Newly married and expecting the birth of their first child, Ukrainian couple Vitalii and Andriana say they will feel blessed by a true “miracle” this Christmas.
But their thoughts and prayers are never far from their family and friends back home facing the prospect of a third year of war.
They are among the 11,400 Ukrainians who have arrived in Australia since Russian forces invaded their country in February 2022.
The couple married in Melbourne in April and Andriana Piasetska, 24, worked for Ukrainian Greek Catholic Bishop Mykola Bychok CSsR as his press secretary before they moved to Sydney in October.
Vitalii Leheta, 29, is ministering on pastoral placement as a subdeacon in the Ukrainian Catholic parish of St Andrews in Lidcombe during a period of discernment before ordination to the priesthood (men may marry prior to ordination in the Ukrainian Catholic Church).
Both are studying English and hope to build their life in Australia, serving the church here. Both know people who have lost their lives on the frontline in Ukraine.
Vitalii is one of two Ukrainian seminarians in Australia with the other, Vasil Motrichenko, on pastoral placement in Canberra.
He has wanted to be a priest ever since he was a boy, just like Fr Roman, the priest he knew growing up in a village near the city Berezany in western Ukraine.
He entered the local seminary in 2013 when he was 18 but was in Poland when the war broke out.
“I saw the news on the internet and called my mother who was in Ukraine with my grandmother and said, ‘Is this true?’ and she said it was,” Vitalii recalled.
“I was very sad but above all kept praying that they would be ok, and that Ukraine would be ok.
“Still today we are always praying for Ukraine and we believe that Ukraine will prevail. Our people and our soldiers are very strong.”
During a meeting in Ukraine shortly afterwards, Bishop Bychok invited Vitalii to come to Australia.
Vitalii’s Melbourne-based sister helped him and his then-girlfriend Andriana to secure the necessary visas and places to stay.
Vitalii arrived in May 2022 and he says Andriana “miraculously” made it through in late July just before the Australian Government closed a temporary humanitarian visa for Ukrainian nationals. Finally safe in Melbourne, Andriana recovered from the shock of living under fire in the western city of Lviv, where she worked at the Ukrainian Academy of Printing.
“I saw a lot of missiles go over my roof when the railway nearby was bombed. There was no electricity, no light, no cars on the road. It was very stressful, very terrible,” she said.
“I was living in student accommodation on the eighth level with no lift.
“I would have to run downstairs and go underground but still even there it was never completely safe if a bomb fell on the building.
“For a long time in Australia I was very stressed every time I heard a plane go over.”
In Australia the couple have found a warm and understanding community and love the country for its people, natural beauty and of course, its beaches.
This Christmas will be their second under the Aussie sun but their first celebrating the feast on 25 December with other Catholics, instead of 7 January, following a degree in March 2023 from Bishop Bychok for local Ukrainian Catholics.
That followed resolutions promulgated by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk for the church worldwide, to switch from the Julian calendar associated with the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, to the Gregorian calendar.
Mitred Archpriest Simon Ckuj, protosynkellos (vicar-general) of the eparchy and St Andrew’s parish priest, said he was expecting smaller crowds this year as a result of the changes.
“People who have married into non-Ukrainian families will have to make a choice where they go to church,” he said.
“Some will go to the Latin church, some will come here, some may decide to go to the Orthodox church on the 7th because they haven’t changed their calendar.
“I’ve also heard that some Orthodox people are more than willing to come here on the 25th because the Orthodox church in Ukraine will celebrate on the 25th.
“So I think for the first year it might be a bit of a mess but once people get used to it, and see nothing’s really changed except the date, then it’ll be all right.
“Personally, I’m a little sad because it’s been such a huge part of my life since childhood, having what we always refer to ‘Uki Christmas’ on the 7th. Now that’s just going to be a memory.”
Vitalii and Andriana just beam when asked about Christmas.
They’re looking forward to the liturgies and traditions, including the Christmas Eve supper with its 12 traditional dishes including kutia, a kind of pudding made with poppy seeds, honey, milk, wheat, nuts and fruit.
“This will be a very special Christmas looking forward to a newborn—well I can’t explain how I feel but it’s like a miracle,” Andriana said.
“It will be a very warm, light and happy feast and I hope everything will be just wonderful.”