Camouflage nets, spent casings, shredded shrapnel: in this 17th-century Baroque gem of a church in the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, these are considered sacred relics.
During Sunday services at the city’s Garrison Church, uniformed Ukrainian soldiers, flanked by civilians young and old, bowed their heads and joined hands in prayer, surrounded by ancient symbols of faith and modern battle artifacts.
Since war broke out in Ukraine more than two months ago, this historic place of worship, named in honor of the apostles Peter and Paul, has become a point of reference for those who pray for the success of their army against an invader. bigger and more powerful.
The church is open to everyone, but it is most deeply connected to the lives of military families and their loved ones – a demographic that, in this nationally jagged moment, encompasses nearly everyone in the country.
Under its high arches, soldiers’ wives call for divine protection for husbands serving on the front lines. Bereaved mothers and fathers mourn. Marriages are framed by military funerals.
“We try to comfort them all,” said Father Nestor, a church-affiliated chaplain who has a brother who serves in the military. “Here we are all together.”
Lviv, less than 80 km from the Polish border and North Atlantic Treaty Organization territory, was largely spared the battles raging in the east of the country and, in the first weeks of the war, in the region surrounding the capital, kyiv. Nonetheless, the church’s treasuries are heavily shielded from potential bombardments, adding to its martial air.
Wrappings and tarpaulins, secured with ropes, surround its ornate altars and weathered icons. The delicately worked chandelier has been put away. The precious paintings are covered with silver thermal blankets.
The angelic statuary is wrapped in protective padding. A larger-than-life crucifix carved from rare hardwood is surrounded by a window blind-like contraption that allows it to be alternately displayed and protected.
The church’s military role, however, long predates the war that began on February 24. Its main memorials and exhibits date back to 2014, when Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and fomented a separatist war in the east of the country. This conflict had already killed more than 13,000 people when the current full-scale invasion began.
In an aisle of the central nave, portraits of war dead from 2014 to the present look at montages on placards. A heap of battlefield trash—bullet casings, a canteen full of bullet holes, a Kalashnikov magazine—forms a sort of sanctuary.
Above it all stands a simple white birch cross, the only thing left standing when a military tent in the eastern province of Lugansk suffered an artillery hit.
As they would at traditional altars, worshipers are drawn to the display for prayer and remembrance. A middle-aged man stood before the tangle of metal, his head bowed. When he looked up, his eyes were red.
“I had so many friends who died,” he said. “I think of them here.”
Located in a cobbled square in the city center, the Garrison Church’s affiliation is Greek Catholic, a significant religious minority among Ukraine’s 44 million people, who are mostly Orthodox. But it is still known to some locals as the Jesuit Church, named after the Catholic order that founded it, which was expelled by the Soviets in 1946.
The Jesuits are perhaps best known for their rigorous dedication to education and learning, but the order is also closely associated with chaplaincy services, including for the military, which has helped open up the way to the present incarnation of the church.
In its oldest form, the church was a simple wooden structure on what was then the edge of Lviv, near the walls of the old city. It was replaced in the early 1600s by a splendid edifice which was one of the largest confederation churches of Poland and Lithuania.
During the Soviet era, the war-damaged church was used as a warehouse and book depository. Ukraine became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, but it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, in 2010, that authorities set about renovating the historic structure.
On Sunday, as people bustled between services, a family group gathered in the nave of the church for a baptism.
The child’s mother, Yaryna Bidyuk, gave birth alone in a Polish hospital after fleeing for protection in the early days of the war. Her soldier husband Taras, deployed since the fighting began, met his son for the first time last week.
After the ceremony, both were beaming. Little Mativii, swaddled in a white blanket, was squirming in his crib and yawning.
Soon the father would return to battle.
“But for now we are happy,” the mother said. “At least we had this moment.”