UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — When Serhiy Kovalchuk began preaching at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in 2018, he noticed the church’s ornate beauty — and its deteriorating physical condition.
There were holes and cracks, and the roof leaked — sometimes during services — when it rained. Then, in the middle of Mass a few years ago, a piece of stone fell from the church’s vaulted ceiling, crashing just a few feet away from him.
That near miss was a sign extensive repairs were long overdue for the cathedral, 835 N. Oakley Blvd., which has been an anchor of cultural identity in Ukrainian Village for more than a century. A multi-phase renovation is about halfway done, but church leaders still need to raise about $4 million to complete it within the next couple of years.
“It was like lightning from God. We really knew we had a problem when Father Serhiy was giving a sermon and a boulder fell out of the ceiling,” said John Skubiak, a lifelong St. Nicholas parishioner. “It was, like, 10 feet from him, and if he was standing somewhere else it could have killed him.”
St. Nicholas has raised about $2.5 million of its goal of $6.6 million. About $1 million of that will be recirculated to other Ukrainian Catholic churches around the United States.
The parish is soliciting a mix of private donations and grants and is looking into more creative ways to raise funds, like offering naming rights to each of the cathedral’s new domes.
Ultimately, St. Nicholas administrators hope to finish the project — inside and out — by the end of 2023. But that timeline will depend on how fast the church can bring in dollars.
“This church, it’s really an important place not just for Ukrainian community, [but] I think for all Chicago,” Kovalchuk said.
‘Shame On Us If We Don’t Do This’
St. Nicholas is the mother seat of 43 Ukrainian Catholic churches situated between Chicago and Hawaii. The church falls under the administration of the pope in Rome, but its rituals are mostly based in the Orthodox tradition.
“In a way, our church maintains the best of both aspects, in that the traditions, the Mass, the vestiges, all the beauty, the pomp and circumstance that comes with the Eastern, or Orthodox Church, we have that,” Skubiak said. “But it’s also that we are more Western, being under the pope.”
As Ukrainian Village has gentrified and grown more expensive in recent decades, many St. Nicholas members moved out to the suburbs and started attending new churches. Skubiak said that resulted in years of deferred maintenance that brought the cathedral to its current state.
“A lot of the resources that would have normally addressed this kind of stuff … moved on to build a new church here and a new church there. And we were the stepchildren, the ones that remain,” he said. The cathedral “deteriorated more rapidly then because it wasn’t addressed like it should have been 20 years ago.”
But St. Nicholas’s elders and leadership remain dedicated to the parish, and many feel a personal duty to complete the restoration.
“People are responding. We’re encouraged by that. And I believe we’re going to achieve the goals of the campaign and we will complete the renovation of the church. It’s just, how long will it take?” said Skubiak, who is also a senior adviser to the restoration campaign.
Work on the church’s western exterior is expected to wrap up this fall. The scaffolding that’s covered the cathedral’s entrance for the past several months could be taken down as soon as Friday.
The next step — addressing the cathedral’s exterior middle section — is the most elaborate. It includes replacing nine domes, on top of general masonry and roof work. They hope to start that work in the spring, if they have the funding.
“After we put an umbrella over it, we can we can tackle the inside, that would be the final phase,” said Nestor Popowych, a Chicago-based architect and lifelong St. Nicholas parishioner who is overseeing the renovation. “Right now it’s mostly new domes, the roof, masonry, structure and windows.”
The cathedral still offers daily services, including three on Sunday mornings, two of which are in Ukrainian.
Afterwards, parishioners gather in the church basement to drink coffee and eat pastries and catch up with old friends. It’s the kind of community exchange Skubiak, Popowych and others hope to preserve for the next generation, with a refurbished cathedral at its center.
“If you don’t protect your history, if you let that go by the wayside, just close the cathedral, I think it’s a huge loss of heritage, of our history, of who we are,” Skubiak said.
“When you walk into that cathedral, and you see things tearing down and leaking and everything, how could you in your right mind come and celebrate liturgy, and really feel comfortable when you haven’t done anything to really show respect to the house of God?” Popowych said. “Shame on us with we don’t do this.”
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