On Sundays, the Saint-Germain-des-Pres quarter of Paris - known for its artistic cafes, expensive boutiques and numerous bookstores - is filled with people in embroidered shirts who speak Ukrainian.
Since 1943, the Ukrainian Catholic community has prayed at the
Cathedral of St. Volodymyr the Great on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
Through the years, the parish has become the center of Ukrainian
cultural and social life in Paris.
“We don’t have a feeling that we are in Paris as we are walking down
the Boulevard Saint-Germain on Sunday or other feasts; it’s like in our
city of Ivano-Frankivsk,” said Zoriana Dolishniak. She, her husband,
Andriy, and two children came to Paris from Western Ukraine six years
In Ukraine, Andriy Dolishniak had his own little business, but it did
not go well, and they decided to start over in France. He works as an
electrician in a construction firm; Zoriana Dolishniak cleans private
houses. Their children go to school - ordinary French school and
Saturday Ukrainian school.
The Dolishniaks do not have legal status in France; they are waiting
for documents. Their story is typical for the Paris Ukrainian parish,
where new immigrants are the majority.
“Eighty percent of our faithful are undocumented,” said Bishop Borys
Gudziak, who serves the Ukrainian Catholics in France, Belgium,
Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg. He said the Paris parish has
been totally transformed by an influx of immigrants who are fleeing
social and economic dislocation and, more recently, war.
“We have before us the example of the apostles and the first
generation of Christians,” the bishop said. “What chance did St. Peter
have in Rome where he didn’t know the language, he was an undocumented
immigrant with no citizen rights, while living in the city of marble,
senators, warriors and chariots?”
“What chance do the Greek (Byzantine) Catholics have in Paris with
the population of 10 million?” Gudziak said”We ask ourselves with a
smile and in confidence in God’s guidance.”
Father Mykhailo Romaniuk knows well about the parish transformation.
Eighteen years ago as a young priest, he was appointed to Paris, where
most of the congregation was an aging post-war diaspora. His appointment
coincided with the start of mass immigration of Ukrainians to Western
Europe, and he was one of the first to welcome them in Paris.
“When the inflow started, doors of the cathedral never closed. People
needed support and information. Sometimes people who arrived had no
place to sleep, and they slept in a tiny parish hall,” recalled
Romaniuk. He said they were difficult years, yet the openness of the
church for the people in need helped build up the community. “We now
have many people because we were there for them.”
On Sundays, about 600 attend liturgies, but the parish can see up to
3,500 on Easter, the priest said. It has more than 80 baptisms annually.
Gudziak said the parish raises the spirit of people. “They come to
church to be together with God and with each other. In the city they
work hard, often in demeaning circumstances, they live very modestly in
tenement dwellings. But in church the glory of the Lord and the
fellowship of the community is theirs.”
One reason people are attracted to the parish is the school, established in the 1950s. Today it has more than 200 students.
“The Ukrainian school at the parish is a great advantage,” said
Andriy Dolishniak, who is convinced that it is very important for the
children to grow learning Christian values. School offers lessons on
Ukrainian language, literature, history and catechism. Dolishniak said
that while accompanying his daughter Solomiya to her catechism classes,
he was able to deepen his own faith.
The working immigrants are modern-days nomads; some of them stay for a
couple of years, some move to other cities and countries. Father
Romaniuk said he considers his parish a missionary parish.
“It’s hard to implement long-term programs, but we would like to give as much as we can to the parishioners,” he said.
One of the programs the parish implements is the global Ukrainian
Catholic Church strategy, “The Vibrant Parish - a place to encounter the
“For our eparchy, Paris is a model parish which develops programs and
conducts experiments that then radiate throughout the other 29
communities that we have so far,” said Bishop Gudziak.
One of the tasks is to foster lay involvement and initiative in
administration, in ministry and in outreach. Lawyer Stephane Dunikowski
is actively engaged in parish and eparchy life, which she said makes her
feel needed. She said she tries “to help with my efforts, my energy, my
time and also financially.”
Gudziak said parishioners organized collections for sick children in
Ukraine whose parents do not have money for treatment. He said
parishioners have been generous toward those who are suffering in
Ukraine because of war and the Russian invasion.
Some French Catholics have discovered Byzantine spirituality in the
parish, even though they do not always understand national tradition and
even the language; cathedral liturgies are celebrated in Ukrainian.
“I feel at home in this community,” said a woman who asked only to be
identified as Natalie, who visits the cathedral almost every day. “I
don’t understand a word during the service, but I get a lot.”