A huge blue-and-yellow flag was draped across the railings of the Ukrainian cathedral in London on Monday afternoon while a handful of worshippers lit candles and prayed before the ornate iconostasis featuring the four evangelists. In the cathedral hall usually used for music practice and church meetings, Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski was sitting behind a large table, a Ukrainian flag hanging from a microphone stand next to him.
“On Thursday, I woke up and like probably most of us do, looked at my smartphone and my heart broke. I couldn’t believe what I was learning,” he said.
"Like almost all of us who are of Ukrainian ancestry living here in the United Kingdom, we've been in constant contact with our friends, our families, our colleagues in Ukraine. Almost on a minute-by-minute basis."
Forced underground in 1946, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church saw its bishops and hundreds of priests arrested, many of them sent to gulags. It has flourished in the 30 years since independence and now has more than 4,000 priests and seven seminaries, all of which closed last week.
The church is at the heart of the Ukrainian community that came to Britain after the second World War, some of whom had fought in the Polish armed forces and others who fought on the German side.
"There were Ukrainian women who'd been taken from their homes to be forced labourers in Germany over the years. So we've been here as a community for 75 years, and the community started because the Ukrainians who came here had left their families behind,"said Iryna Terlecky, who heads the Association of the Ukrainian Women in Great Britain.
‘More than heartbroken’
“People have joined us over the years, people who’ve come from Ukraine to live and work here. And everybody is more than heartbroken about what’s going on in Ukraine. And so the community has come together, as it always does come together, because we’re a family.”
Terlecky does not know how many Ukrainians are in Britain but guesses about 100,000 and it is a young community, with more than 200 Baptisms in the cathedral last year. After Mass last Sunday, dozens of young men and some women came forward to receive a blessing from the bishop before leaving for Ukraine to join the fight against the Russian invasion.
“It’s very touching, very moving and very courageous of both men and women who are moving back to Ukraine to help defend our people,” the bishop said.
“I’m not going to encourage anybody to do something that would be against their personal conscience, but if people are asking me for a spiritual blessing, for protection, I certainly would not refuse that.”
Boris Johnson visited the cathedral on Sunday, reaffirming Britain's support for Ukraine and its independence. Johnson's government has sent military equipment to Ukraine and joined the European Union and the United States in imposing sanctions on Russia.
The government is less generous, however, about allowing Ukrainians to come to Britain, limiting visa-free access to immediate family members of those already settled in the country. Home office minister Kevin Foster suggested in a tweet at the weekend that Ukrainians fleeing the conflict should apply for visas to pick fruit and vegetables as part of the post-Brexit seasonal worker scheme.
Foster deleted the tweet and ministers have hinted at a rethink of the current policy, which looks ungenerous in comparison with the EU’s proposal that Ukrainian refugees can stay visa-free for the next three years.
"We would love for the UK to take the same position. The European countries have been extraordinarily sympathetic and generous in what they've said about visas. I know about the Republic of Ireland in particular, that has said 'come and we'll sort it all out later'. It would be fantastic if the UK would do this," Terlecky said, her eyes filling as she spoke.
She is full of praise for the generosity of British citizens, who have donated £800,000 (€960,000) to a fund for humanitarian aid for Ukraine in the past few days, most of which will be spent on medical supplies. As she spoke, Ukrainian and Russian delegations were meeting at the border with Belarus but she had little hope about the outcome of the talks.
“Everybody always wants peace, nobody wants war,” she said.
"But if peace means doing what President Putin has said, which is Ukraine giving up all of its arms, becoming a demilitarised zone, that's not peace, that's slavery. And I don't think Ukrainians will ever agree to that."