Despite some differences from its Roman Catholic counterparts, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Parish has one very important similarity.
“We are Catholic,” emphasized Father Vasile Godenciuc, pastor.
Indeed, members of the Ukrainian church are in full communion with Rome, sharing the same sacraments, theology and dogma as their Latin-rite brethren. Their Eastern-rite liturgy even follows the same basic structure as the Latin rite.
Father Godenciuc added that St. Nicholas, located at 410 E. McCann Blvd. in Elmira Heights, enjoys sharing its faith and culture with the community at large — as evidenced by a Nov. 5 harvest dinner that was attended by approximately 200 people. This group included visitors from all over Chemung County, who joined St. Nicholas parishioners for a celebration that also included music and dancing.
“We had a nice festival. Americans, they like it because they like Ukrainian food,” said Father Godenciuc, noting that the crowd was so large that all the ethnic dishes ran out.
The parish has another celebration right around the corner — that of its patron saint. The feast of St. Nicholas actually occurs Dec. 6, although in popular culture St. Nicholas is linked to the character of Santa Claus — the mythical “jolly old elf” who brings gifts to kids around the world on Christmas Eve.
In fact, St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century saint, championed the cause of the poor and is regarded as the special protector of children. The parish will honor St. Nicholas on Sunday, Dec. 11, with a program beginning in the church hall at noon and including prayers, dinner and gifts being distributed by a person dressed as St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas Parish is the only Eastern Catholic church in the Southern Tier. The main differences between Eastern and Roman Catholic churches are reflected in the celebration of Mass — which is called the “Divine Liturgy” in the Eastern rite. The liturgy follows the rituals of the Byzantine rite, which was formulated in the late fourth century following the east-west division of the Roman Empire.
Among the more notable characteristics of Eastern churches are:
* The priest faces away from, not toward, the congregation.
* Holy Communion is administered as chunks of bread rather than hosts. The bread is first dipped in wine and then served on the tongue. It can only be administered by priests and deacons, not lay people.
* Readings and verses are sung.
* An Eastern Catholic priest may marry before ordination, but not after becoming ordained. Father Godenciuc — a native of Romania who came to the United States in 1992 — has been married for 25 years and has two grown children.
* Eastern Catholic churches make extensive use of iconography — the art of representing religious figures through such images as paintings — as opposed to statues.
Father Godenciuc said that many of his parishioners are aware of the ways in which their religious practices differ from those of Roman Catholics.
“Most of them know about the Roman Catholics. Maybe, from time to time, they go to Roman Catholic churches,” he said, noting that the two rites often intermingle when a Ukrainian Catholic marries a Roman Catholic.
St. Nicholas Parish, founded in 1895, is the oldest parish of the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Stamford, Conn. Of the five Eastern Catholic churches within the geographic boundaries of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, St. Nicholas is the only one located outside Rochester. Father Godenciuc has led St. Nicholas since 2003; he spent the previous 11 years as pastor at Church of the Epiphany, a Ukrainian Catholic church in Rochester.
In response to a wave of Ukrainian immigrants, the original St. Nicholas Church was constructed a little more than 100 years ago at the corner of West 14th Street and Parkwood Avenue. In 1910 the building was moved to the corner of Horseheads Boulevard and East 11th Street.
Another influx of Eastern European immigrants after World War II caused the need for a new church; the present facility was completed in 1958.
Three Divine Liturgies are held per weekend at St. Nicholas. The Saturday 5 p.m. and Sunday 8:30 a.m. liturgies are celebrated in English, and the Sunday 10 a.m. is celebrated in Ukrainian and sung.
The parish community at St. Nicholas comprises about 90 families. Membership has declined in recent years due to a slowing of immigration and lack of jobs in the Elmira area, but Father Godenciuc is hopeful that industry will pick up and entice more Ukrainian Catholics to the area.
The parish is well-known around Elmira for its food, with the harvest dinner on Nov. 5 featuring such delights as pyrohy, pastries filled with sauerkraut, potatoes or prunes; and holubchi, cabbage rolls filled with rice and ground beef. Food is also sold throughout the year as a fundraiser, with orders available by calling St. Nicholas Parish at 607/734-2232 or 734-1221.