The new faces of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Alberta: A universal church that welcomes all faithful

By Jayne L. Buryn, Communications Coordinator, Ukrainian Eparchy of Edmonton

Everything seems like it was arranged by God.

-Nadim Assi, speaking about his meeting Yulianna and their subsequent marriage

The glow radiating from this couple is almost tangible. Nadim and Yulianna Assi beam as they speak about their special connection and radiate joy, both in their relationship with each other and with God.

Nadim is a Melkite Greek Catholic originally from Lebanon. The oil and gas sector engineer has been in Canada for five years and is now a Canadian citizen.

Yulianna is vice-dean of International Relationships at the Faculty of Economics at Uzhgorod National University, in the Zakarpatska oblast of Ukraine. Over the past several years, she has been engaged in developing program partnerships with the University of Alberta and Concordia University of Edmonton.

Nadim and Yulianna met during one of her frequent trips from Ukraine to Canada. He showed her how beautiful this country is and convinced her that she should adopt Canada as her new home.

Result: a marriage “arranged by God,” as the couple terms it.

The Internet played a vital role in enabling the couple to grow their relationship during periods when they were separated by thousands of kilometres and even played a role during their marriage ceremony.

Arranged by God

“Everything seemed like it was arranged by God.” Pressed by work demands, the couple set a date in August, informed their families and, amazingly, successfully made all the arrangements in eight days: the priest (Fr. Anton Tarasenko), the church (St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Edmonton) the wedding dress, the ring, the photographer, the cake. Father Anton and Fr. Danylo Kuc helped with referrals to various local service providers and vendors.

Nadim’s family, who immigrated from Lebanon to Montreal, were able to arrange a flight to Edmonton for the happy occasion. Yulianna’s family, unable to make travel arrangements on such short notice, participated in the ceremony by live video.

All arrangements were made smoothly, without any difficulties. “We were really calm,” says Yulianna, unlike their families and friends who worried about time constraints and wedding details. Yulianna’s philosophy is that “if something comes to you without difficulty, you are doing the right thing and going the right way. If you encounter obstacles, God is telling you to take a different direction.”

The ceremony set an international tone. Father Anton Tarasenko, pastor of St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic church celebrated portions in English and Ukrainian, Father Ephrem Kardouh, St. Nicholas Melkite Greek Catholic church pastor, in English and Arabic, and the choir – a male quartet – sang in Ukrainian.

A shared common faith joins nations together 

Nadim’s parish is St. Nicholas Melkite Greek Catholic church which holds services in the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic church in Edmonton. Members of the parish include families with Lebanese, Syrian and other Middle Eastern backgrounds. Services are held in the Arabic language.

It’s a small parish (about 40 people attend Divine Liturgy each Sunday) and everyone knows each other. Nadim is vice-president of the community and plays an active role in its life and administration.

Yulianna’s first contact with the Ukrainian Catholic community in Edmonton was through the Chancery office that referred her to St. George’s, based on her preferences. She considers St. George’s her spiritual home, but feels welcome and happy in both communities. With a smile, she relates that in Nadim’s parish the participants welcome each other with the traditional Arabic greeting, but considerately say the English “hello” to her. As a warm welcoming gesture, Father Anton and his family have visited the Assis in their home and joined them for dinner.

The couple has been able to accommodate both traditions – the Melkite Greek Catholic and the Ukrainian Catholic – in their life together. Yulianna’s family celebrates feast days on the Julian calendar, as does St. George’s in Edmonton. Nadim’s family follows the Gregorian calendar. They get to celebrate each major feast like Easter twice, Yulianna affirms with a smile.

Yulianna has not learned Arabic yet, but Nadim reads Ukrainian and follows the Ukrainian Catholic Divine Liturgy in that language. He has learned to read, but doesn’t understand what he is reading yet, he laughs.   So far, St. Nicholas has held liturgies on Saturday afternoon, when Father Ephrem, who lives in Calgary, travelled to Edmonton and the Assis have been able to attend Sunday Liturgy at St. George’s.

They have found that there are many similarities between the Melkite Greek Catholic and the Ukrainian Catholic churches. There are also some differences. Yulianna tells a humourous anecdote about the Easter celebrations this year.

Both Melkite Greek Catholics and Ukrainian Catholics bless food at Easter. The former bless eggs only, the latter a full basket of paska, ham, sausage, eggs, cheese and so on. Melkite Greek Catholics share the blessed eggs with each other after the Easter Divine Liturgy. Ukrainian Catholics take their blessed food home to share with their families as a breakfast.

When the Assis had their basket blessed at the Melkite Greek Catholic service, the community thought all the food was for sharing with the entire community. Yulianna laughingly said that she had to explain the Ukrainian tradition. Next year, the Assis plan to bring two baskets, one to share with the Melkite Greek Catholic community, the other to share with family and friends.

Both the Assis have lived in countries where unrest and misery have been daily diets. The civil war in Lebanon in the 1980-90s and the fall of the Iron Curtain unite them in a common understanding of the blessedness of peaceful coexistence.

During our meeting, they beamed with their love, and their faith in God radiated around the room. This Melkite Greek Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic union is undeniable proof that a shared faith joins peoples of all nations together and offers a lesson about the meaning of welcoming parishes.