Finding the strength to resist
· The story of Nadia and of the many little domestic churches of Ukrainian care-givers in Italy ·
Nadia Kuzinmko, a Ukrainian woman who has lived and worked in Italy since 2002, looks both strong and gentle at the same time. She is one of the many women who migrated to our country to work, especially to care for children and the elderly at home and to help with domestic tasks. Like almost all these women she left a family behind in her country, her husband and two children, and in Italy she brought up another family’s children and helped old people whom she did not know while her own parents, whom she’dleft behind at home, were growing old. Nevertheless she is glad that her project worked out: thanks to her sacrifice her family now has a home of its own and her children have been able to study.
What was it like at the beginning?
I arrived thanks to my cousin’s wife who had emigrated a few years earlier. The first month was hard: I could not speak Italian and I didn’t find any work. However, my relative helped me, she gave me a place to stay. For other women who had no one to rely on the beginning was far more difficult. I then found a job in Terni where I had to look after an old lady. But I didn’t succeed in obtaining a stay permit and the old lady’s children did not want to keep me on as an illegal worker. I returned to Rome where, just when I wason the point of departing for Florence – with a heavy heart since the few people I knew lived in the capital – I unexpectedly found a job with a family in Rome, for whom I’m still working today.
Especially in those years, immigration from Ukraine was mainly female. Did you meet other women from your country?
Yes, I met them in church at Sunday Mass. And we immediately formed a close-knit group. In Rome there were already three churches of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic rite, one on Piazza Madonna dei Monti, one on the Aventine and the large Basilica of Santa Sofia on the Boccea, where we would meet on feast days. In church to start with we only followed the liturgy, there were not many initiatives, but later, thanks to a very dynamic parish priest, Fr Andreana who was a Ukrainian born in Australia, the church was opened for conferences, discussions, book presentations and celebrations.
In Rome everything was easier for us immigrants because the churches already existed there, the same ones that exist today. But in the other cities meeting in order to pray was more difficult, we followed the Catholic Mass but we missed our language, our hymns and our prayers.
So your churches were places for prayer and for meeting where you could experience something of your homeland. What did you do where there weren’t any, that is, in almost all the rest of Italy?
At the outset we would meet in parks, a group of women who recited the Rosary, prayed and sang together. We ourselves were the Church, we constructed her in every peaceful corner of the town. When the group began to grow the women rented an apartment to serve as their church and at the same time as their meeting place and endeavoured to contact a priest who would come and celebrate there on feast days. However it was the women who provided everything necessary, who embroidered the altar cloths, who kept everything in order and dignified for the sacred use for which the apartment was intended. Young priests who had settled in Rome in order to study, and a few more dynamic priests, would come to celebrate but these women usually always succeeded in building their church solely bytheir own efforts.
Later, if the group became larger, it could try asking the municipality to grant it the use of an abandoned church which it sometimes obtained. The effort required to open a church, to keep it upand look after it and to have it recognized by the clergy and by the authorities was never easy. It demanded sacrifices, investmentsand work, in addition to the women’s daily jobs, but they never turned back, they always managed to create their sacred place and to make it the pulsating heart of their lives.
In fact in Italy now there are more than 200 Ukrainian churches which all came into being in this way.
Can you give me some examples?
In Terni today the women are entitled to use a church which had been abandoned and this has also happened in Naples; they then moved to an old church which had been closed and, with the help of the Vatican, they reopened and restored it. At that time, however, it had nothing in it, it was the women who brought the icons there, the embroidered cloths and the sacred vessels. In Florence we were given the Church of San Giuda Taddeo beside the Basilica of Santa Croce, which we also dedicated to San Michele [St Michael]. We have received a certain amount of help but most of the restoration work, of the tapestries too, was paid for with the money of the women who go to these churches.
And your experiences in Rome?
For decades we Ukrainians have been involved in the construction and then embellishment of the Basilica of Santa Sofia, a very large church. Its construction began in the 1960s, thanks to Josyp Slipyj, the most eminent figure in the Ukrainian Church, a symbol of our country’s resistance to the Nazi and Soviet persecutions. Slipyj, Archbishop from 1939, was arrested for false accusations by Soviet troops in 1945 and for various reasons spent almost 20 years in a gulag. He was released thanks to the diplomatic interventions of John xxiii and John Kennedy, and was created a cardinal by Paul vi in 1965. After the liberation he lived in Rome, where he devoted himself to the construction of our great Basilica of Santa Sofia, to which he added a seminary and a university.
The funds for building it came from the Ukrainian diaspora across the world – above all from the United States and from Canada – but also from our own offerings. The embroidery on the altar cloths was done by us and by the Ukrainian Sisters who live in a monastery next door to the Madonna dei Monti. The cleaning is done by some women who are paid for this by the church.
A great community experience is lived round Santa Sofia: before feast days we meet to eat the ritual foods together, such as cooked wheat and sweets with apples and poppy seed. The Basilica is full at Christmas and Easter above all, people who do not usually frequent it come then.
Overall, less than half those who have immigrated to Italy from Ukraine go to church. But for us who go to church regularly it is a vital experience. We find in faith and in prayer the strength to live through a harsh experience and to bear loneliness.
Having a church, a place where we can spend Sunday as the Lord’s Day, we overcome the temptation to work on holidays too in order to earn more. We have realized that earning money on Sundays leads nowhere, whereas meeting to pray together, to spend a day before the Lord, fills us with the strength we need to face the week.
I imagine that for this reason too, even though you came here to Italy precisely in order to get a little money together to help your families, you nevertheless succeed in being generous to your Church.
Yes, for us the Church is a vital necessity, she gives us the strength to forge ahead. Distance from ourfamilies is hard to bear, many women separate from their husbands and in any case it is difficult to keep relationships alive with such long absences, even with one’schildren. Each one of us lives with this weight on her heart.
In many cases the church also becomes a place where we can share with the Italians for whom we work: some of the elderly we care for want to come with us on Sunday and so once a month Mass is said in Italian. Then mixed marriages, between Ukrainian women andItalian men, are celebrated in our churches and hence they also become places for contact, coexistence and sharing.
However, on some occasions churches are also places of conflict: men in cars often drive round them on Sundays, seeking to approach the Ukrainian women as they make their way home in ways that are not really very nice….
Nadia Kuzinmko is 58 years old. She was born in Livn, which today is in Ukraine but in the past was part of the Habsburg Empire and then of the Polish State. She is married and is the mother of two children and the grandmother of two grandchildren. She has lived and worked in Italy since 2002.
Nadia is one of the many Ukrainian women who have emigrated to our country: according to the Annual Report compiled in 2016 by the Ministero del Lavoro e delle Politiche Sociali,240,141 Ukrainian citizens have emigrated, of whom 20.8 per cent are men and 79.2 per cent women. A hundred and forty-six Ukrainian religious communities were registered in that same year. In recent years 18 churches have been entrusted to Ukrainian communities (in cities such as Avellino, Bologna, Vittorio Veneto, Caserta, Cagliari, Livorno, Naples, Novara, Pavia, Padua, Pescara, Reggio Emilia, Salerno, Ferrara, Florence, Foggia and Foligno). Seven of these communities have obtained the status of official parishes: Avellino, Bologna, Caserta, Livorno, Rome, Pavia and Florence).
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