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Though deprived of its church, Kosmach’s Greek Catholic community survived; many celebrated the sacraments in secret while others participated in the Orthodox rite. This state of affairs lasted four decades, until the Soviet Union unraveled, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church resurfaced and Ukraine achieved independence.

Today, mixed Greek Catholic and Orthodox Hutsul communities are the norm. But with proximity comes competition; this surfaces mainly during Theophany, the great feast of Christ’s baptism commemorated 12 days after Christmas. Both communities process to the river for the blessing of water.

“The Orthodox stand at one place for the blessing, but Greek Catholics go farther up the river so the Orthodox drink ‘Catholic’ water,” says longtime resident Mykhailo Didushytskyi. “I laugh and cry. Adults act like children. There’s a contest: The Orthodox want the Catholics to try the water first and vice versa.”

For the Hutsuls, however, tradition remains more important than denomination.

“They don’t listen to the priest,” says Father Vasylii Hunchak, pastor of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox parish of Sts. Peter and Paul in Kosmach.

For example, Father Hunchak instructs his faithful that they can work on minor holy days. “They say, ‘the priest says that, but my mother says we can’t work,’” Father Hunchak continues. “Their beliefs are more important than what Christ handed down.”

“The Hutsuls are convinced this is how they avoid disaster,” Mr. Prodoniuk says. “They celebrate every minor holy day by not working the land. They celebrate not only St. Ann, St. Andrew and St. Nicholas, but St. Barbara and all the feasts of St. John,” he continues. “Misfortune doesn’t touch them. Other regions have floods, storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters. These pass by the Hutsuls.

“On holy days, the women don’t even use a knife,” Mr. Prodoniuk adds. “The day before the feast, they slice a lot of bread. They also make bread out of potatoes and corn, which can be broken by hand.”

The Soviets tried to modernize and socialize the Hutsuls with mixed results. Electricity may have been introduced, but collectivization failed. With a dearth of agricultural land, and with communities scattered throughout the Carpathians, logging and raising cattle and sheep remained the primary means of livelihood.

The Soviets frowned on tradition, particularly those traditions rooted in religion. But the Hutsuls took pride in their distinctive dress, dances and songs, says Vasyl Markus, editor of the Encyclopedia of the Ukrainian Diaspora and a professor at Loyola University in Chicago. Families continued to decorate Easter eggs, or pysanky, as well as practice embroidery and other examples of folk art. And unlike most parts of the Soviet Union, religious expression never really wavered. But that expression is not purely Christian.

“The Christian faith in the area is nuanced,” says Father Hunchak. “There is faith, but it is not exactly Christian, rather half-Christian, half-pagan … a mystical faith. In the Carpathian Mountains, there are people who know about trees, plants, nature.” The Hutsuls are intimately connected to nature, the elements and to their dead.

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Tags: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Carpatho-Rusyn Kievan Rus