With Pierogies and Artillery Shells, Scranton Fights Back in Ukraine

SCRANTON, Pa. — On a Saturday night in a small cinder-block-walled kitchen attached to St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, young and old hands alike turned red from grating beets for Father Myron’s borscht.

Many of those same hands had formed pierogies and stuffed cabbage for hours the day before, and chopped and shredded pounds of potatoes, celery, onions and carrots — only to return early the next morning to bundle it all into meal kits the church sells for $25 each.

The volunteers were not raising money for their church or for a school project. It’s all for the war.

“Maybe $2,500 raised today,” the Rev. Myron Myronyuk, 52, the pastor of St. Vladimir’s, said as people came to pick up their meals. “Not much, but every penny can make the difference.”

Father Myron’s homemade borscht, which he cooked with his 10-year-old son, Damian, late Saturday night after ministering to a parishioner in the hospital, was just his latest offering for Ukraine’s war effort.

Natalie Wells, 17, grating beets to make borscht.
Many of the church’s members are Ukrainian, while others feel connected by their belonging to the church.

Damian Myronuk, the son of the church’s pastor, serving as an altar boy during a recent Sunday service.

Since the war began nearly a year ago, the church’s meeting hall has served as a de facto warehouse for goods headed to Ukrainian soldiers, much of which is packed into cardboard boxes bought from the U-Haul store across the street. On this Sunday, boxes holding winter boots, waterproof and insulated for wear in wet and muddy trenches, were stacked near a rack of shirts emblazoned with the words “Pray for Ukraine” that the church sells.

Soon, the items will be on their way to Poland, where Ukrainian Army troops will drive them to the front lines.

Father Myron, who grew up in western Ukraine and came to America in 2007, said it started when his twin brother, Taras, a sergeant in an army paratrooper unit that is now in the city of Bakhmut, asked for help collecting desperately needed supplies.

Myron Myronyuk, the pastor of St. Vladimir’s, was born in western Ukraine and immigrated to the United States with his wife and two eldest children in 2007.

His congregation of just 50 to 70 people, down from 2,500 in the 1950s, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy goods for Ukrainian soldiers in combat — bandages, tourniquets, body armor, food, uniforms and even drones.

The church and its fund-raising efforts are among the many cultural and economic connections between this area of northeastern Pennsylvania and the war.

The State of the War

  • Military Aid: Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine, relenting after weeks of domestic and international pressure to deliver armored vehicles aimed at helping Kyiv regain territory seized by Russia. But it may be months before the tanks rumble across the battlefield.
  • Corruption Scandal: After a number of allegations of government corruption, several top Ukrainian officials were fired, in the biggest upheaval in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government since Russia’s invasion began 11 months ago.
  • An Expanding Cemetery: Recent satellite imagery and video footage of a growing burial ground offer a rare look at combat fatalities sustained by the Wagner mercenary group during the war.

“This used to be a big Ukrainian neighborhood here,” said Mark Izak, who at 61 years old jokes that he is part of the youth group at St. Vladimir’s. “The church was built because there was a large immigrant community for coal mining and for manufacturing.”

He and two of his siblings, Maria and Daria, helped make the food Friday and Saturday, and ran the cash box as they sold meals in the church’s meeting hall on Sunday morning.

“Time has passed on,” Mr. Izak said. “The neighborhood is more industrial-commercial at this point now, so the church kind of stands alone. Most of the people who moved here have passed on, and their kids got educated and moved away.”

Volunteers handed out raffle tickets for the fund-raiser after services.
The money raised by the raffle and meal boxes would be used to buy supplies for the Ukrainian armed forces.
The church also sells shirts that say “Pray for Ukraine” to help raise money.

As the coal mines closed, the defense industry moved in to fill some of the void.

Just outside the county courthouse downtown, a statue of the labor leader John Mitchell pays tribute to the city’s tradition of unionized labor, which continues at a government-owned ammunition factory just a couple blocks away. The 15-acre site sits between rail lines and a street renamed for President Biden, who was born in Scranton.

In buildings where steam locomotives were once repaired, workers churn out steel bodies for 155-millimeter artillery shells, which are filled with explosives at a plant in Iowa and shipped to Ukraine.

Some of the drones Father Myron sends will be used by Ukrainian soldiers for reconnaissance, to see if Russian troops are just ahead. And if enemy fighters are found, they may be quickly hit with some of those same artillery shells, which the Pentagon is rushing to boost production of sixfold.

The defense industry keeps a relatively low profile in the region, with the Tobyhanna Army Depot nearby as well as offices for Lockheed Martin and other military contractors.

“Even if people aren’t thinking about it, they definitely know someone who works in the industry, and those are high-earning jobs that are very important to households here,” said Mayor Paige Gebhardt Cognetti, speaking in her office in Scranton’s municipal building, where a Ukrainian flag flies outside just below the city’s ensign. “I think this should be a point of pride for people in Scranton — that there’s this grass roots, informal organizational help that people like Father Myron is giving, and there’s a real contribution right here in Scranton from the defense side as well.”

“I think this should be a point of pride for people in Scranton,” Mayor Paige Gebhardt Cognetti said of the city’s connection to helping Ukraine.

“I want people to feel proud of it,” she added. “I know that people in Scranton are very supportive of Ukrainian independence, and it’s important that they know that that’s what’s happening.”

At a small warehouse on a bluff overlooking downtown, about a dozen shrink-wrapped pallets awaited pickup to begin their journey to a United Nations office near Ukraine’s border. They contained detailed replicas of some of the Russian munitions that litter the landscape, unexploded.

The company, a small outfit called Inert Products, has contracts with NATO nations to build the harmless reproductions, which are used to teach aid workers how to tell the difference between dangerous weapons like POM-3 and PTM-1 land mines and harmless decoys that trick air defense radars.

“The need was almost immediate,” said Richard Carrick, the company’s vice president of sales. “And since the invasion the need has gotten a lot larger.”

The company’s next project is a bomb-disposal robot that will help de-miners clean up the deadly mess of unexploded munitions in Ukraine. A working prototype sat on the warehouse floor, its gripper holding a mortar shell.

Demilitarized and replica weapons at Inert Products’ warehouse in Scranton. Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
The company manufactures harmless copies of weapons from all over the world.
Recently, a large portion of their business has focused on training aid workers who will work in Ukraine.

That same impulse to help save lives is what keeps Father Myron constantly on the move.

The father of eight children unlocked his cellphone and showed text messages from Ukrainian soldiers who were wearing clothes he had sent and eating food he had shipped.

Since the war began, his parish gradually adopted more military units who had contacted his sister in western Ukraine looking for help. Father Myron now tends to two paratrooper units, and one each from the navy, national guard and special forces.

He pays 80 cents to send them a pound of supplies via container ship or $2.50 per pound on a cargo plane. For the most expensive goods that are needed most urgently at the front, like drones, Father Myron relies on a steady stream of volunteers who are willing to escort the items personally, packed into a dozen or more oversized duffel bags.

“It’s easier to fly to Poland and pay extra for 15 to 20 suitcases,” he said. “It’s $600 for a round-trip ticket, and some people are making two trips a week to do this.”

At the same time, Father Myron has bills to pay. He started cutting the grass at the church himself long ago to save money, and in the baking heat of summer, he offers the liturgy in the meeting hall turned shipping center, to avoid turning on the air conditioning in the church. In winter, though, with black ice slicking the parking lot, he has no choice but to run the furnace.

“I have to pay $4,600 a month just for the heating bill” in the church, Father Myron said. “Can you imagine how many pierogies we have to sell for that?”

“We are always keeping hope. We’ll be OK.”

Every Sunday since the Feb. 24 invasion, Father Myron has led his parishioners in praying the rosary for Ukraine just before the 9 a.m. liturgy.

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