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Small Catskill church hosts bake sale fundraiser for Ukraine

In the small Catskills town of Jewett, New York, between Hunter and Lexington, is a church that looks like it was plucked from Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains. On March 19th, the parishioners of Saint John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church sold pierogi, borscht, and baked goods as a fundraiser for Ukraine. The surrounding community flocked to its doors in support.

Brett Barry: You're listening to “Prayer for Ukraine,” performed by faculty of culture and arts at Ivan Franko National University of L’viv. As Ukraine fights to defend itself from Russia's unprovoked war, communities in our region are finding meaningful ways to lend support. On March 19, community members in Greene County, New York, lined up at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jewett, to buy fresh pierogi and borscht to benefit the Ukrainian American Freedom Foundation, providing material and logistic assistance to the people of Ukraine. We joined parishioners in the church kitchen, as they prepared pierogi for the fundraiser.

Switlana Breigle: My name is Switlana J. Breigle. And I've been a parishioner here my entire life. And I'm the organizer of this fundraiser.

Melania Serbay: My name is Melania Serbay, and I've been here for over 30 years.

Barry: And just then, a delivery from a community donor.

Mike Collarone: Hi, I’m Mike Collarone. I donated the food for her to prepare. She's the angel. So I just, I went to work to make the money so she could cook it and do what she does. I mean, I don't have to tell you about the atrocities, what's going on. And the people here in the United States, let alone in Lexington, feel helpless. And then we have angels like this, doing what they can to raise money to send it abroad. And I just wanted to be a part of it.

Barry: I asked Switlana about her idea for this fundraiser. And she was overcome by emotion.

Breigle: So the day that I saw Putin invade Ukraine, it just really obviously affected me. I have family in … the surrounding regions, and they haven't left yet. And I just felt very helpless, and I needed to do something, and I like to feed people, so I decided to do this. I got permission from my priest to use the facilities. We were here ‘til eight o'clock last night making pierogis. And the amount of people that just came out and helped make the pierogis blew my mind.

Serbay: They are stuffed with potatoes, cheese and onions. And the dough is made especially for the pierogis. And after we prepare them, we boil them in water for about maybe seven, eight minutes until they rise. And then we cool them off. And then the side of sour cream is always good.

Barry: Pierogi is the Polish name, right? And then the Ukrainian name…

Serbay: The Ukrainian name is varenyky and the Polish name is pierogi. But though no matter how you say it, they taste the same and they're delicious. I should eat less of them. But you know, I'm Ukrainian. So, I have to.

Breigle: My grandmother was one of the original people who started doing the borscht and verenyk, on Sundays after church, there was a little kitchen with a little stove and my grandfather would boil the water, do the verenyky, my grandmother would make a pot of borscht. And there was coffee and cakes and that's all they sold off the porch. And then they finished the hall down here and here I am.

Serbay: She's putting a smile on my face because I distinctly remember as yesterday when I used to go to [Switlana’s] grandmother. And I used to ask for borscht and she used to pass me a cup of borscht between the wooden posts of the of the deck and I was like, thank you very much. So I remember that clearly.

Barry: Tell us a little something about Ukraine and its people.

Breigle: It's beautiful. My grandparents are from the Carpathian Mountains. And this reminded them of the Carpathian Mountains. So they bought land, built two houses, and were up here all the time. I've been to … I've been to the Carpathian Mountains, I've been to the capital. It's breathtaking. And to see the destruction that's going on, I just I don't understand. I just don't get it.

Barry: I haven't been there but looking at this church, it transports you there. It feels like you're in Eastern Europe. But then again, the wood construction and the rustic construction also blends in beautifully with the landscape. It's kind of a magical view.

Breigle: The architecture of the church follows the types of churches you would find in the Carpathian Mountains. My grandfathers helped build the church. There was a doctor who had land next door, Doctor Makarevych, he donated the land to the church. You have the church up on the hill, the priest house, and then this is called the Grazhda; there's a hall upstairs. And in the summertime, they do concerts. And then you have the hall down here.

Barry: Can you give a sense of the Ukrainian community in this region?

Briegle: There's a lot more people in the summer, because you have the people who have the second homes. During the winter months, there's like 15 people that come to church, but we're the ones that are here all the time. But during the summer, there's a lot more. They come [from] Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, I mean, they all have second homes here. And a lot of them, like myself, have been here their whole lives.

Barry: What else can the community do to help?

Serbay: There's a lot of organizations that people can donate to and just have us in your prayers. That's it. Because, you know, God is good.

Briegle: And I know that the soldiers have said that they feel the prayers. So. And you have everybody, it's not just the soldiers. It's the citizens who are fighting.

Serbay: It's just very, very senseless and just cruel, absolutely cruel.

Briegle: They are targeting civilians and children. I mean, kids have nothing to do with this.

Serbay: The Russian people believe, not all of them, but a lot of them believe the Russian propaganda. Putin says that it's all a military exercise, in Donbas, but he lies.

Briegle: I'm also a little disappointed in our country, because in 1994, when they signed the Budapest memoranda to protect Ukraine, and yeah, they're giving ammunition and missiles. But that's not what you promised.

Barry: What do you feel about Zelenskyy?

Breigle: I love him. Every leader of every country should take note and follow in his footsteps. Could he just get on a plane and go to safety? Absolutely. It's him, his Parliament, you know, he's got all of his people with him, not only fighting for their own freedom, but they're fighting for democracy. And they're gonna be an example for the rest of the world. [tearful] So, don’t screw with us.

Serbay: Right on, sister. Everybody's just in shock about this. It's just unjustified, unprovoked. And we're dealing with a dictator that decided that Ukraine was always a part of Russia, that Russia and Ukraine is the same culture, the same language, the same tradition, which is not true. They are neighboring. But Ukraine was never part of Russia, never. It's a different language. It's a different culture. And we here are supporting our soldiers, and not just soldiers, they're civilians. They're regular people who are defending their country. Their patriotism is over the top. Their response to the war is just overwhelming. And I'm just very proud.

Breigle: I'm in the medical field. So I've been getting supplies and, you know, donating them to the various organizations that are sending them. I've had area hospitals give me supplies. So I'll do whatever I can to get what they need. If I could make Molotov cocktails and get them there, I would do that. And I have people who would be willing to make them with me.

Barry: The priest didn't give permission for that in the kitchen?

Breigle: He doesn't need to know [laughs].

Serbay: What we do in the kitchen stays in the kitchen [laughter].

Barry: What they did in the kitchen … raised $14,392 for Ukraine. Plans are already in motion for another pierogi and borscht fundraiser in May.