SOMERSET, N.J. – The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A. (UOC-U.S.A.) kicked off its centennial celebrations with a concert on Friday, July 27, at the Ukrainian Cultural Center located on the grounds of the Metropolia Center of the UOC-U.S.A.
Emcee Natalia Honcharenko invited Metropolitan Antony to the stage as he greeted the more than 400 members of the audience, as well as the performers and organizers.
“As the Church marks the 1,030th anniversary of the baptism of Ukraine and the centennial of the founding of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A., God’s blessings and joy is expressed through song, dance and instruments, which have served the Ukrainian people during many difficult times in its history. Patriarch Mstyslav… had faith in an independent Ukraine when many did not,” Metropolitan Antony said, “…and like the phoenix from the ashes, Ukraine has risen, its people have united and it will survive.”
The metropolitan noted that, while attending the rehearsal, he was moved to tears, and he assured that the evening’s program would be enjoyed by all. “These performers are just a sampling of the talents of the Ukrainian nation and its people,” he added.
The concert’s first half featured religious-themed selections sung by the more than 40-voice-strong Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York, under the direction of conductor Vasyl Hrechynsky. Among the audience favorites was the Third Antiphon “Blessed are they…,” composed by Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921) with soloists Mykola Lutsak and Oleh Kukil, which earned a standing ovation. “Be still and know that I am God” by Roman Hurko (1962-) represented a more modern composition of liturgical music, as compared with classics such as “Mercy of Peace” by Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882-1922). Other selections were by major Ukrainian religious music composers Maksym Berezovsky (1745-1777) and Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-1870).
The second half of the program, “New Beginnings,” was performed by the Women’s Bandura Ensemble of North America, with conductors Oksana Rodak and Oksana Zelinska, and the Kyiv Ukrainian Dance Ensemble of Pittsburgh, under the artistic direction of Natalie M. Kapeluck. The performance told the story of the waves of Ukrainian immigration during the early and mid-20th century, and the history of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the U.S.A. through music and dance, with a slide-show backdrop that included bilingual narration by the Rev. Vasyl Shak and Ms. Honcharenko, director of the Ukrainian History and Education Center in Somerset, N.J.
Most emotive was the “Prayer to the Virgin Mary” to “save us” that underscored the role of faith in Ukrainians’ daily lives as they attempted to escape the atheist Soviet Union. The song was capped off by one last dance for a man and a woman and their respective families before they bid farewell to their loved ones and Ukraine – for many, forever. Also featured was “Beneath Thy Mercy” by another major Ukrainian religious music composer, Dmytro Bortniansky (1751-1825).
If they were lucky enough to gain passage onto a ship, immigrants began a journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, with suitcases packed with icons and ritual cloths (rushnyky). Arriving in places like Ellis Island and other ports of entry, Ukrainians began to settle in areas and began to construct churches to serve their growing communities.
As the church calendar year progressed, so too did Ukrainian traditions carried over to the North America, preserving Christmas carols, songs marking the arrival of spring and the continuation of Paschal traditions, Pentecost celebrations with the greenery of the season and summer festivals such as the night of Ivan Kupalo.
Communities flourished with Ukrainian language studies, youth groups, sports organizations, song, music and dance groups, including the Ukrainian Orthodox League, and its Brotherhood and Sisterhood organizations.
The continued growth of the communities had overcome trying times, as new families grew to include children and grandchildren.
The song “Alleluia,” composed by Leonard Cohen and arranged by Oksana Zelinsky, with lyrics by the Ukrainian Youth Association of Great Britain set against the backdrop of Ukraine’s darkest chapters, including the Holodomor, underscored how people still sang “alleluia” in the face of death.
The performers combined with the Dumka Chorus to sing the “Prayer for Ukraine” (Bozhe Velykyi Yedynyi), closing with “God Bless America,” featuring soloist Ronald Liteplo with piano accompaniment by Larysa Gutkevich.
Guests lingered in the hall for some time, taking photos with the performers and making plans for the following day’s full schedule of centennial celebration events.