Learned the language from carols. A 95-year-old priest from the Ukrainian diaspora in Argentina

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«We spoke only Ukrainian at home, although at school, everything was in Spanish. Holidays were celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar. Christmas carols were played in houses, our parents taught us many of them! I remember there was a book with carols at home. The first one is «The Eternal God», and I knew it by heart. I matched letters with sounds, and thus learned the Ukrainian alphabet. I learned to read Ukrainian myself,» – Father Vasyl Korol from the Salesian Congregation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) narrates. Now being 95 years old, he recalls his childhood in Argentina, tells how he learned the Ukrainian alphabet from a carols book, and how his family preserved native traditions. He also talked about his path to the priesthood and the miracles that happened to him.

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The conversation with the priest was published on the website of the Salesian Congregation of the UGCC. Father Vasyl lives in the monastery of the Salesian Fathers, which is located near the Church of the Intercession on Lychakivska Street. He invites us to enter the conversation room on the first floor.

«My cell is on the floor above, there are forty steps,» he says. – I came up with such a workout for myself, walking them up and down, again and again.»

How often do you walk like that in a day?

I think about fifty times, – father laughs. – Movement and a good mood prolong life! Now, I see a doctor once a month – well, because they say that at this age, you need to be under the supervision of doctors. Do you know what the doctor told me last time? «How nice it would be if all sick people were like you.» I have a very valuable talent: when I communicate with someone, at that moment the Lord tells me what to say to make the person smile, to be happy. Oh, you see, you’ve already smiled too! God gives me great grace!

Father spreads a large sheet on the table, on which portraits of 16 people are depicted.

«This is my family,» – he explains. – In the center are mother Yevhenia and father Pavlo. I and my 13 brothers and sisters are around them – from the oldest to the youngest. I am the fifth in line. For a whole year, when living in Argentina, I went around the family, collecting these photos. Now I have a good memory. Seven of my relatives have already died, and the other seven, together with me, are still in this world. Sister Vasylyna recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She is now the oldest of us. All my relatives stayed in Argentina, I came to Ukraine alone. And alone aming them all, I became a priest.»

I learned the Ukrainian alphabet himself

Father Vasyl was born in the province of Misiones, the colony of Las Tunas in the city of Apostoles. At the end of the 19th century, his grandparents – both on his father’s and mother’s lines – moved there from Galicia. The lands of this province were empty, so the government decided to settle them with immigrants, in particular those from Ukraine.

«The government divided the territory of the province into square plots, on each of which two owners were settled,» says the father. – There was enough space for two houses, a field, and a pasture. Ukrainians are hardworking and intelligent people, they were able to quickly adapt to new conditions and provide for themselves.»

Vasyl’s father came to Argentina at the age of 12. As an adult, he went to work in a neighboring village, where he met his future wife. Mom was born in Argentina.

When Pavlo and Yevvenia got married, they built a brick house. Bricks were made by themselves – fired from clay. One of the rooms was set aside for a carpentry shop.

«Dad was a well-known carpenter in the district, very capable. He could do everything that was asked of him,» says the father. – He had various tools, a carpentry machine, a lathe. My brothers and I worked with him immediately after finishing school. We knew how to deal with metal as well and could chain the wheel ourselves. We helped parents both in the field and near livestock. They worked all the time from the very beginning. When dad or mom said something, it was sacred. How could you not listen to mom or dad? Some people ask me: «What were you doing in Argentina?» I answer: «Better ask what I did not do!» I knew how and did everything – plowed, planted, sowed, mowed, milked the cow, took care of the horses, baked, and washed.

Parents grew corn, wheat, rice, and tea. And the most – cassava, we called it «mandzioha». This vegetable replaced potatoes for us. Cassava grows as a tall bush, and the roots-potatoes can be consumed as food. They are as thick as a normal tuber, but longer. Mandzioha was very tasty. Mother fried it, boiled, made dumplings from it. You can even make flour from mandzioha, my mother used to bake bread from it.»

From the age of 6, Argentine children had to go to school without fail, says the father. They studied for 8 years.

«In the morning, whether it was raining or knee-deep in swamp, my brothers, sisters and I walked three kilometers to study. Although mom and dad had a lot of work at home, they were very careful about how we studied, and never missed parents’ meetings. I studied well at school, I liked all subjects,» – Fr. Vasyl says.

A large Ukrainian diaspora has formed in Misiones province.

«Ukrainians preserved their culture and customs and passed them on to their children,» says the father. – We spoke only Ukrainian at home, although at school, everything was in Spanish. Holidays were celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar. Christmas carols were played in houses, our parents taught us many carols! I remember there was a book with carols at home. The first is «The Eternal God», and I knew it by heart. I matched letters with sounds and thus learned the Ukrainian alphabet. I learned to read Ukrainian myself.

My parents saw I was no longer breathing. I died

Father Vasyl says that when he was very young, not even two years old, a great miracle happened to him.

«I got very sick then. I don’t know what kind of illness it was, but one night my parents saw that I was no longer breathing. I died. Mom cried a lot, and grandfather looked at me saying: «I told you that this child has no future, because it is very curious.» Mother sent her sister to a Polish neighbor. But she ran, took my hand, began to rub it. I moved my hand and opened my eyes.

It was some divine providence. I don’t know if my mother prayed so sincerely, or if the neighbor had some gift from God. But then, a great miracle happened: although my body was lifeless for quite a long time, it did not affect my health in any way. I grew up as a calm child, was a healthy young man, became a priest and recently celebrated my 95th birthday. My parents didn’t tell me this story. Once, already at an older age, I asked my mother which of her sons bothered her the most. She said: «You, because you died.» And when I was already in Ukraine, Vasylyna told me in a letter how it all happened.»

And why did your grandfather say that you were a very curious child?

«I don’t know, I was small. You’ll ask him one day,» – the father jokes.

How did your mother teach you to pray?

«Every time after dinner, she put the younger ones on the bed in a row, the older ones sat on the side, and we prayed together. And then, we could go to sleep. In the same way, every morning my mother would wake us up and call us to prayer before breakfast.

Every Sunday, we went to church by wagon. But the elders had to stay at home, watch over the household. Thus we took turns so that everyone could attend the Divine Service at least once a month.

The little ones had fun on the way to the church – they counted how many cars they could see. Sometimes, it was possible to see two, sometimes three. Once the younger sister went to church for the first time, returned home very happy, and said: «I saw only one car, but I touched it!».

How did you get to know the Salesians?

Two kilometers from us there was a Salesian monastery, with a subordinate agricultural school. My older brother Peter used to go there to work: he dried leaves in the smoke, from which mate tea was made. Mate is a traditional drink in Argentina. I liked to drink it with milk.

When I was 16, I asked Peter to take me with him, I prepared a bag with items to stay in the monastery for a week. We arrived, and the friar monk Seraphim Prospiro, a supervisor over the workers, said: «Now, there is no work here, yesterday I told a man that he had to go home.» «But my brother has already taken his things with him,» – Peter showed him my bag. Brother Seraphim smiled and allowed me to stay. I worked there for 10 months.

I dreamed of becoming a monk – I wanted to be as cheerful, friendly, pious and reserved as Brother Seraphim. Once he dared to notify this to the abbot of the monastery, Emilio Scrosati. He talked to my parents, asked them everything about me, about school studies. Thus, the Salesians took me under their care.

One day, a missionary father from Europe came to the monastery. He told me: «You should be a priest.» And I never thought about it before. What a miracle it was to meet this Father, who gave me such a great dream – to become a priest!

Longtime secretary of the bishop

Vasyl Korol studied theology and philosophy at the University of Córdoba. After his ordination in 1960, he was assigned to a local Salesian monastery for postgraduate studies.

Bishop Andrii Sapelyak played a big role in Father Vasyl’s life. A month after his episcopal ordination in 1961, the bishop went to Argentina to create the Ukrainian Church in the territories where Ukrainians had settled.

«While still in Rome, the bishop was looking for a secretary,» – says Fr. Vasyl. – I would like this person to be Ukrainian and to know Spanish. There was no such person among the Salesians in Rome. So the bishop decided to look in Argentina. It occurred to him to take the book where all the Salesians were recorded. I saw my name and surname there and understood that I was Ukrainian. After being informed that the bishop wanted me to be his secretary, I was very surprised. Because I had not even communicated with any bishop before. And God provided that I was the bishop’s secretary for many years: Bishop Sapeliak passed away at the age of 98.»

Together with the bishop, Father Vasyl traveled to the regions of Argentina where Ukrainians lived.

«We didn’t have a car, we traveled by train and bus,» – he recalls. – There was a shortage of priests in the diocese, so in addition to the secretariat, I was also involved in other matters: I stood in for priests in parishes, I was chancellor and treasurer for several years. I also watched over the construction of chapels on the outskirts of the capital.»

«You will be an Easter egg»

In 1994, Father Vasyl Korol came to the Lviv region to participate in the establishment of the Salesian Congregation in Ukraine at the will of the bishop.

«People say that when a priest serves his first Divine Service, God will give him whatever he asks. I asked to hold at least one Divine Service in Ukraine. Because I really wanted to be here, where my family is from, where my roots are. See how long I waited for the dream to come true? I waited up to 30 years. But God did not forget about it and fulfilled it in a blessed time when Ukraine was already free, the Greek Catholic Church came out of the underground when we were free to continue the work of Don Bosco here. Somehow I wanted to count how many Liturgies I served in Ukraine. But it is impossible to count, I held the Services of God every day, for years», – the father smiles.

Bishop Andrii sent Father Vasyl to Ukraine with an unusual instruction.

«It was on the eve of the celebration of Easter in Ukraine,» – the father recalls. – The Bishop said that he would like to present an Easter egg to the parishioners in Lviv – one for everyone. I was surprised, I said: «Lord, such an Easter egg should be extraordinary and very valuable.» And the bishop responded: «You will be the Easter egg.» «But I am not an extraordinary and valuable person,» – he told the bishop. And the bishop answered: «This gift is extraordinary, because no one gives a person as an Easter egg, but I do. And you are valuable, because you are a priest, and a priest is especially valuable in Ukraine.»

I arrived in Lviv on April 17, and the next day, I already confessed people in the Church of the Intercession. It was a week before Palm Sunday, there were a lot of people – after decades of the Church ban, everyone was thirsty for confession and prayer.

Thanking God, I confess the faithful until this day. And you know, not only do I want to give them absolution. I want to encourage people so that after confession they go home happy. Because an Easter egg is something joyful,» – the father smiles.

Father, what advice would you like to give to the readers, young people?

Don’t take on too much! Because you will not be able to do everything, and you’ll be dissatisfied. You have to live joyfully.

Ask, but don’t expect God to give it to you immediately.

Let’s remember: God gave us the greatest grace – the Gift of life. Made a great miracle – created us from nothing! God, what a happiness it is to live!

By Khrystyna Staretska, translated by Vitalii Holich

Photo from the website of the Salesian Congregation of the UGCC

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