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Argentina’s Ukrainians

An aspiring people strengthen identity & faith in the New World

story and photographs by Sean Sprague

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by Sean Sprague

Less than 20 miles from the neurotic chaos that defines the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, a quiet calm dominates the beautiful grounds of the Ukrainian cemetery. Two sisters in their late 60’s, Eugenia Pavlyshyn and Marusia Lytwyn, leave flowers on the graves of their parents. As they wander about the tombstones — many marking the final resting places of family members and friends — Mrs. Pavlyshyn breaks the silence, remarking, “this will be a good place to rest!”

These days, Mrs. Lytwyn explains, burial plots in Buenos Aires are worth a fortune; cemetery administrators have been known to disinter the remains of the dead a few years after burial to make room for new customers.

“That is why we have our own cemetery,” she adds, “we like to think that once we get here, it will be forever. We don’t want to be dug up again.”

Despite the intense summer heat, the women linger in the graveyard — which is shared by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Orthodox communities — and pause before a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33. It is a poignant moment for the sisters. Their parents fled to Argentina to escape the famine, which some historians believe Stalin engineered to thwart rising nationalist aspirations among Ukrainians. Though exact numbers are disputed, it is believed up to 10 million people died of starvation.

Argentina is home to a thriving Ukrainian community, numbering as many as 300,000 people. Well integrated in Argentine society, the Ukrainian community holds steadfast to its cultural and religious traditions. Not as well organized as Ukrainian communities in North America, most Ukrainian-Argentines focus on the church as the custodian of their cultural identity. About 160,000 people belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The rest, apart from a handful of Evangelical Baptists, belong to Ukrainian Orthodox parishes.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Protection, led by Bishop Miguel Mykycej, F.D.P., and his auxiliary, Bishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, covers the entire country and coordinates the duties of 17 priests, who administer the sacraments and minister to the pastoral needs of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in 42 churches.

First established as an exarchate in 1968, the eparchy also guides the many charitable, educational and spiritual works of 88 religious sisters. This includes Hogar Santa Macrina, a home for orphaned girls run by the Basilians in the northern province of Misiones; the home receives considerable support from CNEWA’s donors.

Buenos Aires is home to Argentina’s largest Ukrainian Greek Catholic community and includes four parishes, the oldest of which dates to 1940.

Though a few Ukrainian families arrived in Argentina as early as 1885, historians generally consider 1897 the year that marks the first major wave of Ukrainian immigrants to Argentina. Most were Greek Catholic serfs from Galicia (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) who regarded Argentina, as well as Brazil and Paraguay, as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to begin new lives as free, landowning farmers. At the time, South American governments lured settlers from Europe with incentives; Argentina offered each family a farming plot of 50 acres.

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