‘I pray to St. John Paul II every day’: How a Ukrainian refugee found shelter at the pope’s former residence

Eleanor Petritschenko, Catharine Shimonovitsch, Natalia Miroshnitschenko, and Mikita Heyvitsch at the Bishop’s Palace in Kraków, southern Poland. From left to right: Eleanor Petritschenko, Catharine Shimonovitsch, Natalia Miroshnitschenko, and Mikita Heyvitsch at the Bishop’s Palace in Kraków, southern Poland. | Solène Tadié.
Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Kraków meets Ukrainian refugees Eleanor Petritschenko and Catharine Shimonovitsch Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Kraków meets Ukrainian refugees Eleanor Petritschenko and Catharine Shimonovitsch. | Archdiocese of Kraków.
Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Kraków meets Ukrainian refugees Eleanor Petritschenko and Catharine Shimonovitsch Archdiocese of Kraków.
Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Kraków meets Ukrainian refugees Eleanor Petritschenko and Catharine Shimonovitsch Archdiocese of Kraków.
The entrance to the Bishop’s Palace in Kraków, southern Poland The entrance to the Bishop’s Palace in Kraków, southern Poland. | Solène Tadié.

In the month since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than two million people have crossed the border with Poland seeking refuge.

In the Polish city of Kraków, the local Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski has shown his support for Ukraine’s battered population, first by welcoming new arrivals at the main train station and then by personally welcoming refugees in his residence.

Jędraszewski lives in the Bishop’s Palace, in the center of the city regarded as Poland’s cultural capital. It was there that the future St. John Paul II lived in the 1960s and 70s before his election to the papacy.

Eleanor Petritschenko, a 55-year-old from Rivne, a city in western Ukraine, is one of four refugees currently staying in the palace, which also houses Kraków archdiocese’s Metropolitan Curia.

Eleanor resigned herself to leaving her home when drones began flying over her neighborhood at the end of February. She took her 92-year-old mother, Catharine Shimonovitsch, with her. Their departure was all the more difficult because they had to leave behind the men in their family, who were obliged to stay and defend the country.

Their ordeal, which echoes that of the other 3.6 million Ukrainians forced to flee the country since Feb. 24, was nonetheless alleviated by the helping hand of Archbishop Jędraszewski.

The two women arrived in Kraków on March 3 after a long and difficult journey that took them out of Ukraine, into neighboring Slovakia, and then to Poland.

Their initial challenge was to find a shelter suitable for an elderly woman. They sought assistance from a parish priest in Kraków.

“This good priest put us in touch with the diocesan curia, and he told us that the archbishop had personally offered to welcome us in his residence,” Eleanor told CNA.

She was joined shortly afterward by her son’s mother-in-law and her five-year-old child.

For Eleanor, a practicing Catholic with a devotion to St. John Paul II, this help came straight from heaven.

“I pray to St. John Paul II every day,” she said, “and I have done so with even greater intensity as the need to leave my home has become more and more evident, asking him to guide me where I was meant to go.”

The church that she used to attend in Rivne was dedicated to the Polish saint in 2015, in accordance with the wishes of the Neocatechumenal Way, which runs the parish.

Eleanor’s mother-in-law, who has been involved with the Neocatechumenal community for some 20 years as a missionary, received John Paul II’s blessing in Rome in the early 2000s.

“We wanted to be in his town,” Eleanor said. “There were many obstacles and difficulties on the road from Rivne to Kraków, and we overcame them each time miraculously.”

“Through the intercession of St. John Paul II, God led us to this residence, and he is now acting through all the great people around us, starting with the archbishop and his chaplain, Father Rafał Wilkołek, to protect us.”

“We now have everything our body and soul need, and we give thanks for that.”

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Archbishop Jędraszewski visited Eleanor and her mother shortly after their arrival.

“I will never forget this encounter,” Eleanor said. “He is of great spiritual stature and embodies, in my eyes, the man with a capital M: he has a great spirit, an open heart, and full of love. May God protect him!”

Both Eleanor and her mother hope to return to Ukraine as soon as the war is over. For the time being, she worries about her husband, her two sons, and her sister who remain there.

There is a growing fear that western Ukraine will be attacked from its northern neighbor Belarus. The missionaries of the Neocatechumenal Way have reportedly left the area.

Meanwhile, Poland’s Catholics are helping the more than 2.1 million new arrivals from Ukraine. In the Kraków archdiocese alone, some 20,000 people are being supported in parishes, while 4,500 of them are being taken care of by the local branch of Caritas.

Caritas in Kraków has raised more than 1.5 million euros (around $1.65 million), thanks to the generosity of the city’s inhabitants, and distributes over 2,000 meals daily.

Agnieszka Homan, the charity’s spokeswoman in Kraków, told CNA that these figures do not include the countless personal initiatives of citizens or other local Catholic associations.

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“The community of Kraków is extremely generous,” she said. “Every week we receive truckloads of all kinds of basic necessities, which we have to manage and distribute. To date, we have also sent almost 300 tons of goods to Ukraine.”

“We are all exhausted but still determined to bring relief, by all possible means, to our Ukrainian brothers.”