Student-led prayer vigil seeks peace in Ukraine, welcomes refugees to Chicago

St. Nicholas Cathedral School, 2200 W. Rice St., has welcomed 16 refugee students since the start of the war, with more arriving every day.

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A student-led vigil was held at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village, Monday, March 21, 2022. Students from various schools around Chicago came together to pray for the people of Ukraine. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

This prayer vigil Monday at St. Nicholas Cathedral School wasn’t the first to call for peace in Ukraine — and it most certainly won’t be the last.

But the student-led event was the largest to date at the school at 2200 W. Rice St. as the student body there was joined by kids from three other schools, St. Pius V, St. Nicholas of Tolentine and St. Mary Star of the Sea. Some 100 students in all passed candles and recited prayers in hopes the Russian invasion will end soon.

That included new members of St. Cathedral’s student body from Ukraine; the school has welcomed 16 students so far.

Monday’s event was designed to build community and ease any fears the new students might have.

“It’s one thing to fight with a gun on the front lines of this war, but it is also an important thing to boost moral by showing they are not the only people who care,” 13-year-old Paul Skomorosh said. “We need to show people that we have not forgot about Ukraine and they will stay in our prayers.”

Skomorosh is the lead organizer behind the vigils. The eighth-grader urges anyone who wants to help to donate food or money — or simply pray for peace.

“We can’t go on the front lines and fight. I think that is the best thing, but we can’t do that,” Skomorosh said. “We can however show support through praying and sending supplies.”


Paul Skomorosh, 13, organized the vigil at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village, Monday, March 21, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Lisa Swytnyk, the assistant principal at St. Nicholas, said it was admirable to watch as students put together multiple prayer vigils that have grown in size each time. The events have helped the refugee students feel welcomed, she said.

Swytnyk said many of the students that have been arriving each week don’t have essential items like toiletries or enough clothes. Some are even arriving without their parents.

“All of these kinds of things of having everyone come together and other schools coming to show support is really helping our school,” Swytnyk said. “More importantly, it is helping us help our new students.”

Students arriving range in age between 4 and 15 years old with each having unique needs, Swytnyk said.

Even before the war, the school has a large Ukrainian population including many kids whose parents or grandparents are native Ukrainian.

The students, not surprisingly, have a lot of questions, Swytnyk said, like “What is NATO?” or “What does the [European Union] do?”

“They are all glued to the news because they have family back in Ukraine and are worried for them,” Swytnyk said. “It hasn’t been easy but we are glad to be helping foster a community for everyone during this difficult time.”

Big Shoulders Fund, a Chicago nonprofit, is helping cover tuition for the refugees at St. Nicholas and also providing basic necessities as well as social and emotional support.

Monsignor Kenneth Velo, co-chairman of the fund, said it was important for him to show his support for the youth leading the vigil. He condemned Russian’s actions against Ukraine.

“I thought we were through with medieval times and barbarian tactics, but it is heartwarming to see the innocence of these children,” Velo said. “I am very optimistic about these children, but I remain concerned about the children who remain in Ukraine during these perilous times.”

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