Parma senior finds comfort and connection in Ukrainian Catholic Church
Jennie Bochar, 91, has always lived in the U.S. — though her mind is never too far from Ukraine, her family’s ancestral home, where she feels most connected to her faith and her family’s roots.
Bochar and a few of her friends often arrive at church to pray an hour before mass, when it’s quiet.
She sits in her usual seat in the front pews. All around the domed interior are large, colorful mosaics that show biblical stories.
“I come, and I see God," she said. "There he is sitting on the throne, and I pray to him for peace in the world, especially Ukraine. Please help me get through life. Please help me with my family.”
Bochar is Ukrainian Catholic, a Catholic denomination with roots in Eastern Orthodoxy. The church is recognizable for its onion-shaped domes and inside, painted icons of saints.
“It's a beautiful religion, and it’s old," she said. "It's been here a long time, going way back into the centuries, when God created everything. And it’s still existing."
Bochar was born in Rochester, New York in 1932. Her father immigrated from Ukraine as a young man, while her mother grew up in an Ukrainian-American family.
“My grandfather his name was Kurak," she said. "His name in Ukraine is “Coo-rock” which means chicken. He had seven children. My mother was the eldest. Her name is Helen Kurak. She married John Kohut. And Kohut is a rooster. So that was a good match, wasn’t it?”
From outsider to community
Bochar said she grew up in a neighborhood with many immigrant families from different nationalities, who often clashed. She remembers one Italian family regularly mocked her father’s thick accent.
“They used to call my father 'greenhorn,' because he spoke broken English," Bochar said. "And yet their parents couldn't speak English. They were Italian. But, we didn't think anything of it at the time because this was the way they were. They’d go, ‘go back where you came from, Greenhorn.’”
She went to her local school during the day and attended Ukrainian language classes in the evening. Bochar often struggled to explain her religious views to teachers and friends unfamiliar with her customs.
“Because I was of the Ukrainian rite, if I went to confession in the Latin Rite Church and told them, ‘Well, I missed mass on Saints Peter and Paul Holy Day.' "They’d say, 'That's not considered a holy day,'" she said. "'It is for me, it's a holy day, and I didn't go to church that day, so I have to confess it.’”
When she was 27, Bochar married and moved to Parma, where her husband’s family lived and where many Ukrainian Catholics had settled.
Her church is located in the heart of Ukrainian Village, a street filled with images of the Ukrainian flag, among stores that serve traditional foods and housewares.
But she said the best pierogies in Northeast Ohio are homemade and sold out of the church recreation building.
“Every week they make fresh pierogies," said Bochar. They make the cheese, the potato and the kraut. It's like $10 a dozen or something, but it's all fresh. And they're cooked. Many times I'd go and pick up a couple of dozen or so and eat them on the way home. Ours are very soft, and they're homemade and they're very, very good.”
Bochar's husband died last year. She lives with her son in the home her husband and her moved into 64 years ago.
These days she’s struggling with a spinal condition, so she’s not attending church as often as she once did. But she said the church has remained there for her.
“It doesn't change. It's static," she said. "It's the way it is. And that's the good thing about it. It's not constantly changing all the time because you want it to be a different way. This is the way it is and this is the way they see it.”
Celebrating life with eggs
Outside Bochar's garage, she sorts through some boxes. They contain dozens of colorful hand-painted eggs, each one with a unique intricate design.
“The star stands for God, the sun God," she said. "This goes back to pagan times. Black stands for remembrance and red stands for love.”
She sells them around Easter at Hixson’s, a gift shop on Detroit Avenue in Lakewood. There’s enough interest that she sells a couple dozen every year.
“You give them away as gifts," said Bochar. "You have them in the house to bring you good luck really because they personify the resurrection because it contains life.”
The eggs she decorated have nothing but air inside.
“They're not supposed to be emptied because the life is contained within the egg," she said. "So what you do is just let it dry out. But here in America, we remove the contents because if you don't eventually it might turn to sulfur or it might explode, and you have rotten egg all over.”
Even though Bochar's adopted her eggs to American ways, her eggs do contain the life of a craft and a faith passed down for generations.
Ideastream Public Media's 'Sound of Us' tells stories of Northeast Ohioans — in their own voices. We work with individuals and communities. This series was produced in partnership with the Donna Smallwood Activities Center in Parma. Tell us your story!