 2022, workers had resumed work on the church. It has been slow going. Millions of Ukrainians fled the country when war erupted, including builders and craftspeople. Hundreds of thousands of others have joined the military.Inside the church, a tower of wooden scaffolding climbs up to the dome, where a red and gold image of Christ raises a hand in blessingFor now, services take place in the smaller basement, where the priest, in white and gold robes, recently conducted a service for a couple of dozen parishioners as the smell of incense wafted through the candlelit room.He is expecting a large crowd for Easter, which falls on Sunday. Eastern Orthodox Christians usually celebrate Easter later than Catholic and Protestant churches, because they use a different method of calculating the date for the holy day that marks Christ’s resurrection.A majority of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians, though the church is divided. Many belong to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, with which the Lypivka church is affiliated. The rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church was loyal to the patriarch in Moscow until splitting from Russia after the 2022 invasion and is viewed with suspicion by many Ukrainians.Kharkivskyi says the size of his congregation has remained stable even though the population of the village has shrunk dramatically since the war began. In tough times, he says, people turn to religion.”Like people say: ‘Air raid alert — go see God,’” the priest said wryly.Liudmyla Havryliuk, who has a summer home in Lypivka, found herself drawn back to the village and its church even before the fighting stopped. When Russia invaded, she drove to Poland with her daughters, then 16 and 18 years old. But within weeks she came back to the village she loves, still besieged by the Russians.The family hunkered down in their home, cooking on firewood, drawing water from a well, sometimes under Russian fire. Havryliuk said that when they saw Russian helicopters, they held hands and prayed.”Not prayer in strict order, like in the book,” she said. “It was from my heart, from my soul, about what should we do? How can I save myself and especially my daughters?”She goes to Lypivka’s church regularly, saying it’s a “place you can shelter mentally, within yourself.”As Ukraine marks its third Easter at war, the church is nearing completion. Only a few of Kryvolap’s interior panels remain to be installed. He said that the shell holes will be left unrepaired as a reminder to future generations.”(It’s) so that they will know what kind of ‘brothers’ we have, that these are just fascists,” he said, referring to the Russians.”We are Orthodox, just like them, but destroying churches is something inhumane.”